All the way up

Liz Taylor has a part in the new Len Cariou movie

Michael Posner August 22 1977

All the way up

Liz Taylor has a part in the new Len Cariou movie

Michael Posner August 22 1977

All the way up


Liz Taylor has a part in the new Len Cariou movie

Michael Posner

In the winter of 1958, when George Marius Cariou was 64 years old, the Minneapolis Moline Farm Implement Manufacturing Co., for whom he worked, introduced a new piece of equipment. It was a compact tractor, with a small engine and an ambitious work load, and it was expected to appeal to economy-minded farmers everywhere. Most of Minneapolis Moline’s traveling salesmen regarded the new tractor as just another part of an ever-expanding product catalogue. But not George Cariou. He had crossed the dirt roads of southern Manitoba, from Morden to Killarney, winter and summer, five days a week for 23 years. He was the firm’s best salesman in the province, frequently its best in Canada and he had twice declined promotions to less arduous posts, believing that he lacked the education. But now he was one year away from retirement, and he feared it like a wasting disease.

In his 65th year, George Cariou sold more compact tractors than any other salesman in the nation—abundant evidence, he felt, that his skills had not waned. “You see,” he told his employers. “I can still do it. You don’t have to retire me.”

“We’re sorry,” Minneapolis Moline told him. “Company policy is company policy; retirement is mandatory at age 65.”

So George Cariou, who had been born and raised in Montmartre, Saskatchewan, who had fought at Verdun and been wounded at Ypres, and who had fathered five children near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, retired. Some years later, sitting in a baron46th Street in Manhattan, George Cariou's youngest son. Leonard,extinguished the life of a Dunhill Menthol filter tip cigarette and said evenly: “He practically got down on his knees and begged those people. And they retired him, God damn them. He died in 1964. On Father’s Day.”

At 5 a.m. on the morning of August 8, 1976, while Hurricane Belle thundered up the east coast of the United States en route to New York, Leonard and Susan Cariou, asleep in their Manhattan apartment, were awakened by the telephone. It was Harold Prince, calling from Vienna.

“I think you should come,” Prince told Cariou. “I can’t promise you you’ll get the part. But maybe you should come.”

Prince was in Vienna directing the movie version of A Little Night Music, his hit Broadway show. Elizabeth Taylor had been signed to play the lead. Diana Rigg had also been retained. But, with shooting about to start, there was no leading man.

The late Peter Finch had rejected the role after iooking at the music; he simply could not sing it. His would-be successor, Robert Stephens, had deplaned in Vienna in an alcoholic stupor out of which he showed little inclination to snap, and within a matter of hours had managed to alienate nearly everyone connected with the film. So Prince, who directed the show in New York, and Stephen Sondheim, who scored it. and Hugh Wheeler, who had written the screenplay, went to bat for Len Cariou, who had played the leading role in more

than 400 performances on Broadway.

“Who the hell is Len Cariou?” asked producer Elliott Kastner. approximately. “This is an eight-million-dollarpicture. I can’t afford to put a total unknown opposite Elizabeth Taylor. At the very least she deserves an actor whose work she knows. But Len Cariou? No, get me Dirk Bogarde. Who the hell is Len Cariou, anyway?”

Leonard Joseph Cariou is a 37-year-old actor. He stands five feet 10 inches and weighs 177 pounds on the scales of New'

York’s West End YMCA, where he spends an hour or so three times a week going through a set of punishing gymnastic routines. His frame is husky, his chest oversized; when he inhales deeply, he looks like a caricature of an opera singer. The overall impression is one of strength under restraint, as though on cue he could arc a 44-pound curling stone through a basketball hoop from 18 feet. Cariou’s walk is a measured stride, slightly bowlegged like an athlete’s, but purposeful and forwardleaning, with a hint of a swagger, the walk of someone sure of direction and destination. Surveying it, a mugger would choose another victim.

He has an actor’s voice, of course—rich and resonant—and an even delivery that automatically adjusts for noise levels in a room, so that whatever he says may be perfectly heard. His laugh seems to start somewhere in his groin, rising to a round staccato, hearty and somehow musical. His

language is apt to be earthy, textured with words that publishers of family magazines are seldom anxious to print.

In conversation, Cariou follows but does not often initiate a thread. He listens and reacts, often with ironic asides or anecdotes of the theatre told in whatever dialect—Irish, Yiddish, Italian, Cockney, he can do them all—seems appropriate, and with facial expression. Things that he likes—Boursault cheese, his wife’s cooking, the Shakespearean canon—he will frequently describe as “wonderful,” stressing and protracting the first syllable, won ... derful; it is a kind of throne upon which the rest of the word sits.

In all things, Cariou’s manner is direct, casual, at times perfunctory. He is not easily offended, but when he is he will not hide it. Once, in Toronto, he wandered into a florist’s shop to send flowers to his wife. “Where ya from?” the proprietor inquired.

“New York.”

“Ugh.” said the florist, making a sour face.

Cariou promptly headed for the door. “Sorry, fella, you just lost yourself a sale.”

But he is not an advocate. He knows what he likes and what he does not like and he does not care particularly whether anyone agrees with him. He carries his conviction like a wallet, always within reach, containing signatures for every contingency. With the exception of opening nights of plays he has directed, this confidence never flags. If there is a scintilla of doubt about his talent, it is rigidly suppressed. He moves and speaks and behaves with utter self-assurance, the kind of silent arrogance that all great actors have and without which they dare not step on the stage.

“I really don’t think there’s anything now that I cannot do,” he would say. And it is not bravura. He believes it, in the same way that he believes that a kettle boils water by virtue of an electric current.

Cariou lives on Manhattan’s upper west side with his wife, Susan, 30, and Bruno, a Burmese cat of contented disposition, in a $500-a-month apartment with two bedrooms and a galley kitchen. The apartment is furnished with antiques and decorated in muted shades of red and brown and russet. On the walls hang framed costume sketches of characters Cariou has played, and over the chesterfield a prized Paul Vertes sketch of three mischievous dogs. One bedroom has been converted into a working den, where Len reads and Susan draws and sculpts. The Carious met four years ago at a dress rehearsal of Candide, and were married on Valentine’s Day, 1975, in a small civil ceremony in Brooklyn’s city hall; Cariou borrowed three dollars from his father-in-law to pay for the marriage license. A native New Yorker, vivacious and uninhibited, Susan is an actress and artist in her own right. One of her works, a bronze bust of Len as King Lear, stands on a living room étagère, together with mementoes and photographs of friends and relatives, including one of George Cariou, taken when he was roughly as old as Len is now. He looks thinner than his son, but has the same resolute jaw, the same steady eyes. In the other bedroom hangs a water-stained note, written by director Michael Langham and given to Cariou on the eve of his debut as Lear. In it, Langham compares Lear to England itself—full of suffering, greatly diminished from its former glory, but still somehow noble and triumphant. It is a cherished artifact.

When Cariou is not acting or rehearsing, he visits the Y, plays a vigorous game of tennis, auditions for voice-over TV commercials, watches all manner of sports on television, and numerous game shows, indulges a fondness for cheese and white

wine, dines out two or three times a week or has friends to dinner. But sooner or later, he gets restless, impatient for work. He has an animal instinct for the stage. “I can feel a certain tingling at the base of my spine,” he would say. “I get antsy.”

He loves to act, and has for almost 20 years, ever since he auditioned for John Hirsch at Winnipeg’s Rainbow stage and won a job in the chorus of The Pajama Game. Later, at the Manitoba Theatre Centre, at Stratford’s Shakespearian Festival and at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Cariou took lead roles in some of the theatre’s most challenging plays: Lear, Othello, Oedipus Rex, The House Of A treus, Henry V, Mother Courage, Cyrano de Bergerac, Equus. His work in these classics, as well as his performances on Broadway—opposite Lauren Bacall in Applause and Glynis Johns in A Little Night Music—won him awards, nominations and huzzahs from the critics, notably Clive Barnes, Martin Gottfried, and the late Nathan Cohen, writers not particularly known for careless effusions of praise. Even the great Guthrie himself seemed taken.

“You know, my boy,” he told Cariou after directing him in The House Of Atreus, “you really are a very good actor.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Cariou, awed by the compliment.

“Someday I should like to stage Cymbeline. And you should be lachimo.”

“Say when.”

“I shall arrange it.”

That production never materialized, but others did—tragedies, comedies, farce, musicals. Cariou’s remarkable range encompasses them all. He has even done a one-man show, an hour-long dramatic monologue that Clive Barnes called “an

exquisitely poised performance ... the best thing this very gifted actor has done.” He can also direct; on the basis of only half a dozen assignments, the MTC hired Cariou as artistic director in 1975. He stayed barely more than a year. Winnipeg was home, but only New York could relieve the itch. Besides, Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim were planning another musical and they wanted him. In the whirling gyre that is theatrical New York, he is a point of stability, a rare talent, an actor who can

sing, a singer who can act. He is known and respected and when he walks into Joe Allen’s, perhaps his favorite theatrical watering hole, friends and acquaintances stop to chat and buy him vodka and tonics. He earns close to $70,000 a year, spends it generously, and is rarely out of work. He aspires to no other life.

Cariou spent the early hours of August 8, 1976, deciding whether to go to Vienna. If he went and lost the part, his reputation might suffer. But the chance to play opposite Elizabeth Taylor in a part he had created and knew as he knew his own heartbeat seemed a gift of the gods. He had made only one other feature film at that time, a National Film Board thriller that had not yet been released, and now this ... “Pretty bloody nice work if you can get it,”, he would say later.

At a more civilized hour, he called his agent, Clifford Stevens, and asked him to see what kind of deal he could negotiate with Elliott Kastner. Stevens spent the better part of the day trying to arrange terms. But Kastner, still hungry for a “name” actor, was immovable. His first offer was his final one. Cariou refuses to disclose the amount, saying only that Kastner agreed to pay half up front and the other half when and if the film’s investors were repaid.

“I’m sorry,” Clifford Stevens told his client, “but I don’t think you should do it for that amount of money.”

“You’re right,” said Cariou. “I won’t do it.”

He knew almost at once that he had made a mistake. Elliott Kastner’s offer would never be construed as philanthropic, yet who was Len Cariou to reject it? In fact, film audiences did not know his name. If the film were a box office hit or a

critical success, he would be handsomely compensated later. And the role of Frederick Egermann had been his stage creation; at the bottom line, the movie part seemed his by birthright. Instructing Stevens to accept Kastner’s offer, Cariou telephoned Harold Prince in Vienna.

“I’m coming,’ he said.

“They may send you home,” warned Prince.

“I know, but I’m still coming. I’d be crazy not to. The truth is, I’d do it for nothing.”

“Look,” said Prince, “don’t come to Vienna. Go to London. Stephen [Sondheim] and Elizabeth [Taylor] have gone there to record Send In The Clowns. They’re at Claridge’s Hotel. Go there.” Cariou flew out the next night, on the last plane to leave New York before the 90 mph winds of Hurricane Belle descended. A chauffeured limousine met him at Heathrow and escorted him to Claridge’s, where he found a cryptic note from screenwriter Wheeler: “I’m here formoral support. Do you want breakfast?”

Wheeler had flown in hastily from Vienna the previous night to help confirm Cariou’s casting. Over scrambled eggs and sausage in the hotel dining room, he explained that while Elizabeth Taylor held no contractual veto right over the selection of her leading man, Elliott Kästner was not about to hire anyone unacceptable to the world’s most famous actress. Few doubted that Taylor would approve, but Sondheim had plotted a scheme anyway, a simple plan to give Cariou the best possible chance. Wheeler talked, and Cariou—exhausted after 20 sleepless hours—listened.

Few things in Len Cariou’s formative years suggested that he would one day sit in the dining room of Claridge’s awaiting a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor that seemed to bear so heavily on his career. Neither poor nor rich, the family of George Cariou never went to the theatre. They were not unaware of culture and the arts—they were simply untouched by them. The ruling ethic was work, not leisure, and the model was set by a father who appeared only on weekends, and even then seemed buried in invoices. The eldest son, Don, who would later collect and administer a three-volume scrapbook of his brother’s career, became a wicket clerk at the Winnipeg post office. A second son, Gerry, went into sales. Cariou himself graduated from Miles Macdonell High School knowing only that he could never do what his father had done—pass a quarter of a century in one job, traveling the same roads, visiting the same farms, a routine of crippling monotony, governed by careless bureaucrats.

He wanted to become a singer, a talent and inclination he had inherited from his mother’s family. Molly Moore Cariou had sung in the pits of Saskatchewan movie houses during her youth and now, with two sisters, sang in choirs. An uncle of Cariou’s

played several instruments. Another is said to have had a pure, untrained Irish tenor voice. Invariably, family gatherings ended around the Gerhard Heintzman piano, with choruses of Danny Boy and When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, and by the age of three, the youngest son was reportedly belting out pitch-perfect renditions of White Cliffs Of Dover. He took piano and singing lessons, sang at weddings and was a boy soprano at Holy Cross Church, where he came to see the Roman Catholic service,with its precise staging and elaborate rituals, as a kind of drama. Years later, he would insist that the reforms of the Vatican II Council had taken all the mystery and

theatricality out of the church, and he remembered attending services with his father during which a parishioner in an adjacent pew had begun to chant the liturgy in a high, nasal, off-key voice and Cariou— offended by this crass display—had said “Excuse me, Father” and left the sanctuary. Of course, by then, he was already slated for excommunication, the result of an early marriage that had failed. “I was 20 and I was a baby, and I did things you do when you’re a baby,” he would say, not wishing to dwell on it. Cariou had a daughter from that marriage; she is now 17 and he has not seen her in 12 years. One day, he expects, she will turn up in New York

wanting to see him and he wonders what he will say.

His early musical training bore results. Even before his teens, Cariou had developed a strong stage sensibility. He told jokes and entertained friends with imitations of popular singers of the day. Once, on a trip to Minneapolis, the family saw Johnnie Ray in concert, then adjourned to a nearby tavern, leaving Len, still not 13, in the car. When they returned, he was standing on the hood, singing Johnnie Ray’s songs in Johnnie Ray’s style, to an applauding throng. He sang in nightclubs, glee clubs, at parties and finally, with the help of an old family friend, Tom Hendry, at Rainbow Stage. It was 1959, the very year of his father’s retirement, and he was 19.

“I arranged an audition for him with John Hirsch,” Hendry recalls. “I was reluctant to do it, because I had an ironclad rule never to recommend anyone. But Len was good and he was committed.”

Hirsch, too, remembers that determination. “He was absolutely certain, even then, that he would have a career. He also had incredible energy. He created electricity. He demanded attention, got it and then was able to hold it.”

In 1961, Hirsch brought Cariou to his Manitoba Theatre Centre, then the best theatre company in the country, and gave him increasingly more difficult roles. Hirsch was his mentor. He taught him how to walk on a stage, how to move, how to stand, how to hear his own voice. “ ‘Can’t you hear how awful that sounds?’ he would say. He spent hours and hours with me. He once told me: ‘You know, if you get rid of some of those mannerisms, you might be an actor by the time you’re 40.’ ” Cariou sometimes had reason to believe him, especially at Stratford, where he spent four summers carrying swords and spears and understudying the stars. He wanted meals and they fed him morsels. The only consolation was Hirsch, who’d arrive every summer and say: “You’ve got to get a chance and I’m going to give it to you. We’re doing Taming Of The Shrew next season at MTC. What part do you want?”

What Cariou really wanted was a chance to play Prince Hal, in Henry IV, Part I, at Stratford. The festival, however, thought better of it and awarded him a $2,000 scholarship to go away. He used it to study voice in New York and when he returned director Michael Langham told him, “Douglas Rain is going to be Prince Hal. You’ll play the part of the boy.”

“Why, that’s absurd,” said Cariou. “Hal has to lift the boy in the play. Rain will never be able to carry me. Look, the Guthrie Theatre has offered me Orlando in As You Like It. ”

Langham stirred: “You can’t play Orlando.”

“Well, they damn well think I can,” Cariou retorted. “And I’m going.”

He went. He spent the better part of six years there, working with Douglas Camp-

bell, Tyrone Guthrie and Langham himself, whom he now considers the best interpreter of Shakespeare on the continent. Cariou’s affiliation with the Guthrie climaxed two years ago with his performance of King Lear. He was 35, one of the youngest Lears on record. “It was not the definitive Lear by any means,” he says. “But it was a damn good one.”

In any event, by the time he auditioned for Applause in 1970, he had had eight years training as a classical actor and it showed. The show’s producers -were clearly impressed, but also a little surprised that someone of his background would want to appear in a Broadway musical. “What is it that you do again?” they would ask, as if trying to verify the implausible. At last, his patience frayed, Cariou said: “Come with me for a minute, would you?”

and led the director out the door of the Alvin Theatre across the street to the Anta Theatre, where he was starring in repertory in Henry Vand The Three Sisters. “There,” said Cariou, indicating his face, plastered over a dozen marquees. “That’s what I do.” Applause ran for more than a year, won Cariou a Tony nomination and established a new dimension to his career, that of a Broadway leading man—“the best I had seen in many years,” said Harold Prince. Now, in the dining room of Claridge’s, he was preparing to establish yet another dimension, one that would carry his name out beyond the lights of Broadway, that would make him rich, and would give him more options and more choices than his father ever dreamt of having.

The combined orchestras of the London Symphony and the London Philharmonic were already assembled when Wheeler and Cariou arrived. Stephen Sondheim was there, too, and Paul Gemignani, who was conducting, and producer Elliott Kastner, and alone, in a six-by-six recording booth, Elizabeth Taylor.

Kastner welcomed Cariou and started to apologize. “I’m sorry about—”

“I don’t know anything about it,” Cariou said. “That’s between you and Clifford. I don’t really want to get involved.”

“Well, don’t worry. Everything is going to work out fine.”

Before Kastner could indicate just how, Sondheim appeared. It was his opinion that the sooner he could get Cariou into the booth with Taylor, the sooner the casting fiasco would end. He led Cariou into the studio, made the briefest of introductions and then literally pushed him into the' soundproof booth with Taylor.

The woman whom Cariou half-believed held his film career in the arch of her eyebrow seemed nervous. “It was awkward. She seemed surprised to see me, yet I think she knew I was coming. We said, ‘Hello, how are you?’ that sort of thing. But she was nervous. There were all these people around and she was singing with a 53-piece orchestra, for Christ’s sake.”

Then Paul Gemignani raised his baton, the orchestra readied their instruments and Elizabeth Taylor and Leonard Cariou sang the reprise from Send In The Clowns, the lyrics standing in ironic counterpoint to Cariou’s own, private drama.

Isn’t it rich?

Are we a pair?

Me here at last on the ground,

You in midair.

Send in the clowns.

On the evening of June 16, 1977, in the Flushing Meadows cinema in Queens, New York, the movie version of A Little Night Music was given its first American showing. Len Cariou’s name appeared on the screen after Elizabeth Taylor’s and Diana Rigg’s and was greeted by a wave of applause not measurably less than that accorded to his co-stars.