Thursday, June 7, 2007

From Marlon to Barbra to...

“Just like Marlon!”: From MARLON to BARBRA to…

Barbra Streisand and I were in acting class together a few years before she became famous. We were part of a gang of actors who idolized Brando not only for his acting skill but also for his use of his fame as a platform to support and defend universal equality. If we were successful, we too would speak about the unfairness that has plagued civilizations. Most of us lived in the same hotel that Brando had lived in when he started. Marilyn Monroe even “dated” one of our gang during this magic time. We were American bohemians.

This was in the late 1950’s, the idealistic Beatniks of Ginsberg and Kerouac were in fashion: fame was not just for selfish reasons, not just for money and Oscars but also for liberalizing political and social affairs. We were feisty intellectuals who spent hours in west village coffee houses deliberating over classic scenes and themes like Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor”. It was uncool to just seek fame‘n fortune. Making a difference in the world beyond entertainment was good citizenship, “just like Marlon!”

Our gang had two leaders: Bob and Roy. Bob, the Alpha male, had balls of steel and got us into the A events using his NBC ID which he got as a page on the Jack Parr Show. We couldn’t afford a TV but we went to that live show as often as we wanted. Bob would get us the best seats in the house and allow us to hang out after the show and meet the guests. Wally Cox, “Mr. Peepers”, and I connected.

Bob and Roy met Cox first on the VIP receiving line and both said they were actors. Not being sure yet what I was, I said, “I’m a nobody”, and he replied, “So am I”. We gave each other a knowing grin. I found out later he was a roommate of Marlon’s. I always thought Brando and I would have hit it off especially after my revolutionary work in TV sports and news.

Roy was the other leader of the gang. He was the moral center. He had attended a Catholic Seminary and dropped out at the last moment before coming a priest and had committed himself to acting and singing. Just like Barbra. In fact, they became lovers; he may have been her first. She was 16 and he said he was 32. Young woman and older men were attracted to Roy and he obliged.

But Roy was never the aggressor; we lived together for a while and he never made any moves on me. Our two-room apartment at 55th & 8th Ave was on the first floor and rats liked to visit. I killed the first, Roy killed the second; I moved, he killed a third and finally left too.

Roy was short and pretty in an innocent, altar boy sort of way. He had a great heart. He gave me “On Walden Pond” for my birthday and encouraged good behavior (the priest in him) even though we were all a little slippery on that slope. And he was always singing and dancing. He loved to entertain. A great, loving companion and surprisingly outrageous!

He embarrassed the crap out of me one afternoon. We were walking in Riverside Park and sat down on a park bench to rest. All of a sudden, Roy is screaming!!! “The rats are attacking my balls. They’re always biting at me when I sit in my toilet…”

I got it! Roy’s doing a scene from the play he’s auditioning for about Martin Luther, the original Lutheran. He’s rehearsing at full volume a soliloquy in broad daylight, on a park bench with people passing by staring at him, some with concern, and I’m sitting on the same bench with this belching inferno next to me trying to look unconcerned.

To be an actor is a demonstration of courage. It takes courage to stand in front of people and make a fool of yourself, pretending that Romeo’s death is heartbreaking and real when it’s obviously all make-believe. And when you’re good like Brando, “you don’t ‘act’; you behave” appropriately to the situation. To do that requires an iron will that stays focused and all the great ones have that.

Bob with his balls of steel had regularly accosted Lee Strasberg on the street in front of his Actor’s Studio demanding to be let in despite his so-so audition. Bob looked exactly like the beautiful French actor, Alain Delon, and Strasberg finally relented and let him in the Studio. Marilyn Monroe saw him and chose him as her scene partner and regular bike-riding companion on sunny afternoons in Central Park.

Bob said Norma Jean was amazing. She could turn “Marilyn” on or off like a light switch when they went for walks. But if she turned “Marilyn” on they would have to run for cover from her fans.

Did they or didn’t they, that is the question? Where Roy was passive, Bob was high-powered, active. He came on to women, and, when they saw what was attacking them, they willingly surrendered. Bob would never tell if he and Marilyn did “it” but my money is on his predatory ways although she was still married to Arthur Miller. Roy and I begged to meet her but Bob kept her all to himself.

I have seen Bob floor a smartass on a subway platform with a punch that traveled less than a foot. He was from Detroit, over 6 ft tall and wiry and was not to be trifled with. So it was a major surprise when I saw him badly beaten. Face and ribs, it was a professional job and Bob would only say it was more than one attacker.

I saw 2 possibilities. First, the crazy lady who lived in our hotel and was a gangster’s mistress, beautiful with a mind in another galaxy; however, Bob said she got down to earth during sex. Maybe the gangster found out. The other source could have been Marilyn as this was the time she was screwing the Kennedys and they could send professionals to scare him away. Bob would never say.

I remember the first time I noticed Barbra; it was a windy, rainy night and she burst back into the vestibule with a totally destroyed umbrella. She was soaked but her attitude was not anger but amusement. I liked her from that moment as a person. One of my scenes in class seemed to delight Barbra: I mimed making friends with a child on the subway.

She was the best one in class at the exercise where you had to sing a nursery rhyme like “London Bridge” very slowly using only one note. Singing that way made you sound stupid, flat and embarrassed, but you weren’t allowed to show any nervous discomfort; all the emotions must come through your voice. She’s still a master at it.

Our teacher was relentless with us during this exercise, and, I thought, cruel. Many were the times I wanted to punch him out for the way he spoke to us and especially Barbra. Privately, I thought she was wasting her time and money, taking the abuse for nothing.

Doris Day and Sandra Dee were the gold standards of that time. I never thought of Fanny Brice as another path to success. Barbra must not have taken the teacher’s criticisms personally because I read and heard that she called on him to coach her when she was on Broadway and having trouble emoting and singing at the same time.

Barbra has mastery in her singing but acting is another matter. When she was a girl, the parts she played in class where way older than she. As an adult actor she has played inside her skin: a bright, ethnic Jew. She is not a chameleon like Streep or a beauty like Kidman. Believe it or not she has more in common with John Wayne and Cary Grant, both decent actors who performed as personalities. She has done very well as a director but mostly in support of herself.

Where she has surpassed us all who were her friends back then was that she became “just like Marlon!” in his quest for equal treatment for the oppressed. She has taken a lot of heat for her humanistic views but I know we are all proud of her for her political and social stands. She was and is a beatnik, not a hippie. She is not trying to escape this world, just level its playing field.

The reason actor’s are always “starving” is they can’t keep a good job because, if a part comes up, they abandon security and follow the dream. That’s why so many actors work in the food industry. Plenty of turnover, you’ll never starve, and servers make decent dough.

The gang could afford communal noodles and ketchup feasts and Barbra was invited. We were poor bohemians; an American version of “La Boheme”. We did everything as a gang: art museums, theater, movies, ice skating, Chinatown, etc. We saw a musical once and danced up 5th Avenue. Bob stole flowers in front of the Plaza hotel and fed them to the horses waiting to carriage through Central Park.

Roy said Barbra would come over and rehearse with him at the hotel. She would burst out singing and the neighbors would complain to Roy and the management. How much would you pay for a seat next door to that today? Or listen to a free concert in class where she turned one note into an emotional rainbow?

I had not seen Barbra in a few years. She had been in “Wholesale” on Broadway and sent word to Roy that he was not welcome backstage. I had thought of going to see her but after her rejection of Roy, I figured she was one of those people you hear about who make it big and don’t remember the ones she met on the way up. I never considered the possibility that emotionally she had moved on.

One night I was watching Johnny Carson, Jack Paar’s replacement, and he was talking to this young woman who was mouthing our political and social philosophy. That’s when I recognized it was Barbra, selling our goods. I was elated that she stuck to our shared, humanist philosophy. She was walking our talk, and like Marlon, she paid for it. Both of them became marginalized by the worshippers of inequality.

The last time I saw her in person was at an all-nite party at the old hotel. I had gone back to college in Allentown to get a sheepskin and still didn’t know what I wanted to become. That was the great thing about Barbra. She was a 16 year old kid going to two different acting classes and also had a singing teacher. That kind of dedication at that early age is part of the secret of her success. She was a gifted performer who worked at it just like the great athletes do.

I fixed Barbra up that night. My mentor in poetry who introduced me to my favorite poet, T.S. Eliot, agreed to join me for a party in NY with my old acting buddies. He was a shop guy from Allentown named Bob who went into the navy, saw the world and eventually became a leading educator who quoted Eliot elegantly from memory. Barbra was at the party and Roy wasn’t. The drill was that you chat till you’re tired, find a willing partner and an empty room and shack up.

Several times during the evening, I stopped by Barbra who was sitting by herself and chatted, thinking we would hook up. She seemed interested. Roy had already told me he had no problem with Barbra and I getting together carnally. But who shows up but Roy’s other under 18 girlfriend; a blonde shiksa, my preference.

So I send Bob, my mentor from Allentown, off to keep Barbra from Brooklyn company and I take the blonde to bed who says she’s having her period and not interested in sex. I cursed my choice but it was too late. I could’a been a contender for Barbra’s merkin!

In the morning, Barbra, Bob and I went to breakfast across the street from Carnegie Hall and then we put her on a bus to Brooklyn. I asked my friend what happened with him and Barbra. He said she was truly sweet. They had talked all night long and nothing sexual happened.

45 years later I called him when it dawned on me that Bob probably never knew what had become of that girl he had slept with that night in NY ages ago. He was totally surprised. He had never put it together. Blew him away.

I moved back to NY in the early 70’s, now an award winning TV filmmaker. I got a small room in the west village on 10th Street near Hudson. There was a main house in front and in the rear was a courtyard facing what had been a four story servants’ quarters’: each floor had 2 small rooms separated by a narrow hallway. My room was on the first floor and across the hall lived a gay man, a maitre d at a Christopher St bar/restaurant, one block away.

He was Irish and a local historian who told me my room had allegedly been Eugene O’Neal’s in the teens and that he, himself, had mentored this waif from Brooklyn who sang at his club and slept on his floor rather than go home late at night. It was at this gay bar on Christopher Street that Barbra was “discovered” by my hall-mate and the rest of the world. I think his name was Dennis O’ …something. Ask Barbra.

Given that I slept on the same floor as Barbra and O’Neal is a kick. My apartment’s window with grate and air conditioner can be seen in the movie “Serpico” when he meets his 2nd girlfriend. She’s standing in front of my window with grate and air conditioner and my hall-mate got $50 from Sydney Lumet for using “my window” as scenery, a typical NY scam. He got my 50 bucks and slept with Barbra. That gay Irishman had all the luck.

I have since tried to contact her with none of his luck. I once wanted to use her recording of “People” in my original 1969 TV sports’ classic “The Football Follies” but got refused. Oh well, she’s still carrying the water for all us young idealists that surrounded her with serious wit and studious wisdom back in the day. She turned out perfectly, “Just like Marlon!”

And the beat goes on. Tim and Susan, Jane, Drew, Angeline, Sean, Nicole “and all those known and unknown to the world who have held aloft the light of truth amidst the darkness of human ignorance”.

Simply, Simon