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CRITIC AT LARGE

Gardner Says Hello To Those 'Goodbye People'

February 20, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The lists of the best films you've ever seen and of the films you'd most like to see again might overlap here and there, but they wouldn't be identical--a little high seriousness goes a long way. But I would be tempted to put Herb Gardner's "A Thousand Clowns" on both my lists.

His antic declaration of independence and his assaults on bureaucrats and other captives of procedures, customs and rules stays firmly in memory. It was funny, pointed and charismatically well acted by Jason Robards, Martin Balsam, Barbara Harris and their colleagues.

Balsam received an Academy Award for the film (which was also nominated for best picture, script and music). He's now starring in Gardner's new film, "The Goodbye People," which Gardner adapted from his play and, in his first such outing, also directed.

Gardner was in Los Angeles last week for the local opening and was a study in stereo nervousness. "Anytime I open anything, I feel like I'm landing on Iwo Jima," he said at lunch. Indeed, there were bursts of unfriendly fire from the critics, although there was more sorrow than anger in the tone.

He also gave up smoking three months ago and appears to be living on nicotine chewing gum and anguished memories. "I've gained 35 pounds. I'm becoming a nation. I'm going to have to get a flag and an ambassador."

Like most of Gardner's work, "The Goodbye People" has spiritual and literal links to his own life. He grew up near Coney Island, where the play and film are set, and his Uncle Max had a frankfurter stand on the boardwalk called Max's Busy Bee but offered a Hawaiian motif.

In the film Balsam is also a Max, trying to resuscitate his hot dog stand, called Max's Hawaiian Ecstasies and dead these 23 years for lack of trade. Judd Hirsch, who also grew up near Coney Island, is an eccentric sculptor who dreams of carving heroic figures for parks but is reduced to doing elves, suitable for Christmas and Easter, for a novelty company.

Gardner, it turns out, had similar heroic dreams but instead did Nativity scenes for a comparable novelty company. "After a while," said Gardner, "I grew restless and started making the wise men cross-eyed."

Soon after that, he launched his cartoon strip "The Nebbishes," which ran successfully for eight years, until, he said, "the features editor of the Chicago Tribune pointed out that the balloons were getting larger and larger. There was hardly any drawing left. It was more and more like writing."

Gardner always had wanted to write, but it was a giant, nervous step from the security of the strip to the vagaries of (as it developed) playwriting. "I wrote about what it felt like to start another life, and it became 'A Thousand Clowns.' "

Three of his plays have become films--"Clowns," "Thieves" and "The Goodbye People"--and Gardner hopes it will be possible to film "I'm Not Rappaport," his newest play, currently on Broadway, in which Judd Hirsch and Cleavon Little play 80-year-old men.

An original film he wrote, "Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying These Terrible Things About Me?," never looms large in Dustin Hoffman's filmography for some reason. But as a bizarre, funny study of the paranoia induced by success and as a commentary on the American male's fear of aging, "Kellerman" always has seemed to me a strong and timely piece of work.

"The Goodbye People" was first staged in 1968 with Milton Berle and Brenda Vaccaro in key roles. It is revived frequently and had a run in Paris. "The curtain went up in the wonderful old Louis Jouvet Athenee," Gardner said, "and there was my Uncle Max's hot dog stand."

Getting the film into being was about as easy as selling hot dogs on the beach in February (which Max is trying to do). It was underwritten initially by Embassy when the company was owned by Norman Lear and Jerry Perenchio, with David Picker as the producer. Everyone worked for little money, there being no thought that "The Goodbye People" could be a mass-market film. It came in for less than $3 million. ("The smaller the bank, the fewer guards come to bother you," said Gardner.)

When it was finished two years ago, "We all agreed that the one theater it should open in was the 68th Street Playhouse, and they wanted it. There was only one film in front of us, they said." Unfortunately, the film was "The Gods Must Be Crazy," which ran for 20 months. "We wore out three trailers," Gardner said.

Meantime, Embassy changed hands twice, and "The Goodbye People" has ended up with Julian Schlossberg's Castle Hill Films for distribution.

It is indubitably a photographed play, talky and essentially static and contained (despite the real Coney Island location, a subway ride and a short, quirky parade). But the words are Gardner at his manic and colloquial best. The performances are marvelous, and Tony Walton's neon-frosted, multibulbed Hawaiian Ecstasies is Uncle Max's wildest fantasy come true. "Nothing happens that isn't dreamed about first," Gardner said.

"I keep working out my own ghosts. It's funny even calling it work, and every once in a while I'm amazed that they still let me do what I want to do. I have no particular ambitions. I just want to do it well enough for them to let me do it again."

Part of Gardner's appeal is that he always sounds like an undauntable optimist, particularly about the possibility of changing your life in pursuit of your dreams. The reward is finding that people respond.

"That's my addiction," he said, "knowing that an idea has got across. When I hear an audience laugh, I know I'm not alone. The audience tells you you've got company."

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