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STAGE : Anderson Makes a Living--Between Killings

December 06, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN

NEW YORK — Robert Anderson has made a good deal of money writing for films and TV over the last 30 years, but here is why he likes the theater:

The time is the early 1950s. Anderson has just finished a new play called "Tea and Sympathy." His wife, Phyllis, reads it and says, "Do the housemaster's wife and the boy go on with their love affair?"

Gosh, no, says Anderson. It only happens once.

"They're never going to know that."

So Anderson decides to give the housemaster's wife an extra speech: "Years from now, when you talk of this--and you will--be kind."

"Probably the most famous line in any of my plays, and only there to solve a technical problem," he gloats. It's the margins of theater that Anderson likes, as distinct from the blankness of the screen.

But when it comes to keeping body and soul together, Anderson quotes his second most famous line, tossed off 10 or 15 years ago for some reporter: "You can make a killing in the American theater, but you can't make a living in it."

Take the Ahmanson's current revival of Anderson's "I Never Sang for My Father" (1968) with Daniel J. Travanti, Harold Gould and Dorothy McGuire. It reminds us that Anderson's last Broadway hit was . . . "I Never Sang for My Father." Anderson is hoping that the show gets back there, but he is not holding his breath.

At 70, he is a fine-boned, handsome man who could still buy his tweeds at the Harvard Co-op. It's easy to imagine him as the headmaster at a prep school like the one in "Tea and Sympathy," or as a naval officer, which he was in World War II.

His heroes tend to be gentlemen, quiet and slightly morose: Henry Fonda types (Fonda starred in his "Silent Night, Lonely Night"). So is he. Never complain. It doesn't help and, anyway, who cares? Still, there is a touch of acid as he describes his adventures getting his plays produced.

"All my plays have been a bitch to get on. Audrey Wood, my beloved agent of 35 years, didn't want to send 'Tea and Sympathy' around. Only 25 people came to the first preview of 'You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running.'

" 'I Never Sang for My Father' started as an original movie called 'The Tiger'--because I always thought of my father as a tiger. Fred Zinnemann said, 'This is my next picture. We'll do it with Spencer Tracy.' But it turned out that Spencer Tracy didn't want to play it.

"Then Elia Kazan said, 'Will you turn it into a play for Lincoln Center? But wait, because we don't know if we'll have anybody to play the old man.' So I waited--playwrights are always waiting--and they opened with 'After the Fall.'

"Then Johnny Frankenheimer called from the desert and said, 'I love it, Freddie March is going to do it.' Months later I said to Frankenheimer, 'What gives?' He said, 'I've got too many major pictures on my schedule. I'm afraid I can't do it.'

"So I sat down and turned it into a play. Nobody wanted to do it. It was too shattering. So I put it into the drawer and wrote a comedy, 'You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running,' which turned out to be a big success.

"Gil Cates, the producer, said he loved 'I Never Sang for My Father,' and we were just about to sign contracts when I got a call from Martin Manulis, an old friend. He said he wanted to do 'The Tiger' for CBS--with Spencer Tracy!

"Then Marty called back and said that CBS had turned it down. Too shattering.

"And that's how plays get on Broadway."

Sounds like you have to be a survivor.

Years ago, I put a sign over my desk: "Nobody Asked You to Be a Playwright." It served its purpose. But the terrible thing is that nobody ever does ask you to be a playwright. I've had requests to do scripts for Hollywood. I've done them and been proud of them, especially "The Nun's Story" and "The Sand Pebbles." I'm working now on a TV miniseries about the Brownsville Raid. But nobody has ever called me up and said, "We're awfully interested to know if Robert Anderson is writing a play."

Are you?

I do have a new play, "The Kissing Was Always the Best." It's about what happens to a man during the process of divorce. It's very funny, very sexy, very sad. It has gone out to producers. They haven't turned it down. They just haven't read it. I find that kind of shocking.

You must be tempted to stick with film.

Not really. From the writer's point of view, movies and television are a medium of the approximate. In a play, you're rehearsing the whole play and you can see where something drags. But in a movie, you don't see it until it's all together, and then it's too late.

Maybe you like theater better because you're jealous of words. You don't like the idea that a picture can convey more than a description.

I love words, but if an actor can do something better than I can write it, I'm delighted to cut the line. That's part of the process of rehearsal we were talking about.

Have you ever wanted to direct yourself?

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