[photos generously supplied by John Michael Cox Jr.]
In 1976, I was in Seattle, directing a splendid company in “Kennedy’s Children” at the Seattle Rep. During a technical rehearsal, and a thunderstorm which was making my direction inaudible, a call came through for me. Over a crackling connection and the shouts of my stagehands, I thought my agent in New York told me that Shelley Winters was taking over a role in the touring company of “Kennedy’s Children,” and that Sally Kelllerman (of Altman’s M*A*S*H and BREWSTER MC CLOUD) was taking another. I was delighted and extremely busy, and got off the telephone fast.
A couple of weeks later, in New York en route to London, I called my agent to see if I had any mail. She said, thrilled, “Get right down to the Golden Theatre and you can see the dress rehearsal of the Shelley Winters company of ‘Kennedy’s Children!’” I found an entire new cast stumbling through chaos. The touring company had all quit rather than try to work with Shelley. She, as the poor schoolteacher, was onstage in Balmain, pearls, and mink, with two working phones, through which she talked to her daughter (who was insisting on moving to her own place) and to Italian relatives of one of her husbands, (who were suffering from the effects of a recent earthquake). She paused only to yell directions at the other players, who were trying to get through the play. Three of them (and Shelley when she deigned to participate) said nothing remotely like what I had written.
Farley Granger managed to forget any lines which revealed that his character was gay. Al Freeman, Jr., translated the soldier’s speeches into Ebonics. Sally Kirkland (not Kellerman), giving her usual brilliant and energetic performance, filled her hippie girl’s speeches with details of her, Sally’s, own affair with Bob Dylan. Only wonderful Ann Wedgeworth said what I’d written–when she could be sure that the others had finished. When I objected, Shelley gushed, “Oh, but Robert, this play is all monologues. Your producer signed an agreement that we can improvise—like we do at Actors Studio!” I called the producer, who for some reason wasn’t answering his phone. Then I called Equity, which laughed, “Shelley Winters? Come on. She’s a star! We can’t do anything to her!”
I followed the company to Chicago, where I’d built a reputation with the aid of At The Drama Shelter. Shelley and Company destroyed it opening night when the show ran an hour longer than in London. Other nights it ran an hour shorter–depending on what they took it into their heads to say. I would watch a bit, then stagger around the corner to a movie theatre to see Shirley being absolutely fabulous in NEXT STOP, GREENWICH VILLAGE while nearby she was shouting at departing customers that if they’d stay for the second act she’d tell them all about living with Marilyn Monroe.
Throughout, I begged Shelley to fake sick and leave the show. She blinked enormous false lashes at me and said in apparently genuine hurt wonderment, “Why Robert, you’ll make me think you don’t want me to be in your play!”
I accompanied Shelley to a taping of “Kupp’s Show,” a popular and influential Chicago celebrity talk-fest. That is, I carried her wig-case and hair-dryer. The guest-roster that day was stellar. Harry Belafonte tried delicately to derail Shelley when she went on about Dag Hammarskjöld and Trygve Lie being gay. Charo listened politely when Shelley ordered her to learn to do more than “shake her boobies.” Billy Dee Williams said very little as Shelley took complete credit for the liberation of the American black. And Mary Martin waited for interludes of silence, and then pertly plugged her autobiography.
Kupp wandered over to me as Shelley rambled on and on. He asked if I wanted to step in and be on the show. I flashed him a look that sent him backing away apologetically.
Once the dreadful debacle was done, I was standing, haggard and unkempt, amidst cables and lights, holding Shirley’s luggage, when Mary Martin happened to stop beside me.
I reminded her that two decades before, when I thought I wanted to act, I had asked her backstage at her one-woman show in San Antonio how to succeed, and she had said, “Act, act, act, anywhere and everywhere, and someone will notice.” I explained that although I had become a playwright, not an actor, I had taken her advice to heart and produced in cafes, bars, and basements—anywhere and everywhere–for years. Tilting her perfectly-formed head, all apple-cheeks and cowlick, she listened with great courtesy, then stepped back to look me up and down—me, in clothes I hadn’t changed for days while trying to make Shelley learn lines, my hippie hair ratted, my arms full of Shelley’s impedimenta. Then she chirped with all the verve of Peter Pan, “WELL! And look where it got you!”
The Chicago reviews (“SHELLEY WINTERS TRAPPED IN RAMBLING, REPETITIOUS PLAY”) ruined me not only in Chicago, but in commercial theatre, which had been iffy about me anyway. I sued the producer, he sued Shelley, and she split the country despite six months of bookings for her tour.
Many years later, I got a call from a small Chicago theatre company which had revived “Kennedy’s Children” and was about to receive a number of Joe Jefferson awards for their production. They flew me to Chicago for the ceremony. The assembled Chicago critics came to me at intermission and begged my forgiveness, pleading that they had had no way in 1976 of knowing that I had written such a beautiful play. And what could I do but agree?