I'm sitting at a table with actors Jack Klugman and Paul Dooley totally lost in the stories of Broadway's past that they're throwing around. The two men have worked with just about every actor and director under the sun and are currently in rehearsals for Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, which will run at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick from October 16 through November 11, 2007.
Listening to the two reminisce, it's clear that you couldn't find a better pair for this play which was modeled after the famous vaudeville act Joe Smith and Charles Dale who were life-long friends and entertainment partners. Klugman and Dooley have the same kind of chemistry even though they've only worked together once before.
"The respect that we have for each other is what creates the chemistry," explained Jack Klugman. "We work the same way. He works very slow, but he'll catch up and go ahead of me. That's the way it works."
The play revolves around the comedy team of Lewis and Clark who spent decades together, but now can't stand each other. They agree (at the request of Willy Clark's long-suffering nephew Ben) to reunite for one last performance - but can they get through the sketch without killing one another?
Klugman is returning to the role he played ten years ago with his best friend and co-star on The Odd Couple, the late Tony Randall. Ironically, Klugman wasn't a fan of The Sunshine Boys at first.
"I saw the original play on Broadway and I didn't care that much for it," said Klugman. "But then I read it again years later and I go 'wow, this has more depth than I thought.' So Tony and I read it and we liked it and we did it."
Klugman is revisiting his former role with Paul Dooley, an actor best known for his roles in films like Breaking Away and Sixteen Candles. The two almost had their paths cross in The Odd Couple when Klugman replaced Walter Matthau, but Dooley (who was playing Felix at the time) left the play before Klugman came on board.
"We've had this ships that pass in the night sort of relationship," added Paul Dooley. "Having worked together before you don't have to feel each other out so much. There will be a natural kind of timing that falls. Timing is more about the people - the actors. Jack has done a lot of drama, of course, but he's also done a great deal of comedy. In a play like this, you really want somebody that has that sense of timing. There's dramatic timing and comic timing. Not everyone who can do a drama can do a comedy. I had a funny thing that happened to me. Until I was about 45 or something, I almost seemed to gravitate to comedy roles. I think what's true of me and a lot of other comedians is that we're a little afraid of emotion in drama because comedy is often a coverup for something else.
"So, Robert Altman put me in a movie called The Wedding where I had to do a kind of dramatic role. And as I was watching the dailies, I said 'hey, I'm doing this pretty good!' I had this discovery I should have known years ago - if you have timing it's still pretty good in drama, it isn't just relegated to comedy. Timing is really just a sense of that exact second that it needs to be said just when they want to hear it. So, I began to not mind doing drama and eventually I liked it because I realized that we were using the same tools."
There's a certain hatred between Lewis and Clark that's not so much hate as the feeling two people generally acquire from being around each other for so many years. Dooley likens it to being married.
"When husbands and wives argue they may be really pissed off, but it isn't really hatred," said Dooley. "The underbelly of it is love or affection."
Still, it's that dislike for Lewis that gives the role of Clark a bit of an edge or an attitude and helps in making the play so funny.
The Sunshine Boys is one of Neil Simon's most famous plays. It originally opened on Broadway in 1972 and the production included Sam Levene as Lewis, Jack Albertson as Clark and Lewis J. Stadlen as Ben under the direction of Alan Arkin. It earned Tony Award nominations for Simon (Best Play), Jack Albertson (Best Actor in a Play) and Alan Arkin (Best Direction of a Play), and Jack Albertson won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance.
"The place that publishes these plays - Samuel French - has everybody on the racks," said Jack Klugman. "There are thousands of playwrights, but there are only two bins. One is for Shakespeare and one is for Neil Simon."
Both Klugman and Dooley recall seeing Joe Smith and Charles Dale perform. Klugman remembers them from the Ed Sullivan Show while Dooley saw them both on television and in concert.
"Before I even saw them, I was a junkie for vaudeville," said Dooley. "I first wanted to be a silent movie comic but it was all gone. Then I thought I'd be in vaudeville but that was dead. And then I thought I'd be in burlesque and that was dead, so the closest thing was to be a clown. When I got to New York I couldn't join SAG or Actor's Equity. I had developed some juggling skills and magic skills, so I did birthday parties and shows in schools. I did it for three or four years just to make enough to pay the rent."
Ironically, Dooley's film career also includes several cult classics like Shakes The Clown, a film he did with Bobcat Goldthwait, and Strange Brew, a film with Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. In both cases, the films have lived on largely through college campus viewings.
"Both of them are about drinking and smoking pot," said Dooley. "Naturally college kids will like that!"
"I became enamored of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin when I was 15," said Dooley. "A friend of mine in high school would go around with a camera and we would throw pies and chase each other. I've always been a fan of silent films. I was in Second City with Alan Arkin and he and I both had an interest in the silent comedians like Keaton and Chaplin. He came to me one day with an idea and we actually sat down and starting writing a script in the early sixties. It would be a silent movie made in black and white with me and some of our Second City friends. We were about 2/3 of the way through it when he says 'I just read something in the paper that Mel Brooks is doing something called Silent Movie and it's going to kill us!'"
Klugman said he was never interested in vaudeville, but knew he wanted to be an actor from the first time he saw The Living Newspaper at the Mercury Theatre. As the two continue sharing stories of their acting career, one name comes up as the director Paul Dooley says was the best he had ever worked with - Mike Nichols. Turns out, that's the one person Klugman never worked with, but he did have an interesting experience when he first joined The Odd Couple, a play directed by Nichols.
"When I replaced Walter (Matthau) I was out in California doing a show," recalled Klugman. I heard he (Nichols) was doing Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf so I got a pass and got on the set. I said, 'I'm going to replace Walter'. He said, 'oh, you'll be wonderful'. I said, 'could we spend a couple of hours today?' And he said, 'Jack, I'm doing a movie... it's my first movie.' But I tried talking him into it. He said, 'I'm doing my first movie with Elizabeth Taylor, I don't have time.' I said, 'well, it's not really a movie it's a talkathon!' Then he said, 'good-bye Jack... forever!' and I laughed because I knew I had put my foot in it and he never used me. He forgave me once, but he never used me."
There's but one regret for Dooley as well. Timing didn't work out for him to be part of a play that is on Klugman's resume - Death of a Salesman.
"I fell in love with it in college and said some day I'll be able to play Happy," said Dooley. "And then I got older and wanted to play Biff and I never did it. I got a call once out of the blue from Dustin Hoffman who said I'm doing a tour and we'd like you to play Charlie, but I had a committment to do a film with Robert Altman."
Klugman tells him that he should play Willy Loman. "You'd be wonderful!"
"My wife always tells me that, but I've always been scared of Willy Loman," admitted Dooley.
One thing neither of these fine actors is afraid of is trying new experiences no matter where they are in life. For Klugman, The Sunshine Boys is a return to the George Street Playhouse for the second straight season. George Street likes to say that it's comprised of a extended family of actors and Klugman is now officially part of that mix.
"I love this theater!" exclaimed Klugman. "I love David Saint! I came back to the apartment and I was home! I thought I would feel strange, but I didn't. I felt at home."
Both actors had nothing but good things to say about David Saint who will be directing The Sunshine Boys.
"He's a real easy going guy and he's a very good director in that respect because one of the big assets for a director is to get along with actors," said Dooley. "He studied acting with Uta Hagen, he just understands actors. You don't feel like he's the director so much as he's just another person in the room. We're all just working on it together. It's not like we're working for him or anything, he's just a colleague. He just keeps us honest by pointing out things we might not notice."
"He's one of us is what it is," added Klugman.
And now they're both part of the George Street Playhouse family.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at email@example.com.