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A Few Minutes With Jerome Kilty

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Sitting at a table in the cramped upstairs offices of the Goodman Theatre, Jerome Kilty doesn't look much like the character he plays in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. In the role of the pathetic, pipe-dreaming saloon keeper Harry Hope, Kilty looks burned-out and bedraggled; his thinning hair falls wispily over his forehead, his lips smack with alcoholic dehydration over a scruffy beard, and his eyes are dull and peevish. But offstage, one afternoon before a performance of the four-and-a-half-hour drama, Kilty cuts a neat, trim, alert appearance. His eyes twinkle as he recalls famous friends or passes disdainful comment on the Method style of acting.

"The death of our theater," he calls it. "It's a waste of time. Acting is all artifice. Half of acting is allowing the audience to attribute to you what they want you to be." And as for the teaching of acting--something he does at Harvard University, his alma mater--"You can teach technique," he maintains. "But unless you have that mimetic gift-- unless when you played house as a child you were better than anybody else--you're not going to be an actor."

Growing up in California, the son of a federal Indian agent, Kilty must have played house pretty well. At 68, he's one of America's finest character actors, and certainly one of its most active. "My main boast," he says, "is that I'm one of the few actors I know who hasn't ever filed for unemployment insurance."

This season marks the 40th anniversary of Kilty's Broadway debut. But at least from his teenage years, he recalls with a shrug, "I was always interested in sort of showing off." As a high school student in San Francisco, he was part of a debating team that included Carol Channing. He got his first serious dramatic training in his early 20s, during the waning days of World War II. Stationed in England, he served as a U.S. Air Force navigator and rose to the rank of captain. When the war ended in Europe, American troops were advised of openings in British schools. "I was the ranking officer in my squadron then, so I could send people to these openings," Kilty says. "One day a notice came in from the Guildhall School of Drama in London. So I sent myself!"

After the war he attended Harvard University on the GI Bill. When he didn't get cast in the school shows, he founded his own theater company, attracting other actors by putting a classified ad in the Harvard Crimson. The group took up residence in Cambridge's famed Brattle Theatre. "We were one of the first regional theaters in the country," Kilty says. Young actors such as Albert Marre, Nancy Marchand, Peggy Cass, and Cavada Humphrey--whom Kilty married--were soon joined by better-known professionals as a result of the anticommunist paranoia then beginning to infect show business.

"The blacklisting was going on," explains Kilty. "So we became an outlet for great artists who couldn't find work--Zero Mostel and Sam Jaffe and tons of people like that."

In November 1950, the Theatre Guild presented the Brattle company in the Restoration comedy The Relapse. "Since then," says Kilty, "I have simply never not worked in the theater."

Kilty's also the author of several plays; one, Dear Liar, was aptly described by the New York Times as a "portable gold mine"--it's a two-character dramatization of the intellectually and emotionally passionate correspondence between playwright George Bernard Shaw and the actress he adored, Mrs. Patrick Campbell.

"It was actually written right here, in Chicago," Kilty says of the play. In the late 1950s he was appearing with the Studebaker Theatre Company, which made a high-minded but short-lived attempt at presenting serious drama in the Loop, in what is now the Fine Arts movie theater. (Fellow company members included Bernie Sahlins, later producer of Second City.) At the time Kilty was working on a performance piece based on Shaw's letters; Chicago attorney Elmer Gertz, leader of a local Shaw admiration society, got wind of the Shaw readings Kilty was doing. "He suggested I turn them into a play," Kilty says. "So I stayed in my hotel room every day and wrote. Then my wife and I performed some of it for the Shaw society. So the real birth of it was here in Chicago."

After a world premiere in Berlin in 1959, with Elisabeth Bergner playing Mrs. Campbell, Dear Liar came to Broadway in 1960, with the legendary Katharine Cornell playing opposite Brian Aherne's Shaw. (Cornell learned of the unproduced play, says Kilty, from her neighbor Lillian Hellman, with whom Kilty shared an agent.) Over the years, the play proved a durable and tourable star vehicle. Kilty and his wife performed it many times on the road and on Broadway in the early 60s; Dame Peggy Ashcroft starred in it in London, Jean Cocteau translated it into French, and Luchino Visconti produced it in Italy.

"It's the reason I'm here at the Goodman," Kilty says of the play's success. "It's my annuity. I have an apartment in New York and a lovely country home in Connecticut, and I couldn't afford that on what you get in a regional theater. Without those royalties, I would have to do movies. And I don't."

Irish by descent, Kilty has always felt a strong affinity for Shaw. He giggles like a schoolboy when he recalls meeting the great man during World War II: "I was stationed near him in England, and one day in the Stars & Stripes newspaper there was a headline saying, 'Shaw likes Yanks.' So my buddy and I got on our bicycles and rode about ten miles to knock on his door. He was very nice. He took us around the back of the house and showed us where he wrote, in that little portable shed he had, and he gave each of us a little rock from his path, which I still have mounted at home."

Kilty's other plays include another epistolary star vehicle, Dear Love, about Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (he and Myrna Loy appeared in it at the Blackstone); The Ides of March, which he adapted from Thornton Wilder's historical novel at his friend Wilder's request (it starred John Gielgud and Irene Worth in 1963); and his latest, Margaret Sanger/Unfinished Business, a one-woman play about the pioneering birth-control activist and founder of Planned Parenthood. With Eileen Heckart in the lead, the play was a success last summer in a few tryout performances on the east coast--in part, Kilty believes, because antiabortion protests outside the theaters made the show headline news. "Eileen said we should get them to follow us around the country," Kilty laughs. But the publicity hasn't been all for the best, he acknowledges: "The play has been written with universities in mind. And the universities have to book these things a year in advance. And they ain't about to get involved in controversy. There was a time when they would stand up, but now they'd rather have somebody come in and do a reading from Dr. Johnson!"

Kilty's specialty is classic drama: Shakespeare (Falstaff and Iago are among his important early roles), Shaw (he was in a famous Misalliance that Cyril Ritchard directed on Broadway in 1953 with Richard Kiley and Roddy McDowall), Chekhov, and Moliere. Goodman Theatre audiences in the 1960s saw him in Moliere's Tartuffe, as well as in Dylan (as Dylan Thomas) and Marat/Sade (as the Marquis de Sade); in the late 70s he played Walt Whitman in Goodman's Two Part Inventions.

Lately he's begun to bloom as an O'Neill interpreter. "I never was very fond of O'Neill until maybe six years ago," he says. That was when he starred with Kate Nelligan in A Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway. The challenge in playing O'Neill, he says, is that "it seems that he's writing in the vernacular and then in fact he's not. And unless you use his exact phrasing, you're lost." In the devastating final act of Goodman's Iceman, Kilty utters a series of subtle variations on the basic statement, "All we want is to pass out in peace," offering a choruslike response to the long revelatory monologue delivered by Brian Dennehy. "The relentlessness of the repetition is difficult, and it's got to be done right," says Kilty. "People do repeat what they say, especially in lives that become enmeshed with each other. Repetition is sometimes all you have."

He notes the specific political veins that run through Iceman--nostalgia for the early socialist movement, bemusement at the lingering legacy of New York's Tammany Hall Democratic machine. But Iceman, he feels, is no musty period piece. In a time when the country's economic pipe dreams seem to be collapsing while elected leaders try to appease an angry public, Iceman's story about a group of barroom buddies who turn on a friend turned reformer has plenty of contemporary currency.

"This is a play about lies," he says. "I believe that ever since the First World War, the metaphor for our times is 'the emperor's new clothes.' We have gone along fooling ourselves about our civilization, our relations with each other, our relations with our children, with humanity in general, and with our leaders--it's a fraud. We believe what they tell us to believe because we want to believe we're number one. We have told ourselves we have to believe our pipe dream, our heroes. But we erect these heroes in order to have something to tear down."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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