My first experience with the work of Tennessee Williams
occurred at age eight in 1960, at The Flor-Ala (Florida/Alabama) Drive In
Theater in Shalimar Florida just off Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach,
on Florida’s panhandle.. I was in the back seat of a huge 50’s Oldsmobile
Station Wagon. My mother and step-father were in the front seat and we were
watching SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER on a gigantic outdoor screen. I was
mesmerized and somewhat shaken, for reasons I could not fully understand. I
remember leaning over into the front seat and asking my mother what was wrong
with Sebastian. I had a dark clue, but wanted some sort of explanation.
I had lost my innocence to an 18 year old babysitter earlier
in that summer and words like “queer” and “sissy” had taken on a personal
meaning. My earliest sexual yearnings (long before any physical attainment) had
been for my own sex, and I needed more facts without revealing the terrifying
My stepfather sternly, without looking at me, said, “Eat your
popcorn and watch the movie.” At that very moment I had a deep realization; one
that would haunt me long before it delivered me to a livable truth, and
understanding of my God-given nature. I was in no way prepared for understanding
myself, much less the complexities of the work of Tennessee Williams. This was
an excellent Gore Vidal screenplay. but not one of Mr. Williams’ favorite screen
adaptations of his work. It’s theme shook me to my marrow. Horrifying secrets
that needed to be cut out of brains.
Waiting to board the Ferry as I left Provincetown 9/28/09
Having been an actor all my conscious life, Williams was a part of my life and
remains so today. I met him through friends in New York in February 1977 while
he was working with Sylvia Sidney (who a decade later I would co-star with in
BEETLEJUICE) on VIEUX CARRÉ at The St. James Theater.
The night we met, he gave a symposium after a performance of THE
ECCENTRICITIES OF A NIGHTINGALE which was a re-write of SUMMER AND SMOKE,
and starred Dorothy Palmer. Poor Tennessee was deep in his cups and/or
sedatives, and had seen the closing notice listed just before appearing on stage
to speak to (and answer questions from) this packed Broadway audience. He railed
and screamed invectives at the New York Critics and I was embarrassed for him.
He seemed so very desperate to be hailed as great again, and he had already
become THE playwright of the 20th Century.
That spring we met again, purely by chance, on March 11, which was the first
beautiful day after the horrid winter of ‘77. I had seen a friend off to Kennedy
from Grand Central and decided to enjoy the walk back to my West 68th Street
apartment. On my way I ran into Mr. Williams and soon we were drinking and
telling tales at The Monkey Bar at The Elysee, where he had Tallulah Bankhead’s
(and before her, Ethel Barrymore’s) suite. It was in fact the suite in which he
died six years later after choking on the cap of a bottle of Seconal. Only he
could have written such an ending….but in the spring of ’77, I enjoyed our
memorable times together.