Monday, July 18, 2011


Centennial Tributes: Hume Cronyn Part II

“To act you must have a sense of truth and some degree of dedication.”
Hume Cronyn

By Edward Copeland
We continue our tribute to Hume Cronyn as the decade turns to the 1950s. If you started here by mistake and missed Part I, click here. Cronyn continued to appear steadily on the various live theatrical programs on TV but only two feature films the entire decade. He definitely turned his focus to the stage, especially behind-the-scenes work. In March 1950, he directed his first Broadway play, the original comedy Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep whose cast included Fredric March. In November, he and his wife did their first New York stage collaboration when he directed her as the title character in the original drama Hilda Crane. In April 1951, he helped produce The Little Blue Light which reunited him with Burgess Meredith and had Melvyn Douglas in the cast. In August, his sole feature film of the year was released: the underrated Joseph L. Mankiewicz gem People Will Talk starring Cary Grant. Grant and Cronyn play professors at a medical school with diametrically opposed views on just about everything and Cronyn's character leads a crusade to get Grant removed from the faculty because of his unorthodox views.

Beginning Oct. 24, 1951, Cronyn and Tandy appeared on Broadway together for the first time in a play that became such a hit, that it managed to be spun off into radio, TV and movie versions with Cronyn and Tandy starring in all but the movie version because they were still enjoying the successful Broadway run at the time. The original comedy The Fourposter by Jan De Hartog is a two-character play where spouses Michael and Agnes re-enact their marriage around their four-poster bed and took place between 1890 and 1925. José Ferrer directed the production and both he and De Hartog won Tonys (meaning it won best play). Since Cronyn and Tandy stayed with the play until May 1953, their roles in the 1952 film version directed by Irving Reis went to Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer. Its only Oscar nomination was for black-and-white cinematography. When Cronyn and Tandy finished their run in the play, Cronyn produced an NBC radio sitcom version of the play, changing the title to The Marriage, the characters' names to Ben and Liz and losing the period element. While they worked on this during the play's run, the radio show didn't begin airing until October 1953. A total of 26 episodes aired and then The Marriage made history, albeit short-lived. It moved to NBC TV where it became the first sitcom broadcast in color, though it only lasted eight episodes when, tragically, Tandy suffered a miscarriage and live broadcasts ceased never to start again. The Fourposter would come back throughout Cronyn and Tandy's careers though in the form of revivals and tours (including a 15-performance Broadway revival in 1955). In fact, in the summer of 1955, Cronyn and Tandy performed The Fourposter on an episode of Producers' Showcase and Tandy received her first Emmy nomination for actress in a single performance.

Throughout the 1950s, movies didn't see much of Cronyn as he kept busy with productions on TV and the stage. Other than People Will Talk, the only other feature film IMDb lists for that decade is something called Crowded Paradise in 1956 of which IMDb contains the bare minimum of information. Part of the reason for this may have been that Hume Cronyn may have been one of the few people in this country's sordid history of the blacklist to keep himself busy so constantly that he didn't know he'd been blacklisted. Another reason was that it seemed inconceivable to him since he was never very active politically, never called before HUAC or ever attended any "suspect" meetings. It turned out eventually that his particularly puzzling blacklisting was because he had hired people who were blacklisted, not that he knew or even if he did he would have cared. Cronyn didn't suffer too much because by the time he became aware of his status, others had started breaking the blacklist anyway by doing what got him on the list in the first place.

In December 1953, he and Norman Lloyd inaugurated The Phoenix Theatre by co-directing and co-starring in Madam, Will You Walk? which also featured Tandy. Interestingly, the play with the same opening and closing dates is listed in both the Internet Broadway Database and the Internet Off-Broadway Database and I can find nothing in a quick look to settle where it belongs — not even number of seats or an address. Cronyn didn't spend all his stage time in New York though, he started doing a lot of tours, including a series of concert readings with Tandy in 1954 called Face to Face which were later turned into a recording. In 1955, Cronyn hit The Great White Way with Tandy twice: the aforementioned short revival of The Fourposter and an original farce by Roald Dahl called The Honeys. Sometime that year he had time to act in A Day By The Sea at the American National Theatre and Academy Theatre — and that's not counting 13 TV acting jobs between 1953 and 1955.

The remainder of the decade was even more dominated by work on television, to the exclusion of actual stage work in 1956 though he did make the first of two appearances (the second coming in 1958) on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He returned to Broadway in 1957 to direct longtime friend Karl Malden in The Egghead. Cronyn and Tandy also toured several cities across the U.S. in 1957 with the new comedy The Man in the Dog Suit ahead of its Broadway premiere in 1958. Cronyn followed the same pattern in 1958, touring with Tandy and other actors in a production he both starred in and directed called Triple Play that consisted of three one-act plays and a monologue, which was considered an original one act play when it opened on Broadway in 1959, though it was written by the long dead Anton Chekhov. The one acts were Tennessee Williams' Portrait of a Madonna, two by Sean O'Casey: A Pound on Demand and Bedtime Story, and the Chekhov monologue which Cronyn performed Some Comments on the Harmful Effects of Tobacco. Cronyn and Tandy closed out the 1950s with a television movie adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel The Moon and Sixpence with a cast led by Laurence Olivier and featuring Judith Anderson, Denholm Elliott, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Jean Marsh. IMDb actually had a link to the original Time magazine review of it.

As the 1960s began, movies began to enter Cronyn's life again and television receded a bit, mainly because the popularity of programs that televised plays were on the wane. Theater maintained its prominence in his life, and he started to see some award recognition for it. In the fall of 1960, he played Louis Howe to Ralph Bellamy's FDR and Greer Garson's Eleanor when Sunrise at Campobello was released. In early 1961, Cronyn opened on Broadway as Jimmie Luton, the main character of the new farce Big Fish, Little Fish by Hugh Wheeler, his first work on Broadway though he'd go on to write the books for A Little Night Music, Candide and Sweeney Todd, winning a Tony for all three. Cronyn was directed in Big Fish, Little Fish by John Gielgud, who won the Tony for best direction in a play. Cronyn received his first Tony nomination as actor in a play and the cast included Jason Robards, George Grizzard (Tony nominee for featured actor in a play) and Martin Gabel (Tony winner for featured actor in a play). The show proved to be such a success that the following year Cronyn made his London stage debut when he played Jimmie Luton again when Big Fish, Little Fish opened at the Duke of York's Theatre. While overseas he helped his friend Joe Mankiewicz by taking the part of Sosigenes in the out-of-control Cleopatra, which finally opened in 1963. When he was back in the U.S. in 1963, he helped inaugurate the premiere season of the Tyrone Guthrie's Minnesota Theatre Company at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis by appearing in three productions: Harpagon in Moliere's The Miser, Tchebutkin in Chekhov's The Three Sisters and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. In 1964, Cronyn scored a coup — playing Polonious in a Broadway production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton and nearly stealing the show from the melancholy Dane. Directed by Gielgud as if the company were in rehearsal clothes, it also was filmed and aired on TV the same year. Cronyn's performance won him a Tony for featured actor in a play. Here is a YouTube clip of Cronyn and Burton at work.

A few months after his triumph in Hamlet, Cronyn returned to the Broadway stage with Tandy in tow in The Physicists opposite Robert Shaw. Two days after that show closed, Cronyn was one of the producers of the play Slow Dance on the Killing Ground, which earned Cronyn his third Tony nomination, his first as producer of a best play nominee. In late 1966, Cronyn and Tandy created the roles of Tobias and Agnes in a bona fide classic: Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Delicate Balance and Cronyn received another Tony nomination as actor in a play as Tobias. In 1967, Cronyn took A Delicate Balance on tour. He stayed on the road performing in productions in L.A. and Ontario in 1968 and 1969. He squeezed out two films in 1969: Elia Kazan's adaptation of his own novel The Arrangement and Norman Jewison's comedy Gaily, Gaily starring Beau Bridges. Somehow, in this busiest of schedules, Cronyn also had to recover from a bout of cancer that cost him one of his eyes in 1969 and left him with a glass eye for the rest of his life.

Now, we do draw near the end of the theatrical careers of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, but Cronyn wraps it up very actively and the couple will follow it up with prolific television and film work. First in 1977, Cronyn co-produced with Mike Nichols the two-person play The Gin Game for he and Tandy to star in and Nichols to direct. After an initial tryout in Long Wharf, Conn., they moved to Broadway to much success, running 517 performances. Cronyn received Tony and Drama Desk nominations for both best actor and best play while Tandy won both those awards for best actress. The play's author, D.L. Coburn, won the Pulitzer. Nichols received play and directing nominations from both groups. Cronyn and Tandy then took The Gin Game on tour, not just in the United States but throughout Canada, the United Kingdom and some cities in the Soviet Union as well through 1979. Then, they made a television version of the play that aired in a version made for Showtime in 1981. During this time period, dating back to 1977, Cronyn also was collaborating with writer Susan Cooper on what would become Cronyn and Tandy's penultimate stage project. Before they got to that, Cronyn managed to return to feature films three times and took Tandy along on two of them. They had small parts in the odd ensemble assembled for John Schlesinger's wacky satire Honky Tonk Freeway, Cronyn re-teamed alone with his Parallax View director Alan J. Pakula for an economic thriller called Rollover starring Jane Fonda and Kris Kristofferson and then he and Tandy had brief roles as the parents of the one-of-a-kind Jenny Fields (Glenn Close) in the movie adaptation of The World According to Garp.

Susan Cooper also hailed from England, but came to the U.S. when she married an American, though the marriage didn't work out. She primarily wrote novels and children's books until she developed an interest in playwriting and somehow began collaboration with Cronyn a long-gestating work called Foxfire about the end of an Appalachian family's way of life. It added to Cronyn's resume because not only was he co-author of the play, he, Cooper and Jonathan Holtzman wrote lyrics for songs for which Holtzman wrote the music, though it wasn't strictly a musical. After debuting first at The Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario and The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, it opened on Broadway in November 1982. Playing Cronyn and Tandy's characters' son in the play was Keith Carradine. Tandy won both the Tony and the Drama Desk awards for best actress in a play. Five years later, it aired on CBS where Tandy again won outstanding actress, this time in a miniseries or special. Cronyn was nominated as outstanding actor and he and Cooper received a solo writing nomination. The movie itself was nominated as outstanding drama or comedy special and John Denver took Carradine's role. Below is a YouTube clip of the TV movie.

After having seen Foxfire, Cronyn's co-star in Rollover, Jane Fonda, asked if he and Susan Cooper would adapt the novel The Dollmaker into a script for a TV movie for her. They did and received Emmy nominations for writing the 1984 telefilm and Fonda won outstanding actress in a miniseries or special for it. It was (and remains) only the second time Fonda appeared in a TV production, the previous one being when she was just starting out in 1961. Cronyn started heading back to the cinema in the 1984 thriller Impulse and Richard Pryor's surprise relative who gives him the challenge of spending $30 million in 30 days if he wants to inherit his vast fortune of $300 million in the umpteenth remake of Brewster's Millions in 1985. However, Cronyn, with Tandy beside him, had another 1985 release that really made the veteran actors stars to an entirely new generation.

Joining Cronyn and Tandy as the leads of Ron Howard's Cocoon were Wilford Brimley, Maureen Stapleton, Gwen Verdon, Jack Gilford, Herta Ware and Don Ameche, who took home an Oscar for supporting actor for the film even though he wasn't even the best supporting actor in the film. A sci-fi comedy and meditation on aging and dying, it was made when Big Blue was a swimming pool loaded with extra-terrestrial magic making the seniors horny instead of a pill for erectile dysfunction. Cronyn and Tandy had particularly good moments as the pool awakened his character's libido and his wandering eye, reminding his wife of his younger days when he was far from faithful. Of course, they had to make an awful sequel, but to have that a big a hit with that many older actors as leads was quite something. It's not like Steve Guttenberg was the draw. The following year, 1986, Cronyn and Tandy were honored together as that year's batch of Kennedy Center honorees alongside Lucille Ball, Ray Charles, Yehudi Menuhin and Antony Tudor. Cronyn and Tandy would appear in two more feature films togethers (three counting the Cocoon sequel): 1987's *batteries not included and 1994's Camilla, Tandy's final film released after her death. Among the many televison and feature films we won't still talk about that Cronyn would go on to make the most notable were The Pelican Brief and Marvin's Room.

In 1986, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy appeared in their last Broadway show, fittingly together. The Petition was a two-person play and earned each of them Tony nominations. In 1994, they received the very first Tony Awards ever given for lifetime achievement. It was just a few months before Tandy's death. Though their stage work considerably lessened and Broadway work ceased, movie and TV worked soared. Cronyn became a regular presence at the Emmys, being nominated five times between 1990 and 1998 and winning three times. He won lead actor for HBO's Age-Old Friends, which allowed him to act opposite daughter Tandy Cronyn. He won that, his first Emmy, the same year that Tandy won the best actress Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy. During this time, the pair went on 60 Minutes and had fun putting Mike Wallace on.

Cronyn earned two 1992 Emmy nominations, one for lead actor in a miniseries or special in Christmas on Division Street and one for supporting actor in a miniseries or special for Neil Simon's Broadway Bound, which he won. His third win was bittersweet. Written by Susan Cooper, To Dance With the White Dog co-starred Tandy who also was nominated, and dealt with a widower working through the grief over the loss of his wife. The awards ceremony took place shortly after Tandy's death. Cronyn's final Emmy nomination came for supporting actor in a miniseries or special for Showtime's version of 12 Angry Men in 1998. Two years after Tandy's death, Cronyn married Susan Cooper who remained his wife until his death in 2003. The only other writing project they worked on together was a screenplay adaptation of Anne Tyler's novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which they didn't complete. Cronyn completed one other bit of writing: his memoir A Terrible Liar which was published in 1991. Hume Cronyn only missed his own centennial by eight years, but with as much as he accomplished, he might as well have lived 200 years. It helps when you have a partner as simpatico to you as Jessica Tandy was to him.

SOURCES: Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy: A Register of Their Papers in the Library of Congress,, The Digital Deli Too,, film, Internet Accuracy Project,, Wikipedia, Lortel Archives: Internet Off-Broadway Database, The Internet Broadway Database and the Internet Movie Database.

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