Little Rock Look Back: Broadway debut of Ben Piazza

Though he had been an understudy in the short-lived Too Late the Phalarope, Little Rock native Ben Piazza never went on in the production.  He made his Broadway debut in Kataki, which opened 56 years ago today at the Ambassador Theatre on April 9, 1959.

Piazza was the valedictorian of the Little Rock High School class of 1951. While there, he was recognized for his acting and writing abilities.  After being a Little Rock High School Tiger, he became a Princeton Tiger and graduated in 1955 before moving to New York City.

Written by Shimon Wincelberg, Kataki concerned an older Japanese pilot and a young American soldier stranded on an island at the end of World War II.  As was the case of many plays in the late 1950s, it had originally been a television play.  The title is the Japanese word for “enemy.”

Kataki starred Sessue Hayakawa and Piazza. Most of Hayakawa’s dialogue was in Japanese, so in some ways, Piazza acted in a two-character, one-person play – since he was the only one talking for most of the play.  The play was produced by Jay Garon and Bob Sokoler, with Richard Randall serving as associate producer.  David Amram provided the incidental music.  Peter Dohanos designed the island scenery.  Anne Graham provided the costume design, and Paul Morrison was the lighting designer.

The actors received high praise for their performances, but the play’s dramatic structure was criticized as being plodding and trite.  The play was directed by Alan Schneider, who would reunite with Piazza in the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  a few years later.  The play would run only 20 performances, but Piazza was recognized with a Theatre World Award for his portrayal of Alvin, the young soldier.

The play was revived in Los Angeles in 2010 to good reviews.


Rock the Oscars 2019: THE HANGING TREE

On February 11, 1959, THE HANGING TREE was released.  This film was the first Hollywood movie in with Little Rock native Ben Piazza appeared.  For the film, Piazza received a coveted “and introducing Ben Piazza” credit.

The movie starred Oscar winners Gary Cooper and Karl Malden, along with Maria Schell.  Future Oscar winner George C. Scott, was fifth billed for his scenery chewing role of a religious zealot.

The title song, “The Hanging Tree,” written by Jerry Livingston and Mack David, was sung by Marty Robbins in the film.  It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Song.

Filming began in June 1958 in Washington state.  Shooting took place from June through August 1958 mainly near Yakima, Washington.  The film was directed by Delmer Daves, who was probably best known as screenwriter of Love Affair and director of 3:10 to Yuma.  In conjunction with filming The Hanging Tree, Piazza appeared in a TV special on western movies.  Most of the others appearing in the special were well-established Hollywood western personalities including Little Rock natives Bronco Billy Anderson and Gail Davis.

The Hanging Tree had a budget of $1.35 million ($11.5 million today—about half of the typical modest film budget).  A good portion of this expense was the construction of a mining town.  Once production began, Daves became ill and had to be hospitalized for ulcers. Co-star Karl Malden was approached to complete the film.  He had recently finished his first directing assignment.  He had reservations, but agreed to direct because of support of Cooper. (There are discrepancies as to the length of time Daves was out of commission.)

Ben received positive notices.  One reviewer referred to him as being a “laconic, doe-eyed rebel.” Another said he was a “handsome and mean-looking boy…with curls like a golden poodle.”     Several reviewers referenced James Dean when discussing Piazza in a positive light.

The film was released to respectful notices in February 1959.  It earned around $2.2 million, which meant it turned a profit.

Little Rock Look Back: Ben Piazza joins cast of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? on Broadway

On February 4, 1963, Little Rock native Ben Piazza joined the cast of the original Broadway production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? replacing George Grizzard.

Grizzard had left the show to play Hamlet during the Guthrie Theatre’s first season.  He had accepted that role prior to the Albee play opening on Broadway and becoming a runaway hit.

Piazza, a friend of Albee’s, had been involved in the play since its early days. At the play’s first read-through, he read the part of Nick (which he would play on Broadway) with Albee and producers Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder reading the other three parts.

Piazza stayed in the role of Nick for the rest of the run of the show until it closed on May 16, 1964. His fifteen months in the role is the longest that anyone has ever played a role in an Albee play on Broadway (or perhaps anywhere).

He joined original cast members Arthur Hill, Uta Hagen and Melinda Dillon (a native of Hope).  Dillon was the next to leave the cast and was followed by Rochelle Oliver in the role of Honey.  As Martha, Hagen was followed by Nancy Kelly, returned to the role, and then left it to star in the London production. Piazza would then play opposite future Little Rock resident (and Arkansas Rep performer) Mercedes McCambridge for the last five months of the run.

As George, Arthur Hill was succeeded by Shepperd Strudwick a month after Hagen left. He returned to the play when Hagen did and joined her in London.  Donald Davis, who had played George in the matinee cast, took over the part in the evenings for the last five months.

Rock the Oscars 2019: Broncho Billy Anderson

At the 1958 Oscars, Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson received an Honorary Oscar as a motion picture pioneer.  The citation praised  his contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment.

Born in Little Rock in March 1880, he was the son of Esther and Henry Aronson. Both were originally from New York.  Her parents were German-Jewish immigrants and his parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants.

After working as a photographer’s assistant and model, Anderson eventually found his way to vaudeville as a performer and writer.  In 1903, he appeared in the early seminal film The Great Train Robbery in several roles.  He created the western persona of Broncho Billy in front of the cameras.  Behind the scenes, he was a studio owner and director.  Over his career, he directed over 400 films.  By the early 1920s, he retired as an actor and director and devoted himself to owning a Broadway theatre and producing stage shows.

He made occasional film appearances beginning in the 1940s.  In 1958, he appeared in a documentary about Westerns for the TV show “Wide, Wide World.”  Also featured in that special were Little Rock actors Ben Piazza and Gail Davis.  His final screen appearance was in 1965’s The Bounty Killer.  He died in 1971 at the age of 90. He had been married to his wife for sixty years at the time of his death.

Ben Piazza – born in LR 85 years ago

Actor-director-playwright-author Ben Piazza was born on July 30, 1933, in Little Rock.  Piazza graduated from Little Rock High School in 1951 as valedictorian. He also had starred in the senior play that year (The Man Who Came to Dinner) and edited the literary magazine.

Piazza attended college at Princeton University and graduated in 1955.  While there he continued acting, including an appearance in a Theatre Intime production of Othello.

In February 1958, he starred in Winesburg, Ohio sharing the National (now Nederlander) Theatre stage with James Whitmore, Dorothy McGuire, and Leon Ames. In April 1959, Piazza starred in Kataki at the Ambassador Theatre.  For his performance, Piazza received one of the 1959 Theatre World Awards.

Piazza started the 1960s on Broadway starring at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in A Second String with Shirley Booth, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Nina Foch, Cathleen Nesbitt, and Carrie Nye.   Following that, he started his association with Edward Albee by appearing as the title character in The American Dream.  That play opened at the York Playhouse in January 1961.  Later that year, he appeared in Albee’s The Zoo Story opposite original cast member William Daniels at the East End Theatre.

In February 1963, he took over the role of Nick in the original run of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when original actor George Grizzard left to play Hamlet at the Guthrie Theatre.  (He had participated in earlier readings of the play prior to it being mounted on Broadway.)

Piazza played Nick for the remainder of the run and acted with Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, fellow Arkansan Melinda Dillon, Eileen Fulton, Nancy Kelly, Mercedes McCambridge, Rochelle Oliver and Sheppard Strudwick.

During the run of this show, Piazza’s novel The Exact and Very Strange Truth was published.  It is a fictionalized account of his growing up in Little Rock during the 1930s and 1940s.  The book is filled with references to Centennial Elementary, West Side Junior High, Central High School, Immanuel Baptist Church and various stores and shops in Little Rock during that era.  The Piazza Shoe Store, located on Main Street, was called Gallanti’s.

He appeared with Alfred Drake in The Song of the Grasshopper in September 1967.  In 1968, he returned to Albee and starred in The Death of Bessie Smith and The Zoo Story in repertory on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theatre.

Later that season, in March 1969, his one-acts: Lime Green/Khaki Blue opened at the Provincetown Playhouse.  Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Piazza toured in many plays nationally and internationally. As the 1970s progressed, he turned his focus to television and movies.

Piazza’s film debut was in a 1959 Canadian film called The Dangerous Age. That same year, his Hollywood film debut came opposite Gary Cooper, Karl Malden, Maria Schell and George C. Scott in The Hanging Tree.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in a number of TV shows.  He had a recurring role during one season of Ben Casey and appeared on the soap opera Love of Life. In the 1970s, he starred in the films Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon; The Candy Snatchers and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.  He also starred as the City Councilman who recruits Walter Matthau to coach a baseball team inThe Bad News Bears.

Among his numerous TV appearances in the 1970s were The Waltons, Mannix, Switch, Barnaby Jones, Gunsmoke, Mod Squad and Lou Grant . In the 1980s, he appeared in The Blues Brothers, The Rockford Files, Barney Miller, Hart to Hart, Family Ties, The Winds of War, Dallas, Dynasty, Too Close for Comfort, The A Team, Saint Elsewhere, Santa Barbara, The Facts of Life, Mr. Belvedere, Moonlighting and Matlock.

Piazza’s final big screen appearance was in the 1991 film Guilty by Suspicion.  He played studio head Darryl Zanuck in this Robert DeNiro-Annette Bening tale of Hollywood during the Red scare.

Ben Piazza died on September 7, 1991.

In November 2016, a room at the Robinson Conference Center was dedicated to his memory.

Pulitzers Play Little Rock: WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

WAVW LR Jan65As April winds down, today’s featured play did not actually win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  In 1963, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the choice of the Pulitzer Drama Jury to receive the award.  However, each Pulitzer category’s jury can be overruled by the Pulitzer Board.  In 1963, they chose not to award the Pulitzer in Drama.

Though the Pulitzer board is notoriously tight-lipped about their decisions, the reason for their rejection of the Albee play is known.  At the time, the Pulitzer rules contained language (written originally by Mr. Pulitzer in setting up the prizes) that stated the prize winners must be uplifting and represent high moral values.  With its frank depiction of a fractured marriage and use of vulgarities, the Pulitzer board did not feel that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? met that criteria.

The resulting outcry over the exclusion of Albee’s play contributed to the removal of the clause.  Albee did subsequently win for his plays A Delicate Balance, Seascape, and Three Tall Women.

The national tour of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? came to Little Rock in January 1965.  The tour starred Vicki Cummings and Kendall Clark.  Bryerly Lee and Donald Briscoe played the younger couple.  The production was directed by Alan Schneider (who had won the Tony Award for directing the play on Broadway).

Little Rock native Ben Piazza was a close friend of Edward Albee.  When Albee was working on the play, Piazza participated in the first read-through of it. He did not appear in the original Broadway cast, but ended up playing the part of Nick on Broadway for most of the show’s run.  He still holds the record of appearing in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a Broadway run longer than any other actor.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama being given. To pay tribute to 100 years of the Pulitzer for Drama, twenty-nine days this month a different Little Rock production of a Pulitzer Prize winning play was highlighted.  Many of these titles have been produced numerous times.  This look veered from high school to national tours in an attempt to give a glimpse into Little Rock’s breadth and depth of theatrical history.

Pulitzers Play Little Rock: ‘NIGHT, MOTHER on Arkansas Rep stage with Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge

MercedesIt is not often that an Oscar winner has appeared in a play on a Little Rock stage.  But in the spring of 1986, Mercedes McCambridge starred in Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother at Arkansas Repertory Theatre.

She had moved to Little Rock a few years prior to live full time to be close to family. From time to time, she and Cliff Baker (the Rep’s founder) would have conversations about potential projects. But it was not until 1986, that the stars aligned.  By this point, she had moved away from Little Rock, but was still back from time to time to visit family.  (In an interview with the Arkansas Gazette, she also praised Fred Poe and noted that he was her travel agent for her many excursions.)

Appearing on stage with McCambridge in Norman’s two-hander was Rep veteran Cathey Crowell Sawyer.

Though noted for her film work, McCambridge had appeared on Broadway several times including opposite Little Rock native Ben Piazza in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and receiving a Tony nomination for her work in the play The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks.

Prior to appearing at the Rep, she had recently toured in the play Agnes of God.  She related to the Gazette that she had been approached to do that play prior to Broadway but did not feel the character she was to play was believable.  When the national tour came about, a conversation with playwright John Pielmeier changed her mind.

Her last Broadway appearance was in Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize winning Lost in Yonkers.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama being given. To pay tribute to 100 years of the Pulitzer for Drama, each day this month a different Little Rock production of a Pulitzer Prize winning play will be highlighted.  Many of these titles have been produced numerous times.  This look will veer from high school to national tours in an attempt to give a glimpse into Little Rock’s breadth and depth of theatrical history.