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.

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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.

Rock the Oscars: 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.

Rock the Oscars: Broncho Billy Anderson

At the 1958 Oscars, GilbertM. “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.

 

Central to Creativity – Ben Piazza

 

benpiazza book coverActor-director-playwright-author Ben Piazza was born on July 30, 1933, in Little Rock, and 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.

After graduating from Princeton, he moved to New York City to become an actor.  He made his Broadway debut in 1958 in Winesburg, Ohio.  In April 1959, he starred in Kataki and received a Theatre World Award for his performance.

As the 1960s dawned, Piazza joined a small cadre of actors who had achieved status on Broadway who then also returned to acting Off Broadway.  Colleen Dewhurst, George C. Scott, and James Earl Jones were others in this select group who helped establish Off Broadway as an entity in itself, instead of being just a farm team for Broadway.

In February 1963, he took over the role of Nick in the original run of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway.  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, Westside Junior High, Central High School, Immanuel Baptist Church and various stores and shops in Little Rock during that era.

In August of 1967, his play The Sunday Agreement premiered at LaMaMa.  This was Piazza’s first playwright output to be professionally staged.  In March 1969, a double bill of his one-acts: Lime Green/Khaki Blue opened at the Provincetown Playhouse.  It

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Piazza toured in many plays nationally and internationally. He also appeared in major regional theatres as an actor and a director.  As the 1970s progressed, he turned his focus to television and movies.

Piazza’s film debut had been in a 1959 Canadian film called The Dangerous Age. That same year, his Hollywood film debut came opposite Gary Cooper in The Hanging Tree.  Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in a number of TV shows including Studio One, Kraft Theatre, Zane Grey Theatre, The Naked City and Dick Powell Theatre.

In the 1970s and 1980s, his appearances included I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, The Bad News Bears, The Blues Brothers, and Mask.  On TV, he appeared in Dallas, Dynasty, Saint Elsewhere, Barnaby Miller, Moonlighting and Family Ties. 

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 2016, a meeting room in the new Robinson Conference Center was named in his memory.

Central to Creativity – Gail Davis

gail_davisGail Davis is best known as TV’s Annie Oakley.  She was born Betty Jeanne Grayson on October 5, 1925. Her mother was a homemaker and her father, W. B. Grayson, was a physician in McGehee (Desha County), which did not have a hospital, so her birth took place in Little Rock (Pulaski County).

When her father became the state health officer, the family moved from McGehee to Little Rock, where Grayson attended Little Rock High School. Grayson rode horses and was a tomboy growing up. Grayson also held various beauty titles in high school and college, and she sang and danced in local shows from the time she was eight.

While studying dramatics at the University of Texas in Austin, she married Robert Davis in 1945, with whom she had a daughter, Terrie (the couple divorced in 1952). After World War II, they moved to Hollywood, where she worked as a hatcheck girl until being discovered by an agent who obtained an MGM screen test for her. She was signed to a contract, with her first appearance in 1947’s The Romance of Rosy Ridge, starring Van Johnson.

She worked steadily in movies, including fourteen films with Gene Autry in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was impressed with her, changed her name to Gail Davis, and cast her as the star of the Annie Oakley TV show, which he produced. The show ran for eighty-one episodes from 1954 through 1956.

After her TV series ended, she appeared as Annie Oakley in the 1959 film Alias Jesse James starring Bob Hope. In that film, she appears in an uncredited role along with such other stars, also uncredited, as Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers, James Garner (as Bret Maverick), and Fess Parker (as Davy Crockett).

Her television appearances include guest roles on The Lone Ranger, The Gene Autry Show, The Cisco Kid, and Death Valley Days, as well as a 1961 episode of the Andy Griffith Show (Episode 37, “The Perfect Female”), her final appearance as a performer and in which she demonstrated her trademark sharpshooting.

Gail toured with Gene Autry’s Wild West show and made appearances as herself on TV programs such as Wide, Wide World: “The Western” (1958) with fellow Arkansan Ben Piazza. For her work in television, she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6385 Hollywood Boulevard, and in 2004, she was inducted posthumously into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Gail Davis died of cancer in Los Angeles on March 15, 1997, and is buried in Hollywood’s Forest Lawn cemetery.  In 2007, she was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Entertainer’s Hall of Fame.  In 2016, a room was named in her memory at the newly renovated Robinson Center.