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BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: The Playwright and the Actor

Doug Richardson takes you back to an opening night. Who is more formidable, the playwright or the actor?

Doug Richardson's first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder.Visit Doug's site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.

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If there ever was a post where I wanted to name names, it is this one. Only I shouldn’t because I’m repeating a story told to me by another. Though, despite the serious drinking that went along with the telling, I have no doubt whatsoever of the tale’s absolute veracity, being that there were plenty of witnesses to corroborate.

It happened around award season. The story that is. I remember it each time the biz begins to slog down a bit as show folk begin their annual fretting over who, deserving or otherwise, should be prepping his or her acceptance speech. In my opinion, this tale tops them all.


I was regaled with the whole ugly affair while tripping around the Windy City with one of its most revered thespians. I’d flown in to support a theater production he’d just directed. After the opening night performance, a tidy group of us retired to a restaurant where my actor pal had a standing reservation.

“I’m superstitious, man,” said my actor pal. “After every opening night, I have to host a dinner right here. This restaurant. This table. It’s a must.”

“Do you eat the same meal?” I asked.

“No,” he laughed. “But maybe I should! And I still get just as drunk!”

“Everybody gets drunk,” his manager chimed in.

And so the celebrating began. As did the copious consumption of all things alcoholic. The restaurant had a historic feel. The private table was upstairs in a loft elevated apart from the main dining room. For our group, the staff had set up a single family-style table. Twenty feet long and replete with high-backed chairs fit for fourteen or so medieval guests. At one end, holding hysterical court, was my actor pal. The laughs shared were epic.

At my end of the table, the conversation stumbled onto the subject of the Academy Awards. My host guffawed, as did his manager and his long time girlfriend. And then I felt it. You know that panging? Being on the outside of someone else’s inside joke.

“What?” I asked. “Come on. Tell it.”

And so they did. Or he did, his Chi-Town compadres adding their own eyeball embellishments.

“Well, it was a couple of shows back,” said my actor pal. “Just after the Oscars, in fact.”

My host went on to describe his guests that past opening night—same restaurant, same table. Aside from some of the play’s cast and producers, there was a celebrated playwright and his ever-so-polite-yet-equally-lauded wife, a world famous actress. Opposite my actor pal, holding his own at the other end of the table—but not quite holding his liquor—the award season’s most recently decorated star. The Academy Award winning Master Thespian.

“So lemme paint the picture,” recalled my host. “I’m here, doing what I always do after the show. Getting shitfaced and talkin’ shit–“

“Like you’re doing right now,” I said.

“Exactly like I’m doing right now,” he continued. “Down there, at the end there, is (Master Thespian) himself. Fresh off his Oscar acceptance speech. Drunk off his ass. And blathering on and on and on about—wait for it—acting.”

“Acting?” I jokingly repeated.

“No,” said my host. “Not acting. But ACT-IIINNGGGG.”

My actor pal elevated his arms and dramatically bottomed out his voice while, at the same time, booming the words like that old, theatrical cliché.

“Generally being an ass,” I concluded.

“Horse’s ass of historic proportion,” added the manager.

“Seriously,” said my pal. “The balls on the guy. It’s opening night. My opening night. Some of the cast from the show is sitting down there. Brilliant damn actors all. And (Master Thespian) is just going on and on about his Oscar and serious acting blah blah blah. And so drunk, I might add. Embarrassing.”

“He was so rude,” said the manager.

“And he’s my guest!” added my host. “I’m the one who should be embarrassed. I invited him and he’s being loud and obnoxious and a goddamn bore.”

The story went on. And this is almost the best part. Seated in the middle of the table was that celebrated playwright and his brilliant, statuesque wife. He was rather inebriated himself. But hardly speaking. In fact, he was saying nothing at all while feeling bedeviled by Master Thespian’s endless speechifying on all subjects involving art and theater and the infinite mysteries of the spoken word.

“So the guy’s wife,” said my host, “And, you know who she is. She’s famous and one of most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen and all she can do is quietly whisper to her husband, ‘It’s okay honey. Ignore him. He’s just a drunk.’”

But the playwright was burning. As if every syllable that escaped from the drunken Master Thespian’s unstoppable maw was a hot knife sunk that much deeper into the writer’s soul.

“You can see her,” continued my host. “She’s begging him now. ‘It’s time go, sweetie. Let’s just get up and go back to the hotel. Let him sleep it off. He's not worth it.’”

“So she talks him into leaving,” cues the manager.

“Right,” said my host. “They stand up. Or she gets up and she helps her husband up. They thank me for the dinner. Congratulate me on the show. And it’s goodnight to all.”

The stairs providing the only egress from the lofted dining area were at the opposite end of the table. This required that the most recognizable married couple exit inches to the right of Master Thespian, still at it with his most pompous of pontifications. As the actress-slash-wife-slash-voice-of-reason tugged on her husband’s arm, he stood at Master Thespian’s side, patiently waiting to be recognized.

“Swear to Jesus this must’ve taken a full minute,” said my actor pal. “She’s pulling on his arm. He’s not moving. Just standing there waiting for the sonofabitch to finish his neverending thought. So finally he does, right? And he’s now sittin’ there, in a chair just like the one I’m sittin’ in now, lookin’ up at (the playwright).”

“And?” I ask.

Master Thespian looked up at the celebrated playwright, shrugs, and says, “What?” To which the genius scribbler balled his fist and, in a downward stroke, hammered it right into Master Thespian’s sloppy face. The medieval chair tilted backward and crashed to the floor, Master Thespian flailing his arms during the entire ignominious ride.

“’Shut. The. Fuck. Up!’” bellowed the playwright.

The actress pulled once more and, at last, her satisfied husband obeyed. They left the restaurant without further incident.

Upon hearing this, I’m both gobsmacked and trying like hell not to raise the roof with the volume of my laughter.

The story ended with Master Actor righting himself in the chair, then silently brooding for awhile as he attempted to retard the swelling by rolling a glass of ice water across his cheek.

“Best night ever!” concluded my host.

“Oh man,” I said. “If only I could’ve been there.”

If only.

Since the memorable night I was told the tale, that celebrated playwright has been one of my all time heroes. And I’ve continued to admire his faithful and supportive wife as she racks up one great performance after the next. How many times have I— or I’m sure many of you—fantasized that the moment and situation would present itself in such a perfect storm where we could get away with a similar, old-fashioned, argument-ending, fist of righteous fury?

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