A SPECIAL THANK YOU
I was driving home on the New Jersey Turnpike not long ago, listening to WBGO Jazz 88, allowing my mind to wander a bit, when the news came on. I braced myself for another onslaught of Bernie-Biden-Trump-Coronavirus, when a headline was read that caused me to literally shout out loud, "oh, NO!!" I was listening to the announcer say that James Lipton had died after a long illness. He was 93. Jim was known to most people as the host of,"Live, from the Actor's Studio," a show he developed out of the acting classes he taught at the New School. Less known was his skill as a writer and poet, or his command of multiple languages, something I learned when I caught him quite by accident on a late night show broadcast from Paris, on Canal Plus. There he was, speaking perfect French, no interpreter, no dubbing, just Jim sitting there with the other guests, laughing and joking with the Gallic version of Johnny Carson. He was as much at home as he might have been in his own living room or as host of his own TV show. I remember smiling in admiration, thinking to myself, "There goes Jim again, full of surprises." And that's one measure of the man: Jim could surprise you. He could always find a way to surprise you because he had so many interests, so many ideas, so many directions he wanted to travel. He certainly appeared in my life out of nowhere, that's for sure.
I'd written a play, then titled, THE LAST STREET PLAY, and Lynne Meadow produced it in a showcase run at the original Manhattan Theater Club, when it was on East 71st, near First Avenue. The play garnered powerful reviews from Mel Gussow in the New York Times and Martin Gottfried(a playwright himself) in the old New York Post (this was back in 1977). There was a very strong possibility that Joe Papp would pick up the play and run it at the Public, but at the last minute, Joe decided not to pick up the play. We'd been led to believe that Joe was interested, but that proved not to be the case. We were devastated. I don't even remember if any of us spoke a word from the time we left Joe's office in the West Village to our arrival back at the MTC on the Upper East Side.
There were a few performances left in the run before the play closed for good, so we just sucked it up and pressed on, determined to give final weekend's audiences their money's worth, end the show on a high note and get on with our lives.
That night, as I left the theatre after the show, I was stopped by a man of medium build, trim with dark swept back hair, a moustache and a van dyke beard adorning a face centered by the most earnest pair of eyes zeroing in on me with laser-like focus. "Are you Richard Wesley?... My name is James Lipton. I think you have written a most extraordinary play. I think it belongs on Broadway, and if you permit me, I want to be the producer to take it there." Those may not be the exact words, but believe me, they are in the ballpark.
James did take the play to Broadway. A big chunk of the money he secured came from Madison Square Garden Productions. That was why he was able to introduce me to the then top executive at MSG, Sonny Werblin, the man who brought Joe Namath to the New York Jets. I met another sports legend, Joe DiMaggio, thanks to Jim, as well as actress Shirley McLaine, who wagged a finger at me and said, "WRITE ROLES FOR WOMEN, and as she walked away, added, "OLDER women."
As we prepared for rehearsals, Jim asked me if there were any rewrites or adjustments I wanted to make to the script. I mentioned a few, and he had me and Hal Scott, the director, drive out to his place in the Hamptons that summer and do the work there. While there he took us to one of those summer parties that the rich and famous are wont to have. He'd been invited to the home of Steve Ross, founder of the Time Warner Empire. When he introduced me to Ross, I was surprised to learn that Ross knew who I was. He took me by the arm, pointed at me with his other hand and shouted out to some friends nearby, "Hey! This kid made me a lot of money." Ross may not have known much about my play, but he knew the two screenplays I'd written for his Warner Brothers Studio, "Uptown Saturday Night," and "Let's Do It Again," both of which had been substantial box office successes.
Thanks to Jim, I sat in rooms with songwriters and theatre artists such as, Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and through them gained an understanding of the theater business and entertainment industry far beyond anything I'd ever learned before.
"The Last Street Play" became, "THE MIGHTY GENTS," and opened on Broadway at the Ambassador Theater. The reviews were nice, but not spectacular. Starletta DuPois and Morgan Freeman, two of the cast members were nominated for Tonys at the end of the season, but unfortunately the play only ran for ten days, which probably hurt their chances of winning. We all went on to other things with our careers, but that whirlwind four months of shaking hands with celebrities and shakers and movers, of rewrites, rehearsals, previews and performance opened my eyes to a world of possibilities I had never considered and raised my consciousness about the true meaning of developing and nurturing a professional career.
We went our separate ways after that and ultimately lost touch with each other, except for the exchange of Christmas cards every year. I'd always hoped we'd get back together on something, but it never happened. Nevertheless, my memories of him remain strong and happy. Rest in Peace, James. And Thank You. I will keep you in my heart, always.