Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Voice, and Words, to Remember

My father, the actor Lionel Stander, would have been 109 years old yesterday. Though he died in 1994, his indelible presence and words live on.

In mid-October I was contacted by Scott Dawson, who was going to play my dad in a staged reading of the Eric Bentley play, "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?" in Ithaca on November 6. Mr. Dawson wrote in an email, "The timing of the reading is especially important, given the political climate we find ourselves in. I am honored to have been cast to read Lionel’s testimony before HUAC, and as such have been trying to learn as much as I can about him."

Along with photos of Dad testifying at HUAC in 1953, I sent Scott these tips on how to play him: "Beyond the voice, there was my father’s larger-than-life presence. He never just walked into a room, he ENTERED it. Leading with his massive chest, he strode in and OWNED that room, and was the center of attention. Always. (Note his entrance in 'A Star Is Born.')" [Complete movie is here; Dad's first scene is at 44:43.]

I was disappointed that travel plans precluded my attending the reading; according to Mr. Dawson it went very well. Two days later (on my birthday...ugh), Donald Trump was elected president. Now some of my father's words ring out more loudly than ever.

 From his 1953 HUAC testimony:
"I know of a group of fanatics who are desperately trying to undermine the Constitution of the United States by depriving artists and others of life, liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness without due process of law ... I can tell names and cite instances and I am one of the first victims of it. And if you are interested in that and also a group of ex-fascists and America-Firsters and anti-Semites, people who hate everybody including Negroes, minority groups and most likely themselves ... and these people are engaged in a conspiracy outside all the legal processes to undermine the very fundamental American concepts upon which our entire system of democracy exists."
From a 1993 interview in the book TENDER COMRADES: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist by Patrick McGilligan & Paul Buhle:
"Right-wingers, unfortunately, are never in the closet. They're all out night and day campaigning, making noise, joining moral majorities and moral rearmaments. They're actually an immoral minority, but they're always out there. The left should only be so active."

Mike Kellin, who played my father in a 1979 production of Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? (with Liza Minnelli in a cameo as Lillian Hellman), nailed his voice and mannerisms. However, the costume, coif and beard (!) were all wrong. I went to a performance; Dad was horrified when I told him his character wore a garish plaid sports jacket. The lengthy scene, which starts at 1:12:19, is electric, funny and ominous.