Discovered by Hume Cronyn
Lindsey Taylor picked up three theater tickets for the December 3, 1949 Saturday matinee of the play Montserrat. It was the first play in which that wonderful actress Julie Harris had the lead and it made her a star.
Lindsey, Aria, and I took the Seventh Avenue bus to the theater. The closer we approached 45th street, where the theater was located, the more depressed I felt. When the bus came to the curb at our stop, I tried to wave the girls off, said I just couldnt walk into a theater. Lindsey pleaded with me until the driver called back to us, "Well, are youse gettin off or what?"
"Cmon," Lindsey said, "give it five minutes. If you cant stand it, then get up and leave. So I got off the bus with them. I had a frustration ball in the pit of my stomach about the weight of the Titanic.
Our seats in the theater were third row from the rear, in the orchestra on the aisle, and we were about ten minutes early for the first-act curtain. It did feel good to be in a theater again. I noticed Aria having a sort of whispered conversation with someone behind us, but I didnt pay any attention. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to face a man who was leaning over an entire row of seats, his face only a foot or so away from mine.
It was noted Broadway and film actor Hume Cronyn. "This lady says youre an actor," he said.
I guess I had that lean and hungry look. "Thats right," I answered.
"Im going to direct a play with Fredric March and Florence Eldridge and theres quite an important part in it. We had open casting at the Empire theater and so many actors turned out for it we had to call for a police cordon. But I didnt see you there."
What was I going to tell him, that Id probably been back in the factory? I said, "I guess I must have been out of town."
"Well, heres my card. My office is in the Charles Nichols suite on 42nd Street. Id like you to come by today."
At moments like that, I rush in the opposite direction the Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass syndrome.
"Id like to see the play, if you dont mind," I said.
"Certainly," he answered. "My office isnt too far away and Ill be there til six."
At the end of the first scene, when the house lights dimmed up for a few moments, I turned back, but Cronyn was nowhere in sight. Later, I discovered that hed come to look over a new young actor who had a small part in the first scene. That young man has since become a most respected character actor in films and television. His name: Henry Silva.
At the final curtain, I bid the girls adieu and walked the few blocks to 42nd Street and was warmly welcomed by Mr. Cronyn. He took my coat, sat me down, and proceeded to act out the entire play. Then he pressed a script in my hands, noting that two scenes had been tagged, and asked me to be at the Beaux Arts Apartments (a fancy address on the East side) Monday at three oclock. His secretary would read Miss Eldridges lines and his stage manager would also be in attendance.
I studied my part for the rest of the weekend. It was that of a half-wild Ecuadorean Indian. He was manservant to General Leonidas Erosa (played by Fredric March), an eccentric, epileptic, millionaire who traveled the world in his private yacht with an entourage of characters. Among them was a governess (Florence Eldridge) who carted her coffin around with her so shed be prepared for the fateful day. General Erosa needed his devoted Indian servant, Anselmo (me) always nearby so that when the general had a seizure, Anselmo could prevent him from injuring himself. As the General would feel an attack coming on, hed begin to say his prayers. The play was titled Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. It had been adapted from a book by Ludwig Bemelmans.
I showed up on time for the reading Monday. At the third line, Cronyn said, "All right, lets go to the next scene." I could feel my heart sinking, but I found the right page and began to read. I got two lines out of my mouth and Cronyn said, "Thats enough."
I thought to myself, Well, back to the salt mines.
"Do you have an agent?" he asked. A lady who had been kinder to me than most agents popped into my head and I mentioned her name. "I know her," said the stage manager.
"Rehearsals begin December 28th at 10:00 a.m., Broadhurst Theater," Cronyn announced.
"Heres my number," the stage manager said as he handed me a slip of paper. I said thank you.
Cronyn held out his hand and said, "Welcome aboard." Cool as a cucumber, I took the bus back to the apartment where I called my new agent. She told me theyd already telephoned and that I was signed to the play at a hundred-and-twenty-five dollars a week. That was Equity scale at that time for Broadway, less five per cent commission.
I sat at my bar and had a martini with Lindsey. The girls seemed much more excited than I. I must have been in some kind of culture shock. Everything seemed preposterous; unbelievable; impossible! Four-and-a-half years of struggling, and out of the most improbable situation, along comes this man in a golden chariot and says, "Youre it!" Wonderfully ridiculous!
I mixed another martini.