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An Actor's Life:
Richard Kiley:
Summer Stock to Broadway

The summer of 1947 I was kept pretty busy doing summer stock. I was hired one show at a time, usually in a play headlined by a Broadway or Hollywood star. The star did a few weeks in the summer and picked up a few thousand a week for it. We played the better theaters in the stock circuit and the pay was consummately better, about $125; that was for two weeks, one of which one was rehearsal (no pay for that), usually in a rented dance rehearsal room in New York City. The upscale stock theaters were where people had big country vacation houses. A lot of these theaters were as well laid out as anything on Broadway, and black tie was not uncommon for Monday opening nights. Among the gems was Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania, a theater where plays that were headed for Broadway would try out for a week or two, mostly to see what kind of re-write they’d need. There was also such a theater in Tuxedo Park, New York. That theater hired a star, often from Hollywood, to do a play of his or her choice, and cast the remainder of the ensemble from among New York actors.

Richard Kiley in a Scene From "Man of La Mancha"
Richard Kiley in a Scene From
"Man of La Mancha"

I had just finished playing one of the reporters in The Front Page at the theater on the Princeton Campus in New Jersey, known of course as the Princeton Playhouse. It was a huge barn of a place, which seated well over a thousand, so they needed a big star to draw business. Dane Clark, one of Warner Brothers’ biggest stars, had belonged to a couple of extra liberal associations. While a Washington hatchet committee of congressmen was investigating the red scare in Hollywood that summer for all the publicity they could squeeze out of it, the studio figured to get Clark out of town for a few months. So he did summer stock. Another actor who played one of the reporters in that production was a young fellow about my age named Richard Kiley. We were both just getting started, except that he was already married and had a couple of children.

I ran into Kiley standing in line at the Fifty-Two Twenty club one day that fall and asked what he was doing. "I’m studying voice," he said.

"Are you crazy?" I asked, "They’re not doing musicals anymore. When’s the last time you saw one in New York?"

(I mention this just so you can see how really smart I am.)

Kiley went on to star in pictures, to eventually have his own TV series, and to play the lead in many outstanding musicals in New York, including Man Of La Mancha, for which he won a Tony. So popular were both he and the show that he traveled in the road company with it. I had seen it on a short trip to New York and managed to buy a house seat (tickets reserved for certain actors in the cast) only because we were doing Combat! at the time and my name was sufficient to get me a seat. The show was sold out for a good two years in advance. There was no question that just as the part in, The King and I belonged to Yul Brynner, so did La Mancha belong to Kiley. Hollywood, in another of its great stupidities, cast Peter O’Toole in the lead for the film version. Though O’Toole is a superb actor, the part never was his. The movie flopped. 

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