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Shakespeare and Sazarac

At the end of the season, I realized that I’d learned more during my ten weeks in summer stock just watching the old pros rehearse, and studying them from the wings, than the entire year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I’d learned a great deal of the basics at school, without which I wouldn’t have understood a lot of what I observed in stock. I already had that most difficult thing to come by: my Actors Equity card. The trick in getting one was that you had to have a part in a play. If you didn’t have your union card, it was impossible to even get an audition, since you weren’t considered a professional actor. It was, and still is, a catch-22.

With a season of stock under my belt and my Actors Equity card in hand, I decided not to go back to school, even though I’d been invited for the final term. I already considered myself a professional actor.

But it was easier considered than actually done.

I continued to study with one of my former teachers at the Academy, Eddy Goodman, a scholar of Shakespeare. He’d directed on Broadway some years before. He was on staff at the Academy where he taught Rehearsal class. He was an excellent teacher and, aside from one or two others, I learned more from him than anyone else.

Twice a week, I went to Eddy’s apartment on Central Park West, a cavernous place with high ceilings and marble fireplaces, where he and his wife had resided for decades. He was a little man with a gigantic head, a bushy, yet well-trimmed, mustache. When he was outdoors, he always carried a walking stick and wore a fedora slightly tilted, with the brim snapped down at the right side of his head. The whole picture gave a very theatrical effect.

This Shakespearean scholar was able to quote from any of the thirty-seven plays and sonnets. That’s the subject we studied. We spent three months on Shakespeare's Hamlet, another three on Macbeth. At each session, as we settled into our respective chairs, his wife brought him a large glass, it was more the size of a double old-fashioned, of what I assumed was iced tea. He sipped from it as we read scenes, then delineated, pulling the scenes apart and discussing them from every angle, every approach, then reread, and on and on, until I could get beneath the language, the poetry, the tempo and into the flesh of each and every character.

Close to a year after I began studying with him, when, after the lesson, we’d chat about theater and related subjects, he asked one late afternoon, as he held up his half empty glass, "Would you care for one?"

My throat was parched and the thought of a good glass of iced tea was appealing. I said, "Yes, I would, thank you."

He tinkled a little bell on the table at his side and when his wife appeared, asked her to "please get Rick one of these."

She returned with two glasses. I picked up my glass with gusto and took a great swallow. It was smooth as velvet, but it wasn’t iced tea. I held the glass out and looked at it. "Good God, what is this?"

Eddy chuckled, "What did you think it was?" he asked.

"Iced tea."

He threw his head back and bellowed. A large laugh from such a diminutive man. "It’s a sazarac," he said.

"Delicious!" I exclaimed, and took a sip, "what’s a sazarac?"

"A bourbon libation invented in New Orleans in the days when absinthe was still legal; now we use Pernod as a substitute. This recipe is 125 years old, and I’ll be happy to give it to you. There’s only one ingredient you may have trouble finding, also made only in New Orleans: Peychaud bitters. However, there’s a liquor store here in New York where I buy mine."

He reached for a pad and paper and wrote down the recipe, which I still have, and which seldom fails to delight whoever tastes a sazarac for the first time. If you visit New Orleans, your time there will not be complete until you taste an authentic New Orleans Sazarac (every bar makes them). You will find the recipe at the end of this tome.

I studied with him for a little over a year. Needless to say, I’ve never been offered, nor cast, in a Shakesperean role. But I’ve also taught horseback riding and my entire film career consisted of just one western and three outings in television where I rode a horse. Go figure.

By the time Eddy finished with me, I could read and understand iambic pentameter (the poetic meter of Shakespeare) and I was able to speak it and make an audience understand what it was that I was saying. Eddy Goodman eventually became head of the Academy, but that was some years later.

The downside of my training with Eddy is that I have walked out of many performances of Shakespeare when I couldn’t take anymore of the hash so many of the players have made of it. They haven’t learned the basics, and after half an act it begins to grate.

During the 1960s, when we were making Combat!, I attended a performance of Hamlet at the Pasadena Playhouse. The title role was being carried by a well-known actor (who’s still alive, so he shall remain nameless) who was then starring in a successful TV series. My date and I sat in the front row. I watched his performance almost awestruck. I could hardly believe what was happening before me. I think my mouth fell open when this wooden ham — and that’s the only way I can describe him — got to the soliloquy that begins, "To be or not to be, that is the question," a phrase every school child is familiar with. He had obviously heard of iambic pentameter, but had no idea what it was. I watched him counting under his breath; even in my vantage seat I could hear it: "To be (one, two) or not to be (three, four), that is the question (one, two, three, four)."

We left the theater immediately afterward the soliloquy.

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