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A charming memoir by a 76-year-old actor who began his career alongside Claude Rains in Darkness at Noon, worked as a talent agent for 22 years and eventually returned to the stage and screen.
The book is as appealingly self-deprecating as its title. Seff captions an early photo of himself, “the young actor, 20, vacuous,” and finishes a story about touring a play for the USO during World War II by writing “it’s a miracle that we won the war anyway.” Never a star, Seff was a sensitive and witty observer of the people around him, from Chita Rivera and Bob Fosse to Martin Scorsese. (In Taxi Driver, Seff played one of Travis Bickle’s customers, but writes that he never really met Robert De Niro: “It is clear that when he’s into a character, he is INTO him, and no polite ‘hellos’ are going to interfere.”) Colorful but never gossipy, the book is also a trove of theater trivia—for example, the story of how Rex Harrison influenced the title of My Fair Lady, by bellowing “It cannot say REX HARRISON in Lady Liza on a marquee!” Following the arc of his life, Seff describes changes in the acting industry, from the emergence of tel evision and the domination of Hollywood to the popularization of method acting. More touching are the author’s sincere stories about his personal life, from growing up as a Brooklyn kid who saved his nickels to go to the movies to how he became a mature gay actor. His sentimental education, introduction to New York’s gay society and reminisces about his loves are sweet, refreshing intermissions between chapters about his professional life as an actor and agent.
A warm, detailed memoir that is a record of the author’s truest love — the theater.
Review and PodCast
I met Richard Seff on Wednesday, May 2, 2007, outside the Biltmore Theatre, before the matinee of Love Musik. We schmoozed about the show and theatre in general, and there was something about his gentle manner that made me want to podcast him. Here was a legend of NYC theatre who had just written his memoir - and he was trying to sell the book to me and everyone around him. We talked about meeting at a later date for an interview on my next trip. After the show, Richard told me that he wasn’t too impressed with Love Musik . I knew then that I had to get this man to sit down and tell me his story.
We exchanged emails and on Sunday, July 8, 2007 at 6:15 PM, I recorded these two fascinating podcasts with this wonderful man at his lovely Upper Eastside penthouse. I hope you enjoy them.
Who is this man who wrote this memoir called -Supporting Player: My Life Upon The Wicked Stage? And how wicked was and is the theatre?
Richard Seff’s professional debut was in 1946 and he last performed on the stage in 2006. After a long run on Broadway starring in the prize winning Darkness At Noon with Claude Rains (who won the Tony for Best Actor in a Play for his performance), and then touring around the country with the show with Edward G. Robinson, Mr. Seff became a theatrical agent, representing numerous artists in musical theatre.
Richard left the talent agency in 1974 and returned to the stage. In the 30 years since, he’s appeared in 25 plays and won the Carbonell Award for ‘Best Supporting Actor’ for his performance in Angels Fall. He’s been in 7 feature films, where he has acted with Jason Robards, Ralph Fiennes, Christine Lahti, Christopher Reeve, Richard Thomas, William Hurt, Judd Hirsch, Linda Hunt, and James Woods.
He has also appeared in over 50 television series, soap operas, TV films and mini-series. He is the author of the Broadway play Paris Is Out!. The musical Shine! for which he wrote the book, won a National Music Theatre Network Award in 2001 and has been published by Samuel French, Inc. and recorded by Original Cast Records.
In the first of our two part discussion. Richard talks about his life as an actor from his first stint on the stage, to Broadway, to touring around the country, to being the theatrical agent to Kander and Ebb and Chita Rivera, to becoming a supporting player in film and televison and then his return to the NYC stage. It’s one helluva story! Listen here. (Run time: 16:12)
Our conversation then continued to the state of musical theatre today. You won’t want to miss this one! Listen here. (Run time: 10:50)
I love this book and think you may too.
For a synopsis of the interview and Podcasts of the recent interviews with Richard Seff:
Often, when seasoned actors are asked for their best advice to newcomers, they'll say something like, "If you don't want an acting career more than anything else in life, don't waste your time pursuing one." In a sense, Richard Seff's autobiography, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, challenges that prevailing wisdom.
As a young man, Seff had a promising stage career under way. He appeared on Broadway (with Claude Rains) and later toured (with Edward G. Robinson) in the 1950 adaptation of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. But Seff, a self-professed "nester," soon became convinced that the vagaries of the actor's life weren't for him—at least at the time. He detoured into a successful, two-decade stint as a New York theatrical agent and sometime playwright, only to return to the boards with measured success in the mid-1970s. Seff's story underscores the idea that there's no single road to becoming a working actor—that there's even, perhaps, a path for those with some misgivings.
Seff proves to be a highly talented storyteller (not a surprise, as one of his plays, Paris Is Out!, made it to Broadway in 1970). The book follows Seff—born Richard Siff—through his Brooklyn childhood, his first career triumphs and disappointments, his dizzying (literally) time on the road with Darkness, his jaunt with My Fair Lady during its out-of-town tryouts, and his run-ins with big boss Lew Wasserman during his agenting days with MCA.
It's in the last portion of the book, though—when Seff begins reassembling his acting career—that you really pull for him. And you flinch at every setback as he struggles for years to get the musical Shine!, for which he wrote the libretto, a fair theatrical hearing.
Seff spares few details. He tells us, to the dollar, how he fared on his investments in plays and musicals and how much he made from his various film and TV residuals. He also chronicles with candor some backstage squabbles and personal fallings-out. And the early chapters present a surprisingly upbeat look at what it was like to be young, gay, and working in theatre in pre-Stonewall Manhattan.
Supporting Player is entertaining and frequently absorbing: a highly recommended read.
WITHDRAWALS FROM THE MEMORY BANK
"If Sidney likes you that’s good enough for me. Welcome young man, to Lubyanka Prison."
The speaker was Claude Rains. Sidney was the playwright Sidney Kingsley. Lubyanka Prison was the setting for the Broadway smash Darkness at Noon. And the young man was Richard Seff, a nervous novice who had just been hired for his first Broadway role.
In Supporting Player, Seff’s smart and richly detailed memoir, the author treats that incident—and most of the other breaks that occurred in his long professional life—as a matter of luck. Such modesty is rare in show business, but it cannot hide the insight of composer Hector Berlioz: “The luck of having talent is not enough; one must also have a talent for luck.”
Seff’s amalgam of luck and talent began in Brooklyn some seven decades ago, when he was taken to a comedy on the Great White Way and fell instantly and permanently in love with the legitimate theater. As a youth he studied with Stella Adler, who correctly pronounced him “an artist.” As he notes, he was not the leading man type. Then again, he didn’t need to be. The man’s versatility soon made him a sought-after character actor. No role seemed out of his reach: he was, for example, Shamraev in The Sea Gull, a Catholic priest in Angels Fall, the Jewish Baron de Hirsch in Herzl, and Colonel Pickering in a road company of My Fair Lady.
In the late 1950’s Seff added another paragraph to his resume when he switched from onstage to backstage. As an agent, he had the “luck” to represent newcomers like Robert Redford, Elizabeth Ashley, Chita Rivera, song writers Fred Ebb and John Kander (Cabaret), Clark Gesner (Charlie Brown) and choreographer Ron Field. And he has memorable stories about all of them—and a lot of other luminaries.
But all along the actor/agent had something else in mind. He liked writing plays and he hated wearing suits and ties and white shirts. He and his partners sold their agency to CMA, and in 1974 Variety ran a headline: SEFF QUITS CMA FOR AUTHORSHIP. No longer a ten percenter, he dressed as he pleased, and wrote what he liked. His best scripts attracted top performers like Alan Alda, though none of them became smash hits. No matter; as the memoirist reports, “I wouldn’t have missed a thing.”
A trip through this incident-filled history shows why. For even when the plays didn’t pan out (and one, Shine, a musical based on Horatio Alger stories, is being considered for a 2008 production) he continued to find work as an actor in films (Quiz Show; The Hours), off Broadway (The Countess) and television (Law and Order.) Yet all this was not enough. Seff was familiar with the theater’s most enduring irony: character actors are absolutely vital and criminally undervalued. For years, thespians have bitched in the wings about the situation. He decided to do something about it.
And thus in 2004 Richard Seff funded an award to be given in his name. The only people eligible are character actors, male and female. They must be at least fifty years old and they must have devoted twenty-five years or more to their profession. (Winners include Tom Aldredge, Dana Ivey, Margo Martingale and Jim Dale.) It is typical of the donor’s self-deprecation that although the award bears his name he does not serve on the judging committee.
And it is typical of the memorist that his book avoids cheap gossip and instead illuminates its pages with revealing and witty notes about everyone of consequence in the theater from Ethel Merman and Rosalind Russell to Jason Robards and Judd Hirsch. If Broadway is the legendary Fabulous Invalid, Richard Seff is the doctor who makes house calls, and jolts it back to life with an irresistible bedside manner.
Volume XV • Number 5
SEFF SERVING: Annually, Actor’s Equity gives out an award in the name of Richard Seff to the man and woman who deliver the season’s outstanding character/featured performances. Seff knows the value of making the star of the show look good and has been doing just that most of his life—longtime Drama League members may remember him fondly as the first author of this very column. Now a septuagenarian, he has taken time to reflect on where he has been—with Rex Harrison, Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, Christopher Reeve, Julie Andrews, Jason Robards, Chita Rivera, Bob Fosse, Kander and Ebb, et al—and write it down for Xlibris, who just published his jottings under the jaunty and not inexact title of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage. It is a lively, lovely read—
"Supporting Player" Memoir Shows Theatre From Agent/Actor/Writer's View
Richard Seff, an industry veteran who has been an actor, playwright and agent, has penned a memoir about his life and work, "Supporting Player: My Life Upon The Wicked Stage," published through Xlibris.
His brushes with Kander and Ebb, Harold Prince, Chita Rivera, Ethel Merman, Rex Harrison, Rosalind Russell and many more players from the Golden Age of Broadway are chronicled in the book, on sale now at www.Xlibris.com.
Seff, now a septuagenarian character actor, started out acting and then played talent agent to major stars and writers for 21 years (1953-1974).
"I thought I'd test the waters on the other side of the footlights," he writes on his website, www.richardseff.com. "I tested — for 21 years! Then, at the peak of my agency career, tired of my blue suit and tie, I exchanged them for the less formal togs of playwright, librettist and actor once again. I haven't worn a suit since, except in character in a play or movie."
(The book's title refers to the support he has given as a featured actor, agent and other production roles — including librettist and playwright.)
During his silver-haired years, he wrote the Broadway play, Paris Is Out! and the libretto for the award-winning musical Shine!, inspired by Horatio Alger stories (score by Roger Anderson, lyrics by Lee Goldsmith). Both shows are published and licensable.
In recent years, Seff endowed an Actors' Equity-administered award in his name, recognizing outstanding character/featured performers who have devoted at least 25 years to their profession (Jayne Houdyshell and Tom Aldredge are among recipients). The annual award is for work on New York City stages.
In "Supporting Player," Seff "brings you a star-filled odyssey through the golden age of Broadway, told from his point of view: that of one of those supporting players," according to the announcement. "The entertaining and informative memoir follows Seff's professional life, as actor, agent, playwright, librettist and production associate. …He tells of some backstage shenanigans, some of them behind closed doors. Richard has worked with many stars, and he cites examples of how stardom is achieved and handled. Discover what goes on backstage, in the wings, and behind closed doors. Learn about theatre investing in the Golden Age, when one could buy a piece of a show in the intermission on opening night."
Seff's 'Wicked Stage' Memoir to Be Released this Month
Supporting Player: My Life Upon The Wicked Stage by Richard Seff will be released this month.
"For a stage production to be staged successfully, every player must be present; the lead actors, stage crew, technicians, and all the supporting players. Richard Seff brings you a behind the scenes, star-filled odyssey through the golden age of Broadway, told from his point of view--that of one of the supporting players," as press materials describe the book.
"The memoir follows Richard Seff's professional life, as actor / agent / playwright / librettist / production associate. Supporting Player: My Life Upon The Wicked Stage is filled with amusing tales of professional moments in the lives of Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, Chita Rivera, Kander and Ebb, Rosalind Russell, Bob Fosse and many others. He has acted in film or on stage with Jason Robards, Ralph Fiennes, Christine Lahti, Christopher Reeve, Richard Thomas, William Hurt, Judd Hirsch, Linda Hunt, James Woods and many others. In his memoir, he tells of some backstage shenanigans that went on behind closed doors, and he cites examples of how stardom is achieved and handled."
Seff has worked in the theatre all of his life. He first acted professionally in 1946 and his last engagement onstage was in 2006. He took a 22 year leave of absence from the stage, after a long run on Broadway in support of Claude Rains and on tour with Edward G. Robinson in the prize winning Darkness At Noon. During those two decades plus he represented numerous artists in musical theatre. He left the talent agency in 1974 to return to the stage. In the 30 years that have followed, he's appeared in 25 plays and won the Carbonell Award for 'Best Supporting Actor' for his performance in Angels Fall. He's been in 7 feature films and over 50 television series, soap operas, TV films and mini-series. He is the author of the Broadway play Paris Is Out!. The musical Shine! for which he wrote the book, won a National Music Theatre Network Award in 2001 and has been published by Samuel French, Inc. and recorded by Original Cast Records. For more information visit www.RichardSeff.com.
The new book can now be purchased by contacting Xlibris at (888) 795-4274 or on the web at www.Xlibris.com. Later this month, it will also be available at major bookstores, or online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders.