June 2013

"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.