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NEW YORK -- "This is simply the proudest night of my life," said Broadway stalwart, actor Brian Murray, at Monday's induction into the Theater Hall of Fame. "It's the most meaningful night in my life," said another inductee, Estelle Parsons, "except for performances."
That pride was general. The inductees also subscribed to another theme familiar on this annual occasion: that the theater is family.
"Thank you for inviting me into this community," said Parsons.
"I've been in theater since I was 7. I've lived with it, for it and from it," said the English-born Murray, who described himself as "the only child of only children" and said it was the American theater where he found his most congenial family.
The occasion sustains both sentiments. As they receive their medallions, each year's inductees face about 140 theater veterans, family, colleagues and friends gathered in the north rotunda of Broadway's Gershwin Theatre. On the walls above, inscribed in thick gold letters, are the names of more than 400 Hall of Fame members, many of whom had a long history of collaboration and friendship with inductees and audience members.
Now in its 34th year, the Hall annually accepts eight new members. Joining Murray and Parsons this year were actors Len Cariou and Sir Ian McKellen, playwright A.R. Gurney, designer Santo Loquasto, producer Elizabeth McCann and late actor/dancer Gregory Hines.
All living inductees were present but McKellen, who is currently performing on stage in London. The only other no-show was Broadway legend Julie Harris, who was to have inducted Parsons but was snowed in at her home on Cape Cod. That hardly surprised the largely elderly audience, already congratulating itself for having reached the Gershwin through the heaped snows of Manhattan.
Murray was inducted by mistress of ceremonies and ultimate Broadway insider Marian Seldes, who noted among his legion of credits, including 19 Broadway plays and even more off-Broadway, that in March he will play Prospero in "The Tempest" in Pittsburgh (at the Public Theater). Having co-starred with Murray in two Edward Albee plays, she said, "Brian shares himself with the playwright, whose words become his."
Murray, 67, remembered arriving 40 years ago in the United States, where he found "a commitment, a passion that I had not found before." In England, his attempts to get inside a role were met with, "Brian, let's just get on with it and get the curtain down and go have a drink," but here, he found, he was allowed to question.
Parsons, a lively 77 with the same humor and bright eyes memorable from "Miss Margarida's Way," 25 more Broadway shows, her Oscar-winning role in "Bonnie and Clyde" and nine seasons on "Roseanne," was pinch-inducted by press agent Richard Kornberg. He noted that she started out as a journalist for the "Today Show" and turned down an assignment to cover Grace Kelly's wedding because it would have taken her away from her children. Then, in her first Broadway show, "Happy Hunting," she played a journalist sent to cover Grace Kelly's wedding.
Parsons excused herself for having written her remarks. She used to speak extempore, she said, trusting to Jesus that the words would flow, but now, "I'm not sure Jesus and I have the same friends." Being from New England, she said, made it "embarrassing to speak about myself," but she expressed a deep affection for the theater: "Spending long days in windowless rooms with cameras can't begin to compare with the laughter and silence I've been able to provoke on stage."
In inducting Loquasto, Lynne Meadow, artistic director for more than 30 years of the Manhattan Theater Club, described him as "already a legend" as a third-year design student at Yale. He was "a da Vinci with a killer sense of humor," she said. "His imagination is boundless -- he climbs into the soul of a theater piece," creating, on a later occasion, the set for an opera out of "a schmatte and some cardboard." She quoted playwright John Patrick Shanley, who said Loquasto "has served as paramedic, plastic surgeon and priest to the new American play."
Meadow ended by saying how proud his mother would be, which threw Loquasto, 60, for a loop. Tearing up, he said she died this past summer and would have loved this occasion, with its implication that he is "sort of legitimate." Like other inductees, he pointed out how often he had worked with those sharing the evening and watching from the surrounding walls.
Play agent Gilbert Parker inducted Gurney, "a very serious playwright who is funny," his client for 25 years and friend for longer. He cited Gurney's 26 plays produced in New York and remembered two out of many phone calls. In one, Gurney remarked that he was "feeling pretty racy" that day: It turns out his wife's father had just married his mother, so he was now sleeping with his step-sister. In the other, they had just enjoyed a gala, high-profile London opening of "Love Letters" and awaked to a blizzard of bad reviews. "Are you ready for the flight home?" Parker asked. "Yes, the tumbril arrives at 9," Gurney quipped.
Gurney, 74, whom everyone calls Pete, said his sons call him "the Wade Boggs of the American theater." "I'm clueless" about baseball, he said, but he has familiarized himself with the career of the Red Sox-Yankees third baseman, also an inductee in a different Hall of Fame. He disavowed any parallel with Boggs' infamous infidelity, but he cited these parallels: Like Boggs, Gurney worked for years in Boston before moving to New York; he is known for steady production, not towering home runs; and he considers himself a team player. "I love getting on base," Gurney concluded.
Producer McCann was inducted by James L. Nederlander and Irma Oestreicher, son of James M. Nederlander (also present) and widow of Gerard Oestreicher, who together built the Gershwin and co-founded the Hall. Well-regarded for her support of serious drama ("Amadeus," "Copenhagen," "Three Tall Women"), McCann had started out in the Nederlander organization.
A vigorous, sometimes caustic veteran, McCann received one of the biggest ovations of the evening. "Yes, I'm probably the only inductee with plaster dust [of this building] on me," she said, remembering that when Nederlander told her the new theater (then named the Uris) was to contain a theater hall of fame, she thought it was a lousy idea.
"In this business," she admitted, "you have opinions and then try to remember something wasn't your idea, until it turns out to be a good idea and you remember that it was your idea in the first place," and now she thinks the Theater Hall of Fame is a good idea after all.
It fell to George C. Wolfe, outgoing artistic director of the New York Public Theater, to present Hines, who died in 2003 at 57. He met Hines when he was hired to stage "Jelly's Last Jam." Wolfe was a young director, and "Gregory had had an entire career on Broadway. We had a meeting, had a fight and decided not to work together." But eventually they did, and it was a "complicated, intense, raw collaboration. I was in charge [but soon] I realized I was being taught" by a man with "ferociousness of heart and unbelievable elegance of style."
Accepting for Hines was his son, Zach, who praised his father as a humanitarian as much as a performer. He learned from his father, he said, that "if children get the love they deserve, they won't turn out like some of the people we see on the news all the time."
Speaking for the absent McKellen was actress Kate Burton, daughter of Richard Burton and recently acclaimed in "Hedda Gabler." She told a few mildly irreverent stories. When she first acted with McKellen, she told him how as a girl she had paid half-price at the TKTS booth to sit at the top of the balcony to see his wonderful performance in "Amadeus," and he interrupted to say, "Oh, darling, we were never at TKTS." Then after the first read-through of "Wild Honey," he turned to her and said, "Darling, you're not going to play it that way, are you?" That was the play, she remembered, where one night a sick McKellen threw up on stage and declared himself feeling very much better.
"There is no one like Ian McKellen," she said. "We are so lucky to see him when we can."
The most touching moment of the night was the appearance of Elaine Orbach, widow of Jerry Orbach, who was to have emceed this year's ceremony but died last month. She had come in his place to induct his good friend and golfing buddy, Len Cariou, so she spoke in praise of "these two great guys" with "a mutual love of food, conversation and two great wives."
Cariou, 65, is known mainly for his big musicals, including "Applause," "Sweeney Todd" and "A Little Night Music." But the native of Canada has done the full range, including lots of Shakespeare. Looking at the audience and up at the wall, he gave tribute to "a lot of dear friends, and a lot of wonderful people no longer with us."
Four briefer inductions were performed by Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, chair of the Hall's veteran's committee, which occasionally redresses past oversights. Jenkins cited playwrights Rachel Crothers (1878-1958) and Susan Glaspell (1882-1948), showman Billy Rose (1899-1966) and luminous actress Diana Sands (1934-73), whose career was too short to meet the usual requirements.
Those basic requirements for the Hall include at least five major stage credits (not necessarily on Broadway) spread over at least 25 years. The electorate of some 400 includes the American Theatre Critics Association, selected theater historians and members of the Hall of Fame. The annual celebration is produced by Terry Hodge Taylor and culminates in a dinner at Sardi's, full of reminiscence and good cheer.
Post-Gazette drama editor Christopher Rawson is a member of the Theater Hall of Fame executive committee. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1666.