We don’t often get the chance to think about Carol Channing and Eugene O’Neill’s father in the same space. But here we are, pondering actors who famously made their careers with massively popular star vehicles.
Channing, as even Bette Midler fans must know, was the first Dolly Gallagher Levi when Jerry Herman’s “Hello, Dolly!” opened on Broadway in 1964. And, though personalities as diverse as Phyllis Diller and Pearl Bailey have put on the red sparkly gown and enjoyed having male choruses claiming they were back where they belonged, Channing is the icon, the definition of trouper, the Dolly female impersonators dress up to be — at least until Midler just entered the pantheon.
A less happy tale of character continuity is the tragedy of James O’Neill, the Irish-born American actor with serious ambitions who got rich and swashbuckling-famous as “The Count of Monte Cristo” and was never able to pry himself out of the money trap.
Perhaps even worse, his irritating son, Eugene, had to go and immortalize the man’s bitter miserliness, vain insecurities and the damage inflicted on his family in a masterpiece, “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” According to the definitive O’Neill biography by Arthur and Barbara Gelb, the actor first took on the role when he looked smashing in “tight velvet breeches and closefitting doublet,” but got stuck touring the country in them for more than 25 years.
Although Channing is believed to hold the endurance record for doing more than 5,000 Dolly performances in New York and on the road, the Gelbs have her bested by O’Neill’s 6,000 times. Of course, from everything we know, Channing has never resented her bubbly doppelgänger, while that darn Count apparently ruined his career.
Actors generally don’t stick around a particular character long enough to be bound together in the public mind. As I wrote in my review of the 1995 “Dolly” revival, the theater doesn’t have creatures like this anymore, stars with oversized personalities who like to tour, who so embody the old greasepaint mythologies that we feel almost forced to buy into them, at least for a few hours.
These days, actors tend not to tour the country for weeks, much less years. In fact, most of the highest-profile, star-driven Broadway shows only sign up for limited runs, 14 weeks or, in the case of the magnificent revival of “Sunday in the Park with George” starring Jake Gyllenhaal, a mere 10.
Compare that with Anthony Quinn, so proud of his identification as Zorba, the life-loving Greek. Even though he didn’t create the role in 1968 (Herschel Bernardi was the original), Quinn predated the show in the 1964 movie. When the musical, called simply “Zorba,” was revived in 1983, Quinn signed on to Broadway and the road.
“I hate the term, ‘the road,’ he told the Chicago Tribune that year, “because it makes touring sound so provincial I like the idea of touring, of seeing many places instead of just settling down.” Quinn, who died at 86 in 2001, said he identified so deeply with the character that he claimed there were times he didn’t know if he was playing Zorba or Zorba was playing him, adding, “He is my man.”
And what about Yul Brynner, connected to “The King and I” from the opening in 1951 and (in the days before a non-Asian king would be unthinkable), still saying “et cetera” on what was called his “historic farewell engagement” in 1985? In an interview at that time, Brynner told me that he did not even miss a performance while he was undergoing radiation for the lung cancer that killed him later that year, at 65.
Although he had made 40 movies, considered himself a professional photographer and directed live series in TV’s early days, he seemed to have made peace with being forever identified as the King of Siam. As he put it with just a hint of regret, “Naturally, everyone thinks of me in terms of this show. But I’ve done other outstanding things.”
And then there is the complex ambivalence of Zero Mostel, forever Max Bialystock in the movie of “The Producers” but, perhaps even more linked to Tevye, the philosopher milkman he played on Broadway in 1964 and in the 1977 revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The show’s creative team, including director Jerome Robbins, producer Harold Prince and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, were less than delighted with the actor’s infamous onstage improvisations. Almost immediately after the opening, he began embellishing his performance. As Prince told me in 2014, the show’s 50th anniversary, “Nobody was more brilliant or more creative than Zero, but he got bored quickly.” Harnick, still annoyed, said, “Other actors never knew where he would be on the stage.”
But audiences loved him, as did I. I cherish the memory of a lunch interview before the revival opened a pre-Broadway run in Chicago in 1976. As I wrote, he “pads around the stage like an ancient Talmudic pachyderm . . . an incorrigible scene-stealer, he tosses his stage ideas with a bit of the unedited abandon Norman Mailer throws into his books.”
It was inarguably the Zero Mostel traveling Russian-Jewish village roadshow, and he unleashed his excess on everyone around. One night, when the show got to New York, he ripped off Golde’s nightgown in the dream sequence and the actress, Thelma Lee, finished the scene in a blanket.
And yet. He was deeply political, a serious man and a serious artist, looking forward to reminding people of that by playing Shylock in “The Merchant,” Arnold Wesker’s 1977 reworking of “The Merchant of Venice.” Mostel died that year at 62, before the play opened.
I never got to ask him about boredom, but everyone has always been asking Channing about it. The phenomenon, now 96, told Newsday around the time of the 1995 revival, and final revival, “ . . . It’s a perfectly natural question, but I don’t see why. You’ve got to go out there and paint a new picture every single night, to make them believe it’s actually happening for the first time in front of their eyes. Or you’ll empty the theater.”
Wonder if, right now, Bette Midler is telling herself that, too.