by Alan Gomberg
AG: The Persians is sort of full circle for you, since the first thing you did in New York, back in 1969, was also Aeschylus: Guthrie's production of The House of Atreus. [This was an adaptation of The Oresteia.]
LC: We did The House of Atreus in full Greek costume. I wore six-inch kothurni. I had to leap over a grave in them. And we did it with masks. Tanya Moiseiwitsch designed the costumes. It was one of the extraordinary pieces of theatre you could ever see.
With Roberta Maxwell in The Persians
Photo: Carol Rosegg
AG: Roberta Maxwell, who's with you in The Persians, was also in The House of Atreus. Is it fun working with her again?
LC: Oh, yeah. She's been a dear friend for a long time. We just haven't worked together in a while. She was responsible for my being in this. She'd been asked to do it, and she said, "If I'm gonna do it, I think you should get Len to play Darius." And they said, "Oh, yeah, sure, why not?"
AG: The year before The House of Atreus, you played Iago opposite James Earl Jones in Chicago. Do you have any memories of that? That must have been pretty amazing.
LC: We had a real good time. We did it at the Goodman Theatre when it was still a conservatory, and we were the two guest artists. I took Jimmy to his first hockey game: the Chicago Blackhawks playing the Montreal Canadiens. I was, of course, a Canadiens fan. And the Blackhawk faithful take their team very seriously. Montreal was beating their brains in. They beat them, I think, 6 to 1 or 7 to 1. And I was being a real asshole, I was up there screaming for the Canadiens.
At the end of the game these four guys turned around. There are about 10 rows between us. One of the guys says something like, "Hey. I wanna talk to you!" And I'm going, "Who, me?" And I'm continuing to be this asshole. I turned to Jimmy to say, "You see what's - " and he wasn't there. So I then went, "Oh, shit! Maybe I should get the hell out of here, too." So I ran out 'cause I figured these guys were gonna beat the shit out of me. I get down in the street, and I'm wondering what happened to Jimmy. And I hear him go, "Psst! Psst! Len. Len!" I go up to him and say, "What did you do?" He said, "Well, I wasn't sticking around. When I saw the look in those guys' eyes, I figured I better get the hell out of there. I'm about the only black man in the goddamned arena anyway." So we both laughed and went and had a beer.
AG: After your Broadway debut in The House of Atreus, you didn't go right back to the Guthrie?
LC: No. Michael Kahn had invited me to do Henry V and The Three Sisters at Stratford, Connecticut, that summer. And that summer is when I auditioned for Applause.
AG: The cast for that Three Sisters was astonishing. You, Marian Seldes, Kate Reid, Roberta Maxwell, Maria Tucci, Joseph Maher, Brian Bedford, and Morris Carnovsky.
LC: It was quite wonderful. The only problem is that stage up in Stratford, Connecticut. It's just this barn of a theatre, and it was not conducive to that kind of play at all. So that was tough.
AG: And the next thing was Applause.
LC: I auditioned two or three times during the summer, my first Broadway auditions. At the first audition I read with the stage manager. The stage manager was six-foot-four and he was just a screaming queen, playing Margo Channing, but with this big, deep voice.
AG: (Laughing): Well, actually -
LC: (Laughing): Yeah, right, exactly.
AG: He was getting you ready.
LC: Anyway, I did this reading and I thought "That was fun, I guess." Then about a month later I get a call from my agent, who said they want me to come back a second time. And he said, "If you wouldn't mind singing again because Comden and Green and Strouse and Adams are gonna be in the audience."
I went back for the second time, and they all said, "Thank you very much, that was very good." I called my agent, and he said, "Well, they'll get back to us." I'm now beginning to realize how these things work. So I said, "I shouldn't attach too much to this." He said, "No, I wouldn't if I were you."
AG: You'd hardly had to audition up to that point in your career, had you?
LC: True. There was no audition as such because everybody knew everybody else and they had all seen your work.
A month later, the Applause people asked me to come in for a third time, and I said, "What's going on here? This is getting silly." And my agent said, "Well, now everybody's gonna be there; the producer's gonna be there, and Miss Bacall is gonna be there. They're probably gonna offer you the role, and she's there to sign off on you. She's got to approve your playing opposite her. Because that's part of her contract." So I said, "Oh? Really?" Who knew that they could do that to you?
When we first went into rehearsal, Bacall was terrified. She'd never done a musical, couldn't sing and knew it. They didn't care, it wasn't necessary, but she was terrified that she had bitten off more than she could chew. She was gonna dance; she had never really danced in anything, she wasn't a child anymore.
I said to her, "This thing is a hit, the only thing that's not certain is how big a hit." She looked at me and said, "Oh, really? The rookie's telling us we're in a ... " And I said, "No, it's obvious to me that this has got to be a big hit. Unless we screw it up somehow. It's a really good story, and the music's terrific." So I think I kind of endeared myself to her at that point.
AG: So you did Applause for a year.
LC: It was the most employment I'd ever had in my life.
AG: You'd never done a long run.
LC: Never, no. What an experience.
AG: Do you like doing long runs or does it vary?
LC: Yeah, depends on the piece, really.
AG: I would imagine that having the chance to do a role like Sweeney for a year is very exciting if exhausting.
LC: No, no, it was wonderful. It was just tough getting it there, that's all, 'cause you rehearse and rehearse, and you change and change. That's the exhausting part. Once you're up and running, it's just a piece of cake to me. You know exactly how much energy you need, you know what it costs you. It's in your body and in your voice, and you can do it forever. As long as you stay healthy, as long as you don't get a cold or some kind of an infection, a sinus infection or something.
AG: So after Applause, you go back to the Guthrie, and you do Petruchio, Oedipus, and I think you did Oberon, at least for a bit.
LC: Yeah, I had to. Frank Langella quit.
AG: Then, when you were about to play Oedipus, you got cast in A Little Night Music.