Spotlight on Alexander Gemignani

by Nancy Rosati        

The Day Emily Married
With Estelle Parsons in
The Day Emily Married

Photo: Jonathan Barkey
Most theater fans have seen William Biff McGuire perform at one time or another. With almost twenty Broadway shows to his name, dozens of films, and television credits dating back to the early 1950s, he would be difficult to miss. He was in the original South Pacific, received a Tony nomination for The Young Man from Atlanta, and another one in 2002 for the revival of Mornings at Seven. His films include The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Serpico, and the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair. His list of TV credits reads like a history of the medium, from "Studio One" and "The Ford Theatre Hour" to "Frasier" and "ER".

Not ready to retire yet, Biff McGuire is reuniting with his Mornings at Seven co-star Estelle Parsons in Horton Footeís latest play, The Day Emily Married, which opens August 3, 2004. I sat down with him recently before he ran off to his rehearsal.

Nancy Rosati:  I started looking at your resumť and it went on for several pages ...

William McGuire:  Well, Iím on my 79th birthday, and Iíve been in the theater 60 years.

NR:  What made you go into theater initially?

WM:  World War II. I stayed in England and went to school. Back in the Ď40s I did the first production of Saroyanís The Time of Your Life. That was the beginning.

NR:  Were you stationed in England during the war?

WM:  I caught the last month of the war in Germany. There was a point system then. You had to have 86 points at the end of the war to go home. You got so many points for being wounded, and so many points for battles. I had about 14 points, so I knew Iíd have to start another war or something if I wanted to get home. (laughs)

They setup a situation where you could go to England and study. I studied acting, directing, radio and television. I met with Peter Glenville, who was directing Saroyanís play, and that was the beginning.

NR:  Had you had any interest in acting before that?

WM:  Sort of, but my thought was that I wanted to design for the theater. I wanted to do sets and that sort of thing, but I just veered off into acting. My mother was what you would call an elocutionist when she was quite young. She always had me memorizing poems. We had all of these big gatherings of the whole family on Saturday nights, and everybody had to do something, so that was my theater. I shared it with a very large family.

NR:  Where did your nickname come from?

WM:  Iíve had it all my life. It just evolved when I was playing football.

NR:  Youíve managed to land so many wonderful roles.

WM:  Iíve been working pretty steadily for those 60 years.

NR:  What do you attribute that to?

WM:  Not rushing. I always put my brakes on. I like to think things through.

NR:  Have you turned down a lot of jobs?

WM:  Iíve turned down things. Iíve read them, and then Iíve recommended other people to play them.

NR:  Are there any you look back on and wish youíd taken?

WM:  No, not really. (smiles) Iím usually relieved that I didnít have to do it.

NR:  Are there any you did that you regretted?

WM:  Some have been more difficult than others, but not really. It requires a lot of thought, and you do a certain amount of praying to make sure youíre moving in the right direction.

NR:  You were in the original cast of South Pacific on Broadway. Can you tell me what that was like?

WM:  It was really wonderful. Thereís one story that you donít hear about - we were on stage in the second or third week of rehearsal. When Mary (Martin) did the reprise of ďWash That Man Right Outta My Hair,Ē she would come back on while the girls were singing and do a somersault across the stage. One time she lost her sense of direction and went off the stage, down into the pit, and crashed on top of the pianist, Trude Rittman. Mary was unconscious, so we got her out of the pit and rushed her to a doctor. Then one of the girls looked down, and saw that Trude Rittmanís head had been driven into the piano keys. The keys were covered with blood because she broke Maryís fall and probably saved her life. The next morning, there was a football helmet filled with flowers on the piano, which Trude wore throughout the entire rehearsal period. (laughs)

That show was a wonderful time. I sang the recitative in ďNothing Like a Dame.Ē There was one line that Oscar Hammerstein said wasnít working and he was going to take it away from me. I said, ďWait a minute. I donít think itís a very good line.Ē (laughs) I was much younger then. He said, ďDo you think you could write a better one?Ē ďI donít know, but before you take it away from me, let me think about it.Ē He said, ďGo ahead, but remember - no writerís credit.Ē The original line was ďLots of things in life are beautiful, but brother, there is one thing that is not like any other.Ē I went upstairs and worked on it, and I finally came up with (singing) ďLots of things in life are beautiful, but brother, there is one particular thing that is nothing whatsoever in any way, shape or form like any other.Ē He said I could try it and I did it that night. There was a howl from the audience - it was a great line. He said, ďNo writerís credit on that.Ē I said, ďNo, but I collaborated with you on it.Ē (laughs)

They (Rodgers and Hammerstein) were great. They would let you do things like that. They never said, ďI wrote that and I want it read that way.Ē South Pacific was a new show, so songs got thrown out and showed up in other shows. Things got changed. From the first week of rehearsal, Josh Logan said, ďInvite your friends. Weíre going to do a run-through holding books.Ē The theater was packed and we did the show to standing ovations. That was definitely the beginning of South Pacific. It continued on from there, building and building. By the time we got to New York, they embraced us, and everyone lived happily ever after.

NR:  How about Camelot? You were in the original national tour.

WM:  Yes, playing King Arthur. My wife, Jeannie Carson, played Guenevere. We met in 1960 when I was doing the revival of Finianís Rainbow and were married that year. Itís been 44 years now.

NR:  Have you worked together often?

WM:  A lot of times. We were 15 years with Dan Sullivan in Seattle Repertory.

NR:  Is that tough working together?

WM:  No, no. Itís good. We love working together.

Mornings at Seven
In Mornings at Seven
Joan Marcus
NR:  Tell me about Mornings at Seven.

WM:  Itís a beautiful show. It was a great reunion with all of those people that I know so well and respect. Itís nice to be back with Estelle (Parsons) again in The Day Emily Married.

NR:  Emily was written by Horton Foote, whom youíve worked with before.

WM:  Yes, Horton called me and said, ďIíve got something Iíd like you to look at.Ē I read it and thought it was a beautiful play so I came in. Iíll be here for six weeks, or whatever it takes.

I love being with Horton. We did The Young Man from Atlanta together a couple of seasons back, so itís a nice reunion. Iíve known Horton since I was 19 years old.

NR:  What is the play about?

WM:  I think itís an absolutely beautiful piece. There are people trapped into lying, and itís about what happens when we make up these lies, and the lies become bigger and more twisted. Hortonís plays are all based on his life. Itís a love story, and thereís the father and daughter. Itís a mixture of so many beautiful things.

NR:  Is there any chance of you slowing down in the future?

WM:  I donít know. I thought after Mornings at Seven that I would not do anything except go back to writing and painting again. Weíve got this place in California and I spend so little time in it because Iím back east so often. But this came up and I thought I would do it. I love Hortonís writing, so I wanted to see what would happen with this.

Between the time of Mornings at Seven and Horton calling, I was writing a novel which Iíve finished. Itís called ďWillieís War,Ē but thatís all I can tell you about it for now. Itís about me, but I had to fictionalize it in order to survive. (laughs)

NR:  Did you enjoy writing it?

WM:  Yeah, I did. Iíve done that before. I havenít written novels, but Iíve written a couple of plays, and I used to do story lines for Mr. Peeperís with Wally Cox.

NR:  What advice do you have for someone starting out in this industry?

WM:  Donít plan anything.

NR:  Do you recommend going into the field?

WM:  Sure, if thatís what they really want. They may end up in another part of the business, but sure, do it. Itís a wonderful business to be in.

The Day Emily Married
James Colby, Hallie Foote and William Biff McGuire
in The Day Emily Married

Photo: Jonathan Barkey

The Day Emily Married
Written by Horton Foote, Directed by Michael Wilson
Produced by Primary Stages
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street, New York
Opens August 3 and runs through August 29

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