Wednesday, January 21, 2009


The current Jeremy Piven/"Speed-the-Plow" controversy brings to mind a bit of Broadway folklore involving Jackie Gleason.

Back in the late 1950s, Gleason was anxious to open on Broadway in a musical and settled on one produced by David Merrick - Bob Merrill's 1959 "Take Me Along," co-starring Walter Pidgeon and based on Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness."

"Open." Yes, the operative word, it seems, is that Gleason wanted to open in a Broadway musical, not necessarily appear in one for any length of time.

Well, the show was a huge success but, as the dust of the acclaim settled, Gleason quickly tired of it, calling in sick regularly. Columnists Dorothy Killgalen and Walter Winchell, among others, had a field day, speculating on why Merrick, noted for his temper and an ego as big as Gleason's, didn't explode.

Turns out, the legendary producer was prepared for Gleason's behavior, reportedly taking out a special insurance policy that covered him whenever his star missed a performance. Once Gleason found out, he retaliated by never missing another performance. He stayed with the show until his contract ended.

Time Magazine alluded to this feud in a piece titled "The Big Hustler" in which Merrick comments that Gleason repeatedly threatened during the nogtiations for the show to "get sick" if he wasn't kept happy. The now-timely article ran 47 years ago ... on Friday, 29 December, 1961.

Artword: The Playbill from Jackie Gleason's "Take Me Along," and Jeremy Piven


Karl said...

Great fable about Gleason!

Bob said...

What I don't understand is how Piven can show up at the Golden Globes. After all, STP is still performing. If he was sick, then take a week or two off and then return to the show.

joe baltake said...

I know what you mean, but the play's management had already agreed to let Piven attend the GGs. His co-star Elizabeth Moss, of "Mad Men," also had off to go.

Jesse said...

What I like about your story is that we tend to forget bad behavior of theater people. Of course, today, the myth is that all Broadway people of yesterday were real troupers, never phoned in a perf and never missed a perf. It's just not true.