A Man of Character
Longtime actor and agent Richard Seff discusses his career and his new award for character actors.
Now, thanks to Seff, something else will happen to at least one character actor and one character actress each year: The Richard Seff Award of $1,000 and a crystal star. "I want the award to go to people you've never heard of," he tells me. "For example, Lillian Gish once came back to Broadway to do Uncle Vanya, and if this award had been around then, she would not have been eligible. She'd already had her great parts and awards. I'm talking about someone who might have played Arvide in Guys and Dolls or Mr. Lundie in Brigadoon. They each have a good scene, yet they're easily forgotten when more famous actors in larger roles get the nominations."
Ideally, Seff sees the award going to someone over 50. "I'm thinking of someone like Helen Stenborg in Wit. I want to help the old folks," says the 76-year-old. "I think of it as the opposite of the Clarence Derwent Award, which recognizes young talents. It's even going to be given on the same day in June."
The award is the latest chapter in the theatrical life of Seff, who has worked in no other field since he was 15. He's just finished his memoir, Supporting Player: A Life Among the Stars, in which he professes that a person can make a living in show business while achieving no fame whatsoever. For 22 years, Seff was an agent -- during most of the '50s, all of the '60s, and some of the '70s. "I took Dick Van Dyke and Johnny Carson to audition for Bye Bye Birdie," he says. "Carson was good but Van Dyke was better." (Apparently, Gower Champion agreed.) Seff signed such then-unknowns as Chita Rivera ("She almost called herself Chita O'Hara because she loved Maureen O'Hara so much"), Ron Field ("After he got his Tony for Cabaret, he took Sherry even before he read it because he was so thrilled that, for the first time, someone sought him to do a show"), Clark Gesner ("I couldn't originally envision Charlie Brown as a musical, but it turned out to be the most lucrative deal I ever made"), Matt Dubey and Harold Karr ("They came to me with a show about Las Vegas that had such good tunes in it -- 'If'n,' 'This Much I Know,' and 'Mutual Admiration Society' -- which they recycled into Happy Hunting when no one liked the book to their Vegas show.") But his ace trumps were signing Kander and Ebb -- separately, before they knew each other.
Seff still remembers the day he met John Kander, when the composer and the Goldman brothers (James and William) were auditioning their musical version of Giraudoux's The Enchanted for agents. "I was just starting out," he recalls, "but I was impressed. Afterwards, all the agents got in an elevator and the big guys were saying, 'Charming boys, very talented, but not up to Giraudoux.' I was astonished that, before the elevator hit the lobby, they'd dismissed them. So I called Kander and said I'd be honored to represent him." When the three collaborators couldn't land the rights to The Enchanted, they wrote the original musical A Family Affair, which Seff not only represented but also helped get to Broadway by having his cousin Andrew Siff ("the real way our family name is spelled, before I changed it") produce it.
Seff met Fred Ebb in 1954 "when he scrounged and made a living selling special material. Kaye Ballard bought some and introduced him to Richard Morris, who was writing the book to The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Fred and his then-collaborator, Paul Klein, wrote their own 'Belly up to the Bar, Boys' based on a line Fred got from Morris's book. The Theatre Guild, which was producing, went with Meredith Willson instead, but Morris was impressed with Fred. After Fred teamed with John, the three of them wrote a very good musical called Golden Gate. I'm still shocked it's never been produced; I sure would have invested in it."
And Seff was quite the investor. While he was speaking about his history of backing shows, I realized that he's the unidentified source that William Goldman cites in The Season. "Between 1956 to 1972," says Seff, "I invested in about 50 shows -- $1,000 here, $500 there. They said that only one out of every seven shows was a hit, but if you could pick the ones that paid ten-to-one, you'd be all right. I'd look at the season in advance and would eliminate the 25% that would be produced by neophytes, Texas oil men, or Park Avenue ladies. That immediately cut the odds to four-to-one. At intermission at Gypsy in Philadelphia, I ran into Jack Schlissel, Merrick's general manager, and when he said, 'Some of my backers aren't happy with it,' I immediately signed up for $1,500. With Hair, I went to a Friday preview, and was knocked out by it. It was opening on Monday, and when I heard that someone who had $25,000 in it wanted out, I took $6,000 of it. We finished signing the papers an hour before it opened. It paid ten-to-one.
"Every season I made a profit," Seff continues. "I made quite a bit on Barefoot in the Park and Dolly! by investing about $1,000 in five shows a year. But then in 1965, I abandoned my plan and invested $12,000 in Flora, the Red Menace because it was John and Fred's first show. It was, by the way, the first time that Hal Prince let me invest in his shows after I'd turned down his first one, The Pajama Game. He didn't forgive me for a long time, so I missed out on Fiddler and his other hits.
Seff stopped agenting soon after he made the deal for Kander and Ebb on the original Chicago. "The big producers who did at least one show every year weren't doing them any more, and I had to bring authors to artistic directors of regional theaters," he says. "If they liked it, they'd schedule it for a three or four week run." Not much money in that, so Seff wrote a play about agents called The Whole Ninth Floor, which Norman (Henry, Sweet Henry) Twain produced in 1966 in Paramus, New Jersey with Alan Alda and David Rounds under Lawrence Kasha's direction. "It was okay but it wasn't all there," Seff admits, "so Norman decided not to bring it in. I didn't disagree, but the experience I had was much more fulfilling than being an agent. So I wrote another play."
Paris Is Out, he says, "had the essence of my parents in it." Seff had hoped for either Thelma Ritter and Art Carney or Helen Hayes and Walter Matthau, but he ended up with Molly Picon and Sam Levine. Though the choice of leading lady may sound weird, Seff notes that Picon had recently replaced Helen Hayes in a revival of The Front Page. "Molly, God love her, was a great lady," says Seff. "She wanted to do cartwheels, but director Paul Aaron kept her in line and she eventually gave a lovely performance. She did want to do her cartwheel for the curtain call, so she and Paul compromised with a bit where she took her bow, pretended she hurt her back, and then stood up tall to show she was all right."
Seff was back in Paramus with Paris Is Out. This time his producer, David Black, brought the show to the Brooks Atkinson in 1970. "But David didn't want it to open to critics," Seff relates. "'Let them come when they want,' he said, 'and their reviews won't have as much impact when they don't all come out the same day.' That wasn't allowed to happen, and every review began with 'David Black didn't want an opening night, and we can see why.' Brooks Atkinson came because we were at the theater named for him and he had a lifetime pass. He gave David a quote -- 'I hope Paris Is Out is in for a long time' -- but he didn't want David to say 'Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times' because he'd been retired for all those years. Too bad, because Atkinson would have given it the class it needed. People thought it was a Jewish play because of Sam and Molly, but it had a 48-week tour with Pat O'Brien and his wife. Suddenly it was about an Irish family -- without one line changed."
Six years later, Black called Seff and asked him to write the book for a musical called Spotlight. "It already had a book which nobody liked," says Seff, "and they told me I had to write a new story and keep at least 90% of the score. That's always a disaster, but I did it because I had always wanted to write a musical and, now that I was over 50, I felt this would be my only chance." Though Spotlight closed in Washington, Seff did get another chance to write the book for a musical: Shine!, with music by Roger Anderson and lyrics by Lee Goldsmith, is about Horatio Alger. It includes such characters as Silas Snobden, a precise and demanding businessman, and Mary McHugh, an addled and disheveled Irish landlady -- two roles that could give an actor and actress the chance to win the Richard Seff Award.