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Duell Roles

William Duell returns to The Threepenny Opera in a starry production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. logo
William Duell
Summer theater is seldom as star-studded as the Williamstown Theatre Festival's production of The Threepenny Opera: The cast of the Brecht-Weill classic at the popular Massachusetts playhouse includes Jesse L. Martin, Betty Buckley, Melissa Errico, Karen Ziemba, and Randy Graff. While Buckley played Jenny at Williamstown almost a decade ago, another cast member has a history with the show that dates back nearly half a century. Director Peter Hunt has enlisted William Duell to play Filch and the Queen's Messenger, the same roles he filled in the legendary Off-Broadway production of 1954-61. "Those characters can be any age," says Duell, "so I accepted."

The actor first worked with Hunt in 1776, playing Congressional custodian Andrew McNair in both the 1969 Broadway production ("Betty Buckley was Martha Jefferson") and the 1972 movie version. In 1981, Hunt asked Duell "to come up to Williamstown to do Sherlock Holmes, which we taped for HBO. It starred Frank Langella and I played Dr. Watson's butler." Incidentally, when the Roundabout's 1997 revival of 1776 moved to the Gershwin for an extended run, Duell took over as Caesar Rodney -- "the delegate from Delaware, who's dying of cancer."

When Duell auditioned for Threepenny in the '50s, Marc Blitzstein -- who adapted the book of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical -- was on hand. Recalls Duell, "He asked me, 'Do you sing?' I very grandly said, 'I'm here as an actor, not as a singer.' He very sweetly said, 'We just wanted to know if you can carry a tune.' I sang 'The Yale Song.' Then the director, Carmen Capalbo, asked if I had any experience performing Shakespeare, so I did a few lines from the Porter in Macbeth. I thought, now they're going to ask me to dance!" He went on to play 2474 performances in his dual roles: "When young actors ask 'What was your longest run?' and I say, 'Six years,' it blows their minds.

"We opened in March 1954 [at the Theatre de Lys, now the Lucille Lortel] and ran through Memorial Day," Duell recalls. "They had leased the theater to somebody else. It was then that Brooks Atkinson [the Times critic] began his campaign to bring back Threepenny Opera. We reopened in September 1955, and I remained until September '61 [three months before the run ended]."

As the Messenger, Duell made his entrance from the back of the house, which necessitated his going out to the sidewalk from the stage entrance. He entered "on a carousel horse that was mounted on a little platform with wheels and was brought down the aisle by the Streetsinger. One night, a wheelchair blocked our way, so we had to switch aisles. The entire company was singing 'Hark, who comes?' and looking stage right. We're coming down the opposite aisle." Another time, the house manager accidentally locked the gate outside the stage door; after some hectic moments during which somebody summoned the fellow with the keys, Duell "just barely made it."

Duell (as the Queen’s Messenger) with
Jesse L. Martin in The Threepenny Opera
(Photo © Dana Buonincontri)
In Williamstown, Macheath is being played by Jesse L. Martin, the Rent alumnus who appears as Jerry Orbach's partner on TV's Law & Order. Orbach's New York stage debut occurred when he joined the Theatre de Lys company as the Streetsinger; during his three-and-a-half years in the show, he eventually played Macheath. In the 1976 Threepenny revival at Lincoln Center ("during Joe Papp's reign"), Bill Duell was cast as "Crook-Finger Jack, who was called Jake in that production. And in the summer of '77, with some cast changes, we did it at the Delacorte in Central Park. It was the first show in the park [for the New York Shakespeare Festival]."

Duell has also played various parts in different productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream: Bottom, Starveling, and Flute ("my favorite role of all time"). What he terms "the greatest curtain call you could ever have" took place in Stages, which closed on its opening night of March 19, 1978: "In the final segment, I took Phil Bosco to heaven. We were flown about 60 feet in the air. They didn't have time to unhook us for the curtain call and figured it was best to lower us to about 20 feet above the other actors. Jack Warden [who was starring] said, 'Nobody's looking at us. They're looking at those blankety-blanks!'"

A native of Corinth, New York, he was born Darwin Duell but didn't think that worked for an actor; so he took his middle name, William, as his first name. At Vermont's Green Mountain Junior College, Duell scored well in physical fitness tests and so the football coach asked if the slightly built student would consider joining the team. "I went through all the practices and got in a couple of games," Duell relates. "It was Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton rolled into one. I took a lot of kidding but it built my self-confidence. When they asked people to come out for drama, I thought, 'Since I made an ass of myself on the football field, I might as well try acting.'"

The play being cast was Arsenic and Old Lace. "The director said, 'Can you do a German accent?' I said 'Yah,' which was probably the extent of my German accent." He got the part of Dr. Einstein. Following a tour with the Navy, Duell attended Illinois' Wesleyan University, where a professor recommended that he seek a Masters in Drama. "On a lark," he says, "I applied to Yale Drama School and got in."

One of his classmates there was Paul Newman, whom Duell credits for his screen debut. "While I was in Threepenny, one of the guys in the cast was working as an extra in The Hustler. I said, 'If you have the chance, tell Paul that Bill Duell says hello.' The next day, I got a call from his assistant: 'Paul was wondering if you could come by tomorrow.' He laid it out: 'Bill, there isn't anything left [as far as parts in the movie]. Only a few small things. Would you be interested?' First, they were going to give me the role of a hotel clerk but then they decided I'd play a little hustler. As Paul, George C. Scott, and Piper Laurie are checking into a hotel, I come out and say, 'Fast Eddie, I didn't know you were here.' He puts his arm around me and we go off to shoot pool.'"

His favorite movie roles were in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1776, and Grace Quigley, which starred Katharine Hepburn. Duell recalls a pre-filming meeting with the cast at Hepburn's Turtle Bay townhouse. "Her companion, Phyllis, escorted me upstairs and there sat Hepburn. Fortunately, Elizabeth Wilson, who had played Mrs. Peachum in Threepenny at Lincoln Center, was there; otherwise, I would have been totally tongue-tied. We sat around and had tea. Nick Nolte [who co-starred] came in. He didn't bother with tea; he went straight to the little bar and poured himself a drink. A little while later, Hepburn asked, 'Would anybody like a real drink?' While Phyllis went to get ice, I admired a painting over the bar. Her eyes lit up. She said, 'Spencer [Tracy] drew that.' Any mention of Spencer and you were in like Flynn.

"Years later, I was at a matinee of a one-woman show with Zoe Caldwell [Lillian, 1986]. At intermission, I was going up the aisle and there's Miss Hepburn and Phyllis. I said, 'Hello,' she responded, and I moved on. When I came back to my seat, I looked up and there she was, apologizing: 'Phyllis reminded me who you are.' She sat down and talked to me. There were a lot of actors in the audience and, for months afterward, they'd say: 'Katharine Hepburn came to talk to you!'"

Duell as Filch in Threepenny
(Photo © Richard Feldman)
Duell made his Broadway debut in the 1961 comedy A Cook for Mr. General. ("Dustin Hoffman was in it, but he had no lines.") In 1967's Illya Darling, the musical version of Never on Sunday, Duell played a pimp named Garbage: "People would say, 'What are you playing?' I'd say, 'Garbage.' They'd go, 'Yes, but what part are you playing?' Audiences loved Melina Mercouri [who starred]. We had [director] Jules Dassin [the star's husband] talking in French during rehearsals and Mercouri translating what he said for the other Greek actors. Orson Bean [who co-starred] used to stand there and say, 'Would somebody tell me what's going on?'"

At the 1985 Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, Duell played Pedant in a production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Zoe Caldwell. "It was great to work with her," he tells me. "She knows her Shakespeare. She would say, 'Follow the punctuation.' She would stop you and say, 'There's not a comma there or a period. If there's no punctuation, say the whole line.'"

Earlier this year, Duell was in Comedians Off-Broadway. His two most recent Broadway appearances were in shows that starred Nathan Lane: He played Erronius in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Dr. Bradley in The Man Who Came to Dinner. Duell's role in Forum required him to run seven times around the Seven Hills of Rome and, at the end of each trip, announce his progress to the audience: "Nathan suggested to [director] Jerry Zaks that, by the third time, Erronious would be so exhausted that he wouldn't be able to speak and he'd just hold up three fingers. I was ever so grateful to Nathan for that, because audiences absolutely roared! In Man Who Came to Dinner, when they'd call 'Places, please,' Nathan would sit in his wheelchair and start to riff before making his entrance; often, he'd talk about things that were happening at the time of the play. One night, he was going on about Amelia Earhart and he turned to me and said, 'Well, you dated her!'"

Maintaining an acting career "isn't easy," concludes the veteran Bill Duell. "You have to keep at it. You have to keep popping up. I'm one of the lucky ones."

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