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Randall's Island

Tony Randall talks about the challenges of running a non-profit theater company and bringing Judgment at Nuremberg to Broadway. logo
Tony Randall
Tony Randall, 80 years old and the father of a toddler, shows no signs of flagging in keeping his other baby, The National Actors Theatre, bouncing. One recent day, with company business scheduled until 8:00 in the evening, the founder and artistic director was able to come to the phone long enough to say a few words about why he's offering Judgment at Nuremberg as the latest NAT production: "Because I like it. Perhaps I should say because I believe in it."

Then he went on in the same earnest, determined, and breathless tones that made him such a reliable second banana in movies almost half a century ago now. According to Randall, he doesn't recall whose notion it was to call Maximilian Schell, who won an Oscar for his performance in the Nuremberg film, to the Longacre, where the court-room drama opens tonight. He does remember that it was general manager Fred Walker's idea to do a stage presentation of the piece. Walker had come across the original Playhouse 90 offering and, Randall reports, "said that this would make one hell of a play. I ran over to see it. It was much better than the movie version. Not a little bit better, much better." To recreate that treatment, Randall got in touch with Abby Mann, who wrote the teleplay and the screenplay, about 18 months ago and put him together with director John (known to show-biz types as Joey) Tillinger. Now Randall says, "When you see it, it's a powerful piece."

Enthusiasm is what Randall has always sold, and he certainly has to be enthusiasm personified to raise the millions of dollars he says he needs for his productions--which, by the way, have been pared to about one a year from the original three-per-annum schedule he established in his first season, 1991-92. Stating that Judgment at Nuremberg is costing about $1.5 million, Randall claims he's out several nights a week in search of funds, sometimes every night. The dapper entrepreneur notes that, when he founded NAT, "I thought I would spend my time on stage or in rehearsal halls." He doesn't, but "that's true of any non-profit. The boss of it spends his time fund-raising. It's back-breaking."

The heavy expenses faced by Randall and his small staff--Walker and director of education Amy Weinstein included--are due in part to the size of the plays Randall chooses. "I want to do the classics," he says, and those often require large casts. "I'm the only idiot that has 30, 40, 50 actors on stage," he jokes. Mentioning that Judgment at Nuremberg is playing across the street from the four-character Proof, Randall ticks off some of his other presentations. He had, for instance, 55 people on stage for Inherit the Wind--10 fewer than were seen in the original production, in which Randall himself had a supporting role. The Equity dispensation NAT received for 15 of the players and Randall's use of interns in walk-on roles only went so far to cut overall costs, he says.

Randall had dreamed of establishing a company of actors ever since he looked around as a young man and saw that, in England, Ireland, France, Russia, Israel, and so many other countries, such companies are in place--and state-subsidized. He recalls that, when he announced his intentions a decade ago, "important actors called and said, 'This is such a great idea.' " But that fervor dissipated when the actors found out how little they would be paid to appear in NAT productions.

Maximilian Schell and Michael Hayden
in Judgment at Nuremberg
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Doing his one show a year apparently does give Randall satisfaction, though he still insists that his intention is to go back to offering six per season. He says that he's proudest of NAT's educational outreach program: He turns over two matinees of each production to school children, at a cost to the theater of $35,000 each. What he is particularly pleased about is the special preparation he and Weinstein see to it the kids have. "I will not have them study the play," he says. "I want the play to surprise them." Instead, students examine the background of each play. When Randall put on The Crucible, "we had them study the Salem witch trials. But the play came out of the McCarthy era, so we also had them study the HUAC and all that." For Inherit the Wind, it was Joseph McCarthy again, and the Scopes trial. The course plan for Judgment at Nuremberg, of course, includes study of the Holocaust. ("I'm not sure how much they get about that in high schools," Randall comments.)

When he thinks back to getting the National Actors Theatre going, Randall is grateful for three things: for his having done the sitcom Love, Sidney, which afforded him enough money to establish The Tony Randall Theatrical Foundation; for Laura Pels and the multi-million-dollar donations she has made; and for the Shubert Foundation. Randall is especially indebted to Gerry Schoenfeld for his considerations. "One fine day about ten years ago, I got a call from Gerry," Randall says. "'What do you want?' he said. I said, 'You called me.' He said, 'That 42nd street theater is not going to happen." (Randall was active in the revitalization of 42nd Street and had hoped to snag a theater there.) "'Why don't you take either the Belasco or the Lyceum?' Gerry said; he was offering me two theaters. So I took the Belasco. I wouldn't be in business but for Gerry."

And Randall intends to stay in business. Right now, he's looking into bringing over the recent Royal National Theatre production of The Cherry Orchard, in which Vanessa Redgrave and Corin Redgrave appeared as part of a highly praised ensemble. Randall, who claims to "go weak in the knees in front of paintings and cry at opera," says he never cries in the theater but that he "almost cried" at this Cherry Orchard.

Does the fund-raising Randall intend to stay in the acting business? He admits that there are roles he'd like to do, mentioning "all the Benedicks in Shakespeare, which go right up to Hamlet," although he allows he's now too old for them. He says he'd love another crack at M. Butterfly, because "that's the only time in my whole life I felt I hit it." Will he act again with The National Actors Theatre, as he has in such past shows as The Sunshine Boys, Inherit the Wind, Three Men on a Horse, and The School for Scandal? "If the right part comes along for me, I give it to me," he says. "I don't have to audition."

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