Theater News

Laurence Luckinbill is Smokin’!!

The actor stars in The Firebugs and prepares for a one-man show about Teddy Roosevelt.

Laurence Luckinbill
Laurence Luckinbill

How did Laurence Luckinbill come to play the lead in The Firebugs? To get to the heart of the matter, one must start with The Soul of the American Actor. For those who (like me) didn’t know, that’s a quarterly, the editor of which asked Luckinbill for permission to reprint some pieces the actor had written years ago for The New York Times. Luckinbill granted the request and also agreed to be interviewed along with his wife, Lucie Arnaz. During the interview, Luckinbill suggested that he write a new article (“Where Should the Theater Be Now?”) responding to the events of 9/11.

Over lunch at the Polish Tea Room, Luckinbill explains that his response elicited a letter from Catherine Wolf, who runs the Colleagues Theatre Company. “She wrote to say, ‘I have a play I’d like you to do.’ I get a lot of that type of thing and I almost always say no. But I read the play and thought, ‘This is a perfect response to 9/11.’ I had to say yes.” And so, Luckinbill is currently starring in The Firebugs by Max Frisch (translated by Michael Bullock), a Colleagues Theatre Company production that continues through June 29 at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Featured in the play is a chorus of firemen who are the saviors of the city. “I think that will raise the hair on the backs of people’s necks,” says Luckinbill. “The amazing thing is that this is an answer to 9/11 that was written sixty-something years ago. It is an indication of how the wheel turns and how we’re always vulnerable, always being threatened. I play a businessman who manufactures and sells hair tonic. My life is interrupted by the appearance of these homeless street vendors who may be terrorists or firebugs.” The setting is the businessman’s home, “an urban house, which could be in America, but it’s not specified. I live there with a maid. And the last scene of the play takes place in hell! The director is Joe Grifasi, who’s an actor and a very, very good director. I’m the kind of guy who’s very cautious about directors, because I usually butt heads with them. But Grifasi is ahead of me every step.”

Luckinbill is also excited about the one-man play Teddy, which he wrote and in which he will soon star as Theodore Roosevelt. “It’s going to be done by the Abingdon Theatre Company on 42nd Street,” he says, “probably in October. Originally, I thought I could do Bully, the play [about Roosevelt] that Jimmy Whitmore did, but I read 11 pages and knew I couldn’t do it. It’s not a play. So I wrote Teddy in 13 days.”

Teddy is the latest in Luckinbill’s growing repertoire of one-man plays: His first such venture, Lyndon (about President Johnson), began on public television with producer David Susskind–“a Dutch uncle for years,” notes Luckinbill. “He was always trying to force me into some horrible TV thing. Most of what he did was really good, but I was offered the dregs.” Almost as soon as a copy of the Lyndon script was delivered to Luckinbill, Susskind telephoned to ask if he had read it. A quick glance revealed “69 pages, single-spaced,” and Luckinbill promptly gave it to his wife to read. “Lucie came back and said, ‘If you don’t do this, I guess you don’t want to be an actor.’ I picked myself up off the floor and read the script.”

Luckinbill still felt that he couldn’t do it. He asked Susskind how many others had been offered the part and the producer replied, “That’s none of your damn business.” He read the script again over a weekend and a light dawned. “My father ran a store on the town square,” he relates. “Cowboy music was played and farmers would whittle in front of it. I began to sense that if Lyndon could talk to people like my father did, I could probably get away with it.” After Lyndon‘s success on TV, Luckinbill was asked to perform it as a fund-raiser for a Texas politician. “I did it for 1,100 Democrats–all drunk,” he remembers. “But the producer decided to present Lyndon around the world.”

The actor wrote his next one-man play, in which he portrayed famed barrister Clarence Darrow. The piece is not to be confused with the David W. Rintels play in which Henry Fonda twice starred on Broadway (in 1974 and ’75). “This one,” says Luckinbill, “is completely mine and completely better. I did it at Ensemble Studio for three weeks in 1999 and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award.” He admits that “it gets very lonely” being on stage in a one-person play and quotes Phyllis Newman’s description of the experience when she appeared in The Madwoman of Central Park West: “The worst thing is when the stage manager knocks on the door and says, ‘Place, please.'” Adds Luckinbill, “My pieces are all directed to the audience, who are participants. To me, that’s the key to making a successful one-man show.”

Which role has brought Luckinbill the most satisfaction? “No one particular project,” he says, “but the fact that, early on, I instinctively chose to go my own way. I have never done anything I didn’t want to do. Oh, there were one or two exceptions in movies because I needed a patio built or the pool repaired. If that sounds flippant, it is. I signed on for a couple of ordinary, dumb, stupid movies. By the way, that doesn’t include Star Trek [1989’s Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier]. That was a great experience. I just said, ‘I have to do what I have to do,’ regardless of whether I became a star or got rich–or any of those things that have been imposed on the consciousness of the public as the main reason to be an actor. It didn’t used to be that way. You became an actor to express yourself or to deal with society in a more positive way, to effect change through the theater, or to do the classics. I went to Catholic University. They taught the classics and I thought I’d be doing Shakespeare and the Greeks and Molière all my life. Well, that doesn’t happen. You end up on The Secret Storm [the TV soap opera, in which Luckinbill appeared in the late-’60s] or doing a Bankers Trust commercial.

Luckinbill with Robert Ierardi, Hollis Huston,and Peter James Kelsch in The Firebugs(Photo: David Rodgers)
Luckinbill with Robert Ierardi, Hollis Huston,
and Peter James Kelsch in The Firebugs
(Photo: David Rodgers)

“At a juncture in my life when I had spent 11 years of doing a lot of small things, going out every summer to do Shakespeare with Arthur Lithgow, John’s dad [who ran the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.], and working at various interesting State Department jobs, a play came along called The Boys in the Band. My agent represented it but she said, ‘Don’t do this play! You’re just at the point of having a presence and this will nail you as a homosexual.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, it’s a really good play. It’s funny, I have a good part, and I’m going to do it.’ Of course, it put me on the map.” Luckinbill played Hank in Mart Crowley’s 1968 Off-Broadway success, and reprised his role for the 1970 movie version of the landmark play. “It did everything in reverse of what my agent said,” he tells me, “except for one thing. I lost a True cigarettes commercial. They said, ‘No fags smoke our fags!'”

The second of four children, Luckinbill was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas. His Broadway debut came about when he took over the role of Will Roper in A Man for All Seasons. Other Broadway credits include Beekman Place, Tartuffe, Poor Murderer, The Shadow Box (which earned him a Tony nomination), Past Tense, and Dancing in the End Zone. His most recent Broadway appearance was as Herr Schultz in the current revival of Cabaret. Luckinbill and Lucie Arnaz will celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary later this month. They met at Joe Allen’s restaurant while both were appearing on Broadway in Neil Simon shows (his, Chapter Two; hers, They’re Playing Our Song). Among the shows in which the couple has co-starred are the two-character musical I Do! I Do!–which they performed at the huge St. Louis Municipal Opera venue–and a tour of Whose Life Is It Anyway in which they regularly switched-off in the leading roles of patient and doctor. A proud father, Luckinbill praises his 17-year-old daughter, Kate, who had just officiated as Queen of the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival. “There must have been 35 events that she presided over, and she handled it all magnificently,” he says. “She’s articulate and organized…like her mother.”

Lunch ends and Laurence Luckinbill needs to return to rehearsal. Before he does, he again expresses his enthusiasm for The Firebugs: “Max Frisch was a student of Brecht, so the play has a tone in keeping with The Threepenny Opera. And, at the time that the play was written, Beckett was getting very popular in Europe, so there are elements of Godot. But lest that turn anyone off, this is a full-fledged play with recognizable, urban characters–like New Yorkers!”

Featured In This Story

The Firebugs

Closed: June 29, 2002