By TOM CHESEK
It’s a moving pre-war story of life, love, death and devotion, set in small-town America, shot through with a plain-speak wit and eloquence, and featuring an ensemble cast of young and old actors.
It’s not Our Town, but On Borrowed Time, a fantasy that also made its bow in 1938 — and beginning this weekend, Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company celebrates the play’s 75th anniversary with a new production that kicks off the troupe’s own 20th anniversary season. It also marks a homecoming of sorts for a genuine Broadway legend.
The script by playwright and screenwriter Paul Osborn concerns an elderly “Gramps,” whose young grandson “Pud” is left in his care after Death — personified as one Mr. Brink — claims the boy’s parents and grandmother. Wanting to keep Death away from his own doorstep — and seeking to fend off Pud’s money-grubbing aunt Demetria — Gramps employs a little wishing magic and wily wisdom to trick Mr. Brink into becoming trapped in the old man’s apple tree. When Death takes a holiday, what seemed like a victory soon poses its own set of problems.
A hit in its original run, the play was made into a film with Lionel Barrymore in 1939. Two years later, a nine-year-old performer by the name of Joel Grey stepped into the part of Pud, inaugurating a long-playing stage career that would see him win a Tony (and an Oscar, for the same role) as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret.
With TRTC’s season-opening production, Grey (whose Broadway roles in recent years have included Wicked and Anything Goes) returns to On Borrowed Time — this time as director.
For the production that goes up in previews this weekend and continues through mid-October, 81-year-old Grey works with a Gramps who’s being portrayed by a character player with more than 50 years experience in major plays, all the big soap operas and countless primetime TV shows — New York based actor Robert J. Hogan.
While he’ll be the first to admit that he’s not a household name, Hogan’s is a face that generations of viewers have encountered regularly on the tube — from a star baseball player on Batman, a diabetic pilot on M*A*S*H and the Reverend in Peyton Place, to recurring roles in Law & Order and The Wire. Married to novelist Mary Hogan, he’s played Hamlet’s dad and JFK; co-starred on a sitcom with Don Rickles; and can even claim the distinction of having served as the nominal inspiration for Bob Crane’s character in Hogan’s Heroes.
The veteran actor — who’s due to celebrate his 80th birthday during the Red Bank run of the show — will share the stage with a company that includes young newcomers Oakes Fegley (as Pud) and Alex Garfin; Two River returnees Patrick Husted, Steven Skybell and Lorenzo Villanueva; fellow Broadway veterans Tom Nelis (as Mr. Brink), Betsy Hogg, Diane Kagan, Angela Reed (as Demetria) and John Thomas Waite — in addition to Brian Gildea, Brian Michael Hoffman, and canine co-star “Snickers” (working with premier Broadway animal trainer William Berloni).
The Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to Hogan about old friends, new collaborators, and the life of the character man.
redbankgreen: A lot of the buzz about this production centers of course on Joel Grey and his full-circle, personal connection to this play. But we’re very pleased to see you attached to the project as well. I’m wondering if you’ve known Joel Grey, and have ever worked with him at some point…
ROBERT HOGAN: No, I’d never met him before, believe it or not. I do have friends who’ve worked with him in the past. He’s one of those guys who makes you say Holy Toledo… when he talks, you listen. He was one of those kids who developed as an actor, and a person, in a tough business. He didn’t get all cuckoo about it.
When we had our first meeting with him, he got up to talk about the play, about his experience with it all those years ago. It was sweet to have been there while he talked… it would have been great to have a pin spot shining on him, while he spoke about the show and what it meant to him.
The young boy that I’m working with here is very good – a very natural actor. During rehearsal, I made it a point to tell him, ‘It’s fun workin’ with ya.’ Something like that can stay with an actor all his days. And Two River Theater is a great joint. My agent told me how nice it was, and when I finally got a look at it I was sold. The people in charge here really care about what they’re doing, too. This is as good a place as you’d have the pleasure of working anywhere.
Not to bruise the old actorly ego, but… when you started out in this business as a young buck, all those years ago, did you ever envision the day that you’d be reading the part named Gramps?
It’s a really wonderful part, one that I’m sure I’ll cherish. I don’t know that I’ll ever get a chance to play a part like this again. And without romanticizing it too much, it’s kind of fun to step away from the cameras and lights; to be able to work on something this special, for more than three hours at a time.
Well, when I saw the name Robert Hogan on the casting announcement, I thought immediately of the old Don Rickles sitcom from 1972 or thereabouts, where you played his buddy. Then that got me thinking about old episodes of Batman, M*A*S*H, Twilight Zone, and how you were one of this tremendous pool of talent working the TV soundstages in that era. What’s even more impressive is the fact that I’ve seen you on recent stuff like The Wire, Law & Order SVU.
I’m out there shaking my tin cup. I tell ’em I work for cheap (laughs). I went to California right at the end of the contract era, about 40 years ago. I got a contract with Warner Brothers; I moved my family out there and we wound up staying there just six months. Warners lost twelve half-hour shows that season, and they informed me in no uncertain terms that they were not gonna pick up my option.
But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, you know. Even doing something like Batman — I grew up on Batman, as a kid, and to be able to do an episode of that show, which everybody wanted to be on at that time, was a thrill. Adam West had such a great attitude; I can’t tell you how much of a delight it was to work with a guy who knew that there were more important things in life than all this stuff.
You mentioned your family, and I’m guessing that they were among the things in your life that kept you grounded?
Plus, even when I had a network show I would continue to do furniture refinishing work — something that I’d done for a number of years. I had a little Toyota truck that I’d use for my work, and I’d park it on the studio lot right next to the star’s Rolls Royce.
I came back east and did soaps, other things that filmed in New York… and I got back on the stage and did things like A Few Good Men on Broadway, which was an absolute dream to work on.
I have to ask, if only to settle an old urban legend, whether you were actually the inspiration for Bob Crane’s character in Hogan’s Heroes?
A buddy of mine, Bernie Fein, co-wrote what became Hogan’s Heroes. In the original version of the show, it was set in a prison camp in Washington state. After CBS got ahold of it, they changed it to a POW camp in World War II, and they changed the name to Hogan, because, I dunno, it just seemed to fit the character. Bernie told me, ‘Y’know, this’ll probably help you, Hogan’…it’s never helped me (laughs).
Still, it’s something that people recognize you for, in a long run as “that guy in that thing”…
You’re the one who remembered the Rickles show… I’m impressed. Working with Don Rickles was an experience. He’s very perceptive, and he’s able to size you up in a very short time. One night, during that brief time that we worked on the series, he took all of us out to Vegas to see his act, and he told everyone ‘I wanna introduce you to to the hockey pucks I’m workin’ with.’ And for the rest of the night we were the butt of the jokes! We were just raw meat.
All of which goes toward explaining why Don Rickles doesn’t get to play Gramps… Actually, to be fair, the play is a little more sharply written, a little saltier I guess you could say, than the old movie with Lionel Barrymore, which was skewed toward the sentimental side, toward a Hollywood studio kind of folksiness.
If you mess around with folksiness, then you mess with the core of the play. Every character has a reason for being, and there’s a real humanity there that develops organically, rather than just by laying on the sentiment.
On Borrowed Time goes up in the first of five previews on Saturday, September 14; opening on Friday, September 20, and running through October 13 with a mix of matinee and evening performances. Tickets ($20 – $65 adults) and details on special performances can be obtained by taking it here.