By JIM BROCHU
I usually don't get nervous before a performance: excited yes, nervous no. But when Marian Seldes called and asked me for tickets to Zero Hour, my one-man show about Zero Mostel, I got very nervous. How often do you perform in front of the First Lady of the American Theatre? Marian played Zero’s daughter in The Merchant, the play he was able to perform only once in Philadelphia before he passed away.
I had met Marian several times with my mentor David Burns and had seen her in many plays on Broadway and in The Royal Family at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles. It was always fun to go backstage, where she held court like the true Queen of the Stage that she was.
I hadn’t seen Marian in years when we re-met at The Players. We were seated together with our dear friend Brian Murray, another great Player, for an event at which I was performing. It was an evening filled with laughs and reminiscences and we bonded quickly and firmly. Marian told me she was crazy about Zero and promised she would come see me. I think part of her wanted to support me, and part wanted to judge how (or if) I could pull it off.
She chose a Saturday matinee. During the performance I kept looking out at an empty seat where she was supposed to be. Truly disappointing. But she called a few days later to say she had fallen on the way to the theatre, and was supine with apologies. She promised to see the show as soon as she was better, and a few months later she rescheduled.
That afternoon I was quite aware Marian was in the house, and I pretty much played the whole show to her. I went back to my dressing room and thought about how often I had gone backstage to see her after a show. It was heady to think she was now coming back to see me. I quickly washed my face, combed my hair back and waited for the great Seldes to appear.
The door to the backstage area opened and there she was. Marian had her head down and was shaking it back and forth, repeating over and over again, “Horrible. It was just horrible. Horrible!” I panicked. I thought, Oh my God, I'm about to get the worst review of my life from one of the greatest actresses of our time. As she got closer she raised her head, embraced me and repeated, “Just horrible.”
I said, “Marian, was I really horrible?” “Oh, darling. No! You were brilliant. I thought I was watching Zero himself. But what they did to those poor people back in the blacklist days was just horrible. Horrible!” Thank God: to Marian Seldes, what was horrible wasn’t me.
A few months later, Marian was given a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. Steve and I were watching at home when she came to the stage, accepted the award, nodded, clutched the statuette to her chest and walked off without saying a word. We were with her the next night and I asked her why she did that. She said when she got to the ceremony all the producers, one by one, came to her and said, “Keep it short. Keep it short. Keep it short!” “So,” she said, “I decided to keep it the shortest of anybody who's ever spoken.” Her acceptance took only one second. I hope the producers were happy. I know Marian was.
The photo at the top was taken an instant after I told her I thought she meant I was horrible in the show.
Jim Brochu joined The Players in 1970. He is the recipient of the New York Drama Desk Award, the Helen Hayes Award, two LA Ovation Awards, the GLAAD Media Award, and a Sardi's caricature in recognition of his fifty-year career in the theatre as an actor and playwright. This piece was adapted from his new book Watching From The Wings.