It has been some 42 years since our encounter at Lincoln Center. I was hired to understudy Albert Hall and Bill Cobbs was the understudy for Dick Antony Williams in Bill’s play, BLACK PICTURE SHOW. A week before leaving for Vietnam in May 1969, a girlfriend had taken me to see a play in New York, BIG TIME BUCK WHITE. It starred the tall, volatile actor Dick Antony Williams. I was incredibly moved by the power and passion of this new kind of theater to me. Months later, first hospitalized in Saigon, then Japan, then Walter Reed, with a poor prognosis for my future longevity, I thought long how to spend what time I had remaining. I then remembered that performance…and I resolved to resign my commission and begin the study of acting. All this is in winter and spring of 1970. So you can appreciate how meaningful it was, to later meet with and work with Dick, the inspiration for my career change.
I have the sense that Bill was at that time somewhat frail, rather tall and lean, soft-spoken. I remember him in muted, layered choices of dress; long scarves and tweedy jackets. I don’t remember ever having heard him raise his voice. Joe Papp, in his quixotic wisdom had chosen Bill as the director for his own play. That was a choice that would prove problematic…and somewhat consistent with Joe’s tendency to hire weak directors, leading to their firing and then his (Joe’s) assumption of the direction. He is among the most important producers in American theater history. That was his bailiwick.
Joe was far less successful and gifted as a director of theater. The work advanced slowly. The emotional life of Bill’s play remained unrevealed. Oz Scott (who you should contact) was the ASM and conducted understudy rehearsals with Bill Cobbs and I. This was late autumn, early winter of 1974 and some weeks into rehearsal, we discovered that Joe had fired Bill Gunn and himself taken over direction. For perhaps a weekend, the possibility was floated that Bill Cobbs and I might replace Dick and Al. We seemed to capture the emotional life that was missing. The next week, the decision was made to press on with the original father and son, Dick and Al.
Joe maneuvered chess pieces around the set but failed to ever reveal the heart of the play. It ran for only a few weeks and garnered a single Tony nomination, for Linda Miller. In my estimation, it had the potential to earn nominations for writing and for several rich, memorable roles. The personalities of individual actors remain with me; the eccentricity of Ms. Cole, the restrained formality of Graham, intrigues, romances, etc. I should add that large chunks of text were excised, once Joe took over. The mentality seemed to be, “Can’t reach that moment, emotionally? We’ll cut it.”
I’m sure you know the beauty of Bill’s prose. It was dispiriting to see it dismantled…and probably the reason the play didn’t receive a Tony nomination for script.
Sadly my memories of Bill suggest we had very limited personal interaction. I’m afraid that’s the most insight I can offer. Good luck to your project.
May 6, 2017