Hal Linden and Christina Pickles have circled each other’s orbit since both became Broadway regulars in the early ’60s, then network television stars on Barney Miller and St. Elsewhere — but it took the call of some iconic Maine loons to finally bring them together.
Two weeks into exploring the emotional waters of Ernest Thompson’s classic On Golden Pond at the Colony Theatre under Cameron Watson’s direction, the duo discover they were former Upper West Side neighbors back in those Broadway days.
“Where did you live?” Linden asks Pickles during a late morning interview in the Burbank theater’s lobby prior to a weekday rehearsal.
“Riverside Drive and 85th Street,” she replies. “We were around the corner from each other, right? Probably on the same bus.”
“I was on 83rd,” he laughs. “I used to go home on the bus all the time with Bill Daniels [who later would become a co-star with Pickles on St. Elsewhere]. He lived on 93rd and Riverside.”
Linden and Pickles then discuss how their professional lives might have converged 30 years ago in LA. After eight years of playing the titular police captain on ABC’s top-rated sitcom from 1974-82, Linden was offered a leading role in the same 1980s medical drama for which Pickles would receive five Emmy nominations for her role as Nurse Helen Rosenthal. “Yeah, but he declined,” she says, smiling at the former seven-time Emmy-nominated Barney Miller star.
“I was just so tired of doing TV,” Linden shrugs back at her. “I wanted a break. When they asked me to do St. Elsewhere, it would have been no break at all. It would have meant just keep going. I was hoping to do films. Those I did were terrible. One week and gone.”
A Very Golden Pond
A particularly singular film hovers faintly over this new production — the 1981 screen adaptation by playwright Thompson starring Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, with Thompson, Fonda senior and Hepburn each taking home a gold statuette. The younger Fonda famously purchased the rights to the play for her remote father. The result was the pairing of a real-life father and daughter whose strained relationship closely paralleled the fictional one created by Thompson. It also teamed Hollywood icons Hepburn and Fonda for the first time, in one of the most poignant screen pairings of their careers.
None of this is lost on Linden and Pickles.
“That’s just something I try not think about,” Pickles admits. “Of course I thought, oh everybody will say ‘she’s not as good. We miss Katharine Hepburn.’ But what can you do? We’re doing Cameron’s concept of this play. I think his version is wonderful and that’s all we can do. I’m just going to get on the train and go for the ride. I can’t be bothered with what the result is. Otherwise, I wouldn’t get on the train!”
“The film is quite different from the play and probably rightfully so,” Linden explains. “Once you have an opportunity to have the lake in Maine, so many of the scenes take place on that. They had to rewrite the whole show. The same premise and the same plot, but the scene work is very different. It was more of a serious picture than a comedic picture. I think of this as more of a comedic show than a serious one.”
Pickles says she’s glad Watson keeps the story set in 1979. “That was really important to me because it was different. Things were different, as you [turning to Linden] pointed out in rehearsal. The kid who comes in [Billy] would now be on his cell phone and never look up.”
“Does any kid today not do his games or whatever?” interjects Linden, who has eight grandchildren.
“The more you get into it, 1979 is before a lot of things happened,” Pickles continues. “It’s an old time. To me, ’79 was not that long ago, but it was before a lot of new technology.”
On Golden Pond made its Broadway debut on February 28, 1979 at the New Apollo Theatre starring Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen, who received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress. It ran for 126 performances, then re-opened that September with the same cast at the Century Theatre, where it continued until April 20, 1980. Both Pickles and Linden have respectively worked with Sternhagen in earlier Broadway shows Cock A Doodle Dandy in 1969 with Ellis Rabb’s APA-Phoenix Repertory Company and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, a 1972 musical version of Lorraine Hansberry’s play.
“It lasted about a week,” Linden wryly notes. “The rehearsal was too long.” He is the only one of the cast or creative team to have seen Pond’s original Broadway production. “I remember her more than I remember Tom Aldredge. I have very little memory of what he did. All I remember is him sitting. He was sitting all the time. Other than that it was slightly sentimental.”
In 2005, a Broadway revival was mounted with an African American cast starring James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams, which ran for 93 performances. This time, Jones was the Tony nominee. Michael Learned and Tom Bosley starred in a subsequent 2006-07 national tour, which touched down in Thousand Oaks in 2007. A live television broadcast of the play reunited Sound of Music stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in 2001.
According to Thompson’s website, Pond has been produced in more than 40 countries in 27 languages. The playwright retooled the script for the Broadway revival, trimming scenes and eliminating roughly 10 pages, notes director Watson.
The play is Watson’s fourth outing at the Colony following Grace & Glorie, which garnered four Ovation Award nominations including Best Production and earned Beth Grant a 2010 Ovation Award for Best Actress; Educating Rita; and Trying, which received eight Ovation Award nominations and won a Best Actor statue for Alan Mandell alongside a Garland Award for Best Director. Watson most recently directed the critically lauded revival of I Never Sang for My Father starring Philip Baker Hall for the New American Theatre and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
“We were looking for something to do together,” he notes prior to rehearsal, meaning himself and the Colony’s artistic director Barbara Beckley. “I’d done three two-handers out here and didn’t want to investigate another. Barbara said, ‘I don’t know what your reaction will be but what about On Golden Pond?‘ I don’t know much about it, I told her. I know the movie but I’ve never read the play. I’ve got a copy of it in my library. I read it and thought it’s so complicated and complex. It’s quite different than our notion of that cuddly ‘you old poop’ play. I said I’d love to do it.”
Watson knew he needed “two perfect people” as the leads and quickly thought of old friend Pickles. The two had done a pilot 15 years ago, acted in readings and wanted to work together on a full production. “I said, “˜This is it. It’s going to be an odd one. What do you think about On Golden Pond?’”
“Cameron and I have a very close working relationship,” she confirms. “We’ve done a lot of projects together. I love his sensibility and his talent is something I always want to work with. I vaguely knew about it [On Golden Pond] and the sort of play it was. I knew she was a woman I didn’t have to look young for!” she laughs. “Which is nice at my time. It seemed like something that would stretch me and help me to grow as an actor. One always wants to find that.”
Beckley says Linden came to mind when Watson saw an LA Times article on the Tony winner’s concert tour and release of his first CD, “It’s Never Too Late.” “Cameron called me and said, ‘Hal Linden!’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘perfect!’ From that point it was wonderfully simple. We asked through his agent and he said yes. There was none of the dithering and extended negotiations that actors of Hal’s stature usually put you through just to let you know how important they are.”
Linden admits his manager was skeptical about the job. “He said, ‘No one is going to see this show.’ I said, ‘That’s not why I’m doing this.’ What he meant was this was not a lucrative career move.”
When asked why he accepted the role of curmudgeon Norman Thayer, Linden offers, “First of all, I was available. I don’t have concerts till the fall. Second of all, it’s a very good role. Third of all, it keeps me busy if you really want to know the truth.” Linden lost his wife Frances last year after 52 years of marriage. “I’ve been just trying to stay busy with one project after another to keep me occupied. I’m not ready to pull out my golf clubs and spend the days lulling. For my own personal sanity, I need activity and this has been good. You’re lucky when you get a chance to do a terrific role, and the Colony is also a very nice little theater.”
Besides Linden and Pickles, the cast also features Monette Magrath as Chelsea, Jerry Kernion as Charlie, Nicholas Podany as Billy and Jonathan Stewart as Bill. According to Watson, Podany has never seen the film nor have several members of his team.
“We’ve got a 13-year-old kid in this, my assistant is 19 and my stage manager is 25,” he explains. “They have heard about the movie, but never seen it. I think it’s kind of exciting to have a whole new crop of people be introduced to a play like this that don’t have the point of reference we do. They don’t know anything about Henry Fonda and that film, so it’s exciting.”
The Colony’s production will be a hybrid of the original Broadway script and the shortened version Thompson created for the Broadway revival, which also includes a few added lines from the movie. Linden thought some of the dialogue from the original was worth restoring, so the entire cast spent three days reviewing both scripts, adding about a page and a half from the old version into the new.
“I think it’s great to go back to the original source material, especially with these pieces that have gone on to become iconic movies or iconic musicals,” notes Watson. “That’s where everything was born originally, so it really works best in that form. I actually think the play works even better than the movie does. The movie works for a whole other set of reasons. But with the play, you’re going back to what came out of the writer’s heart and gut initially.”
“We remember the picture,” adds Linden. “The picture was so soft and lovely. It was not maudlin but was on the edge of sentimentality. It played into it because of the nature and that is what we are fighting.”
A Fated Burbank Rendezvous
That Linden and Pickles should finally cross paths in Burbank is a whim of fate and timing given their divergent roads getting there. The NYC-born Linden attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, then studied music at Queens College before graduating from City College of New York. He played clarinet in dance bands before being drafted into the Army where he sang and performed for the troops. Once back home, Linden enrolled at the American Theatre Wing where he trained in voice and drama. He made his Broadway debut in 1957 in the musical Bells Are Ringing starring Judy Holliday, before touring with the national company and appearing in the 1960 movie version.
“That was worth all of it,” he admits when asked about Holliday. “She was really something. I had absolutely no career before Bells are Ringing. Some stock but I didn’t even have an agent, honestly. I replaced the understudy for Sydney Chaplin mainly because I fit into his costumes, I’m sure. I started on Monday and went on that Saturday. I had seen the show a hundred times. I was going with one of the girls that was a dancer in it.”
“Did you marry her?” asks Pickles.
“Yes,” he grins.
“I knew it!” she exclaims.
“I should have to pay 10 percent all these years?” he laughs. “The point is I went on facing one number I never rehearsed and only knew from seeing out front. Just in Time. I took her [Holliday] in my arms and sang in her ear. I’m dancing across the stage and I get about eight bars in when I feel a hand on my back, twisting me [he demonstrates] like this, so we’re now dancing is this awkward position, but I’m singing out to the audience. That was Judy. I can’t tell you how many scenes she did directly upstage because she knew the scene was about that character. The most generous actress I’ve ever worked with.” He turns to Pickles and smiles, “We haven’t completed our work yet.”
Pickles was born in Yorkshire, England to a British theatrical family and attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at 15 with fellow students Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole and Brian Bedford. She came to New York in the late ’50s to stay with RADA alum Donald Moffat and his wife. In 1961, Pickles accompanied a boyfriend to his audition for John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger at Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, but she was cast by director Alan Schneider while her boyfriend wasn’t. Schneider subsequently took her to Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park where she performed in Measure for Measure.
A big break came when the Royal Court Theatre’s George Devine cast her as the lead in his New York production of The Way of the World, despite her auditioning for the maid. He then recommended her to Ellis Rabb, who invited Pickles into his APA-Phoenix Repertory Company. She later made her Broadway debut in The Severed Head in 1964.
When asked about their careers in the kinetic 1960s New York theater scene, the two have polar opposite answers. “I don’t think my ’60s were as productive as Christina’s were because I was the perennial standby,” offers Linden. “After Bells, I was in a dozen shows. I went from show to show to show, but I hardly ever got on the stage. It was a very frustrating, ugly time in my life. It made it very difficult to make a career out of it. When they did a musical in those days, they made sure they had a TV star or a Hollywood star in it. It was the Rex Harrison syndrome.”
“My God, it has not changed,” interjects Pickles.
“But it was Harrison who started it,” Linden emphasizes. “Once you did not really have to sing, you could just speak, every show had to have a Hollywood name or a recognizable name. I guess I could have made a switch in my life and said I am not going to do that anymore. But I had four kids by then. So I had to keep working. My career was very checkered. I did grunt work for the first 17 years. Understudy, standby, you name it until The Rothschilds in 1970 [for which he won a Tony Award for best actor in a musical.] I made a career through stage managers, understudy rehearsals and demonstration records for songwriters, things like that. That’s how they knew me. By the time I did The Rothschilds, I was 40 years old. I didn’t really start at any level until I was 40.”
“Is it not wonderful to be so honest?” says Pickles, in that polished silver British voice television and radio audiences have come to recognize. “You do not always meet actors who are honest about their careers. That is why he is such a good actor.”
Barney Miller creator Danny Arnold caught Linden in The Rothschilds by accident and cast him in the title role of his new sitcom series. Linden became a network fixture throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Later he starred in several other series including Blacke’s Magic, Jack’s Place and The Boys Are Back. Linden earned two Emmys for ABC’s FYI series, plus another for The Writing on the Wall, a CBS Schoolbreak Special. He returned to Broadway to star in shows like I’m Not Rappaport, The Sisters Rosensweig, Cabaret and The Revival. Recent regional productions include Tuesdays with Morrie in Toronto and Palm Springs and The Sunshine Boys at LA’s Odyssey Theatre.
Pickles admits she had no idea then how lucky she had been at the beginning and throughout various stages of her career on Broadway, in regional theater and later television. She did stints at the McCarter (under Arthur Lithgow), Stratford Shakespeare Festival and the Long Wharf; summer toured with Rabb’s troupe before doing repertory on and Off Broadway throughout the ’60s and ’70s with fellow members like Rosemary Harris, Barry Bostwick and Brian Bedford. She concurrently appeared in soap operas like Another World before moving to LA in 1979 and landing on series television shortly thereafter.
“We did The Wild Duck in the afternoon and Twelfth Night in the evening,” she recalls of her APA years under Rabb. “It was ridiculously wonderful for a short period of time. But, then of course they couldn’t afford it because the unions had to be paid for all the set changes. And we couldn’t keep doing it. Then I was up in Williamstown and met Bruce Paltrow, who later gave me St. Elsewhere. So, I’ve been really lucky in being given things. Not recently but in the old days. Actually this, too! I look back on my career and think I didn’t always realize how lucky I was. I did not know that the APA rep company was a gold moment. I did not know that St. Elsewhere was an extraordinary thing. Only in my later years, I now realize how lucky I am to have this part and this wonderful theater.”
“Probably the most important characteristic a working actor needs, depending upon how you define it, is stick-to-it-ness or stupidity,” laughs Linden. “Not realizing that you have alternatives. You just keep doing it until eventually if you’re any good, something will happen.”
“There weren’t any casting directors then,” Pickles points out. “The directors took you places if they liked you. You would go from stage manager to referral, this to that. Very different. I liked it. It was more of a community.”
“How many good actresses do you know who couldn’t hang on?” Linden asks her. “I look at that all of the time. Friends of mine who were fine actors who just couldn’t stay the course. How lucky we were.”
“I was at RADA with Brian, Albert and Peter,” notes Pickles. “They were all there when I was there. All of the girls that were there were also really good. I was a little girl from Yorkshire and way too young to be among them. I don’t know what my parents were thinking. I was hopeless. But all of these actresses who were so wonderful are not in it now [acting]. They left. Except one or two. But, in my little group, I thought, “˜Oh, I wish I could be like her,’ well, she left. She couldn’t hack it.”
Pickles certainly could, and she went on after St. Elsewhere to earn a sixth Emmy nomination for her recurring role as Ross and Monica’s dysfunctional mother on Friends, a part she played from episode 1 to the season finale. Locally she was part of the ensemble that won an LADCC Award for Cloud Nine at the Canon Theatre and she was nominated for LADCC honors for Undiscovered Country at the Taper. She recently appeared in SCR’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone. As a member of Antaeus Company, she performed in Noel Coward’s Dinner at 8:30. Her numerous film credits include Romeo + Juliet, Legends of the Fall and The Wedding Singer.
She also starred in the Taper’s production of Darlinghissima: Letters to a Friend at the Itchey Foot cabaret. “That was one of the best experiences of my life,” Pickles recalls. She performed it with famed New Yorker writer Janet Flanner’s real-life lover Natalia Danesi Murray, to whom Flanner’s letters — some of them from the World War II era — were addressed. “Natalia was so wonderful and Janet’s writing — it was amazing. I was a child during the war in England and Natalia said to me one day, “˜How do you know how to do this stuff?’ And I said, ‘because I’m English. I know about the war.’ She had done it with some other American actresses in New York and they didn’t have the same kind of relationship to the material that I had. I was very proud of it.”
Funny Senior Moments
At seventy-something and 80 respectively, Pickles and Linden appreciate the joys as well as the challenges inherent in tackling lengthy parts written for their age categories. Colony audiences marveled with delight at Alan Mandell’s critically acclaimed 2008 performance in Trying, but the octogenarian admitted to LA STAGE magazine that he initially woke up at night in fear of forgetting his lines. Linden can relate.
“It was a source of concern before we started,” he admits. “Is this going to be the show? Is this going to be the last? Will I be able to show up and will I be able to spit it out? I mean, I find myself standing in the middle of rooms saying ‘I know I came in here for a reason’, which I didn’t do when I was 40. I think it’s a wonderful source of victory when you find yourself in rehearsal and you do a whole scene. You get through a whole section and say, ‘Whoa, I did that. It made sense.’ It is something you’ve got to just keep doing until one day they’ll say, ‘You know, back up the truck.’”
“Maybe it’s the last thing I’ll ever do or maybe it’s the first thing of a new career,” adds Pickles, who saw Trying twice. “I don’t know. When you’re working on a play, it’s so totally engrossing, I don’t know about the rest. For the first week through, I thought, “˜Oh, I’m quite good in this part; this is going to be good.’ Then you start working on it and you start shredding and finding out the layers and you realize how much there is to do and then you don’t feel good at all. And you go through a period of feeling like, ‘Christ, am I ever going to do it?’ I think when you’re young you don’t quite investigate so deeply and you trip along more.”
Linden wants to emphasize the humor in the play. “The funny part of being old, not the reality. I think the funnier this is, the more touching it will be. As opposed to what Thompson writes in the prologue of this version, about the more real it is, the more touching it will be. I think if we can find the funny when it gets touching, it will be even more touching.”
“I think he’s right,” concurs Pickles about exploring the play’s themes. “Surviving the end, drawing to a close. Surviving and fighting to stay here. I think you’ve got to be funny or you’ll kill yourself,” she laughs. “It’s hard to talk about a play that you’re in the middle of rehearsing.”
When Linden is reminded of a philosophy he uttered during a recent radio interview about playing life moment to moment, he nods.
“You’ve got to. There’s no point in playing yesterday.”
**Hal Linden and Christina Pickles photographed by Eric Schwabel
**On Golden Pond production photos by Michael Lamont
On Golden Pond, presented by the Colony Theatre Company. Opens July 30. Thurs.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 3 pm and 8 pm. Sun. 2 pm. Through August 28. Tickets: $20-47. The Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street (at Cypress), Burbank. 818-558-7000 ext. 15. www.ColonyTheatre.org.