Ben Gazzara as Yogi Berra at the Lambs Theater on West 44th St.
In the days when Off-Broadway was only just sprouting Summer and Smoke at the Circle-in-the-Square, David Ross doing Chekhov and Ibsen on East 4th Street, Judith Malina throwing spears at firemen whod come to inspect the Living Theaters Cherry Lane there was a mysterious old venue called the Theatre de Lys, on Christopher Street, where on occasion you could, and I did, savor Rudolph Valentino as The Sheik, or perhaps, on alternate weeks, see a play.
And it was there, one night, that there walked out onto the stage swaggered cockily onto stage, swagger-stick literally in hand an actor I never forgot, in a role and play I never forgot. I mean, it was like first seeing Brando in Streetcar or Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie or Geraldine Page in anything.
The actor was Ben Gazzara as arrogant, manipulative, sadistic, homo-baiting Jocko de Paris, top dog among the cadets of a Southern military academy. The play was Calder Willinghams End As a Man.
The Theatre de Lys long ago changed its name to the Lucille Lortel, but its still right there on Christopher Street. And Ben Gazzara, the East Side kid, is right now, these 50 years and a good many more than 100 movies, TV jobs, and stage plays later, warmly embodying a baseball player and creative linguist of some note in Nobody Dont Like Yogi, a piece for one actor by Tom Lysaght. Its at the Lambs, on West 44th Street, and even if you know nothing about baseball, or the Yankees, or Joe D, or Carmen Berra, or George Steinbrenner, its a royal pleasure. But it helps if you do.
Yogi Berras real name is Lawrence Peter Berra. Ben Gazzaras birth name was Biaggio Anthony Gazzara, and hes sorry he ever foreshortened it. Berra was born May 12, 1925, in St. Louis, Missouri. Gazzara was born August 28, 1930, in New York City.
Im the son of Sicilian immigrants, he was saying the other night before a performance at the Lambs, and grew up on 29th Street between First and Second Avenues, the Bellevue district. I never spoke a word of English only Sicilian to my parents, in their whole lives.
Suddenly, as he was saying this, I remembered the moment, years ago, when I was interviewing Gazzara about some show or other as we were being driven down Central Park West. As the vehicle passed a rundown old building at 68th Street, I said: Thats one of the places where I grew up. With a wicked grin, Gazzara growled: Rich kid, huh?
And I also remembered the story that, back in the late 1950s, a young woman named Marta Curro had written in The Village Voice, about two young Italian-Americans at the Actors Studio who, to celebrate their making it, had spent a gleeful, boozy night setting dollar bills (or fives? Or tens?) on fire and burning the stuff to ashes. The triumphant play was A Hatful of Rain. Their names were Mike Gazzo and Ben Gazzara.
It was an area of tenements, half-Irish, half-Italian, Gazzara was now saying about his boyhood turf. They called us guineas, dagos, wops. We called them the white people. Every scar I have on my face there are more than a few I got in a fight with Irish kids.
Then when the Puerto Ricans came . . . and now, after the Puerto Ricans . . . well, maybe its a little better, but it never ends.
The script of Nobody Dont Like Yogi came first to Gazzaras wife Elke Stuckmann, here in New York, while Gazzara was off in Sweden making a movie called Dogville, with Nicole Kidman. He had not long earlier, gone through the hell of surgery and six weeks of radiation every day of the week, boy, I was worried for oral cancer, and was reluctant to tackle a stage play.
My wife said: Youll do this play or Ill divorce you. You can get a voice coach to help you through it. So I read it, and it made me laugh and cry, said lifelong Yankee fan Gazzara. I told her: All right, Ill try.
[Ms. Stuckmann, a beauteous German-born photographers model, is Gazzaras third wife. His second wife, the exquisite Janice Rule, actress and psychoanalyst, mother of his daughter Elizabeth, died October 22 of this year.]
There is a Yogi Berra museum in Montclair, New Jersey, and it is to there, a year ago, that Gazzara and playwright Lysaght journeyed to try to win Berras approval of the project.
The Berras had received the play and somebody in the family had read it and had had some questions as to whether they should endorse it, because of [Yogis son] Dales problems as a young guy that are mentioned in the play.
Tom and I got dressed to the nines, and the first thing I see when we walked into the museum is a bottle of vodka on a table. I laughed and had some vodka and cranberry juice, and Yogi started asking me about my childhood. I told him I was a Yankee fan before I was born, and that I dreamed and lived and died for Joe DiMaggio. I used to sit out in the bleachers at the Stadium, thats when the outfielders would throw their gloves on the grass between innings in those days, and I could see Joe D. up close when he came to pick up his glove.
When I was a kid on the streets, we played stickball and softball. I didnt play hardball wasnt that crazy. As a grownup I played softball in Central Park, and of course I played center field, like Joe D. He was my hero. He and Sinatra.
Yogi brought out photographs of him jumping all over Don Larsen after the perfect game, of Jackie Robinson stealing home on a slide that Yogi still believes was an out and I thought to myself: Ahh, we got him.
But just then Carmen Berra, the light of Yogis life for 50 or 60 years, entered the room, and the climate changed. Evidently concerned about Dale Berra [who works at the museum] and the various Berra grandchildren, she let it be known that she wished the play wouldnt go forward.
I said uh-oh to myself, and to Tom Lysaght I said: Lets not press this, lets just be gentlemen and go home. Which is what we did. And I want to say here and now, as Ive said before, when Mrs. Berra said that, Yogi let out an embarrassedlaugh. I felt his sweetness and his tenderness. He hugged me so hard, I thought my ribs would crack. It would have been nice to get the Berra family in on the production, but as Ive also said, it speaks to Yogis honor that he is not participating.
Yes, and it speaks to Ben Gazzaras honor to have compiled a lifetime of ruthlessly honest performances. Among those most vividly burned (like $100 bills) in this viewers memory are his loyal, loving doctor in Strange Interlude opposite Geraldine Page, his stoic foil to tempestuous Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetess Opening Night, and, just a few years ago, his crusty, nutty old father in Vincent Gallos Buffalo 66.
Then, of course, theres that Jocko de Paris in End As a Man once upon a time at the De Lys. Hey, Ben, does that play, that role, ever get done these days?
Gazzara kept a straight face. Who could do it? he growled. And then, just barely, through all those East 29th Street scars, in a 73-year-old visage as ugly-beautiful as Yogis own, one might have perceived the shadow of a smile.