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Unleashing O’Casey: Julian Barry, Lenny Bruce & American tragedy

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“I almost got arrested with Lenny Bruce. I missed it by twenty minutes, and I’ve been pissed about it ever since.”


He recalls another happy experience, rewriting The River for Mark Rydell. There he worked on set with Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek.

In The River, (1984) Julian Barry turned an average script into sparkling metaphor and visual poetry. Retaining Robert Dillion’s scene where a deer wanders lost into a steel foundry, Barry harnessed the poetry and turned it into drama. He tightened the dialogue, bore down on the characters and unleashed O’Casey. We empathize with the farmers inside the foundry who act as scabs trying to save their farms, as much as the steel workers outside who are on strike trying to save their jobs. What might have been melodrama, emerges as something much closer to real life tragedy. Mel Gibson, about to lose his entire way of life as a farmer, unwilling to give up even if it costs him his family, throws himself into a life and death struggle to keep his identity. That’s tragedy. Only a playwright from the stage, in my opinion, could have notched up the script to that level of drama and allowed Gibson to transcend the boundaries of film. Is he not one of our great tragic actors?

Julian Barry grew up in Riverdale, New York, the North Bronx. He was born in the midst of the Depression and was fourteen when World War Two ended. He had a father who encouraged him in whatever interested him: music, reading, girls, sports. Riverdale was still a town in the forties and fifties. His grandfather had chickens in the backyard. He still recalls the cool fall mornings on the Hudson, the leaves changing, the high school where he was drawn to performance; theatre and music. The record shop was his favorite hangout. It was there, while playing sax in the school band, he first heard Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Their cool jazz drew Barry to the clubs in New York City like a bumble bee to roses. He says of the music: “I’ve always been a major jazz fan. I played the trumpet for years. The trumpet is the most unforgiving, nagging mistress you could ever have. It will not let you neglect it. If you don’t play it everyday, it will make you pay. After school, I went to the clubs in New York to see Charlie Parker. Bird. I went to The Deuces, Birdland, Le Street, in the late forties and early fifties. That was the best time. I was already divorced. I was a young stage manager. I always had a show. I was living in the Village. Getting into drugs. I’d sleep late, then do the show. Then I’d go to Birdland on 52nd Street. Then see a John Wayne double feature. I loved being a stage manager. I was a natural and the word got out. Hire Julian Barry. At 11:00 pm, when the show was over, I’d head to Broadway and sit there half the night. Pick up a girl. Hear the best jazz that was ever played anywhere in the world. I really had no ambition to write plays, but I switched from the trumpet to the sax. The sax is a less demanding mistress.”

And so was Broadway. Broadway brought Julian Barry good fortune.

It was there he first met Mel Brooks. He was acting in a play called Shinbone Alley. It was the archie and mehitabel musical. No caps, because archie was a cockroach who typed out stories by jumping on typewriter keys, and he couldn’t hit the cap tab. The author, Don Marquis, had died in 1937, but Joe Darion and George Kleinsdinge punked out the musical with Eddie Bracken as the cockroach and Eartha Kitt as the cat. But the producers had concerns and that’s where Mel Brooks came in. Says Barry: “What happened with Mel was this: Joe Darion was this wonderful, sweet human being who wrote something that was intellectually funny, but the audience didn’t laugh a lot. They were enjoying the idea of it, a cat and a cockroach who were friends, but the producers started getting nervous. They wanted more laughs, so they called in Mel Brooks, who was working for the Sid Ceasar Show. Mel goes to the first meeting, which I attended because I was assistant stage manager. He says to Joe ‘Where are the jokes?’ Joe’s face drops. The word JOKES broke him. They hired Mel Brooks to rewrite the book. He needed a typist. I volunteered. That’s what I did in the army. I typed instead of carrying a gun in Korea. They put Mel and me together in this hotel room around the corner from the theatre and Mel is dictating jokes. Really bad jokes. Chopped liver jokes like I’d heard in the Catskills. He sees I’m not typing. He asks me if I can really type? I tell him, “Yeah. I can do eighty words per minute, but are you sure you want me to type out that joke?” My hands are frozen on the keys. He starts screaming, “Who the fuck do you think you are? You’re a nobody. Look at your watch. What kind of a guy on Broadway would wear a fucking watch like that?” So I typed out what he had. They used his jokes. Everything was O.K. Not great. It was about that time I left my first wife and I moved into the same hotel where Mel and I were working, around the corner from the theatre. I was freaking out. There was a bar right near the theatre and I was really miserable and he spent half the night with me talking about women. He made me feel better. Broadway was like that back then. It’s not the same now. Maybe around that time I began to think about writing plays. I was in the middle of it all. Jazz, producers, clubs, theatre, drugs, actors, comics. Broadway was where I belonged. It was an exciting place to be in the fifties.”

The desire to write plays for Broadway took time. Julian Barry was savoring the ambiance of the theatre experience. He was assistant stage manager for Budd Schulberg’s theatrical reworking of The Disenchanted, from Schulberg’s novel about the drunken real life adventures of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s in his final Hollywood assignment at the Dartmouth Ice Carnival, where Schulberg was assigned to spiff up the script and keep Fitzgerald from falling through the ice. Budd was a good guy to learn from; he liked to talk about writing.

It was about that time Barry began to be fascinated with Lenny Bruce. “If he was sitting in the back of a club,” says Barry, “he was very approachable. You could talk to him. I had this one time on the road where I almost got arrested with Lenny Bruce. I missed it by twenty minutes, and I’ve been pissed about it ever since. I was stage managing a play in Philly on its way into Broadway. The lighting director was having an affair with her assistant, but her girlfriend had eyes for me. I ran into Lenny at the John Bartram Hotel. He knew me slightly and invited me to come to his room after rehearsal. A lighting rehearsal. He said we could hang out and get high. I got to the lighting rehearsal and we had put in new scenes after New Haven. We had to relight half the show. The lighting director’s assistant was kind of cute and we were always flirting around after the show. The older one was jealous. She starts sending me out for crazy stuff. I mean she’s sending me out for coffee at 1:30 in the morning. When I get to the hotel, I asked if Mr. Bruce is asleep. I know he stays up late. The guy at the desk says ‘The police took him away. He had all kinds of drugs up there.’ It turns out they were mostly prescription drugs. Dilaudid and stuff. He could always con his doctor into writing them. The guy said it was really crazy. They put him on a stretcher, but his feet were sticking out. They had to take the roof off the elevator. Then they put him in vertically. His head was sticking down at the floor and there was a woman in there holding on to her skirts so he couldn’t peep up her dress. Bizarre, fucking scene. That’s how I came to know him. After that, I saw him many times in the clubs. I guess the idea of writing about him might have started then as an idea only. I understood him. He made sense to me as a guy you could put on the stage. You know what I mean?”

I did. He was larger than life, a figure of legend who’s own obsessions drove him along to an iconically tragic end.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 14th, 2009.