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Friday, January 8, 2010

Deeper Dish with Jim Brochu

Jim Brochu has led a very interesting life since he produced his first show at the age of thirteen - a charity revue featuring other kids in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Four years later he was working on Broadway - selling orange drink at the back of the St. James Theatre during intermissions of the musical, Hello, Dolly! Jim made his Broadway acting debut in a very bad revival of The Taming of the Shrew, and in 1971, he had his first film role in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, which starred another newcomer, Robert De Niro. He later appeared on such television shows as Maude, Kojak, All My Children, The Young and the Restless and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, but his biggest claim to TV fame was in two legendary commercials - first as a dancing raisin for Post Raisin Bran cereal and then as the "Lemon from Outer Space" with Madge the Manicurist for Palmolive dish-washing detergent.

Jim was also lucky enough to become friends with Ethel Merman and Joan Crawford - both of whom he met as a boy - as well as Lucille Ball, whom he wrote a biography about in 1990 called Lucy in the Afternoon. More recently, he and his life partner of 24 years, Steve Schalchlin, have had great success with their off-Broadway musicals, The Big Voice: God or Merman? and The Last Session (the latter was nominated for Best Musical by the New York Drama League and the New York Outer Critics Circle). And now Jim is currently starring off-Broadway in Zero Hour, a play he wrote about the life and career of actor Zero Mostel (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Fiddler on the Roof), which was named the Best Play of 2006 by the LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards. As you can see, the talented Mr. Brochu has certainly had a fascinating career, and I am delighted to have him here on the Dish to discuss it in further detail and answer a few pop culture questions.

Let's start with Zero Hour, your one-man show about Zero Mostel which has received rave reviews. What is your favorite quote from a review so far?
I don’t read the reviews until a show has closed, but I can’t help hearing people who tell me that they've been raves. I also can't help seeing the fliers, and from the quotes on those, my favorite is from Dom DeLuise who said, "I couldn’t help being knocked out by his brilliant performance – you sit back knowing you are being entertained by a master." That was special because he was special.

What inspired you to write about Mr. Mostel?
I have been compared to Zero since I was in high school. When Jerry Tallmer in the New York Post reviewed me in my first off-Broadway show in 1970, he said that I was his choice to play the lead if they ever did the Zero Mostel story. A few years ago I was cleaning out my bookcase and found a Theatre Arts magazine with Zero on the cover, and it was like he was ordering me to bring him back to life. So I did.

What was the most interesting thing that you learned about him that you previously didn't know?
I didn’t know that Zero had been disowned by his parents for marrying a Catholic girl and that the guilt of it stayed with him until the day he died.

What's your favorite Zero Mostel quote?
I actually have two. When Zero was asked about being a great comedian he said, "I'm not a comedian. I'm a painter. I only do comedy to buy more paint." Then when Harold Prince asked Zero if he would work with his arch-enemy Jerome Robbins (who had named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee), Zero said, "Of course I'll work with him because we of the left do not blacklist."

How did you meet and become friends with Lucille Ball?
I wrote a play called The Lucky O’Learys about two sisters of a certain age who were still sibling rivals. I thought Lucy would be perfect as one of the sisters and heard she was looking to do a project with Audrey Meadows. Perfect. I found her address on a "Map to the Stars' Homes" and sent her the script with a note telling her I had been in her comedy class in 1977 and I also played backgammon. She called the next day, said the play had made her laugh and could I come over to the house and talk about it. From that day, I spent almost every day with her until she died. She was a dear friend and I miss her. Still. After all these years.

Do you have a favorite Lucy story?
Everyone thinks that Lucy was a tough broad. She wasn't. She was incredibly sensitive. When I came over to the house one day, she was sitting on the couch crying. Somehow she had gotten a copy of Richard Burton's autobiography where he said, "I loathe Lucy." She kept saying over and over, "I thought he liked me."

You also got to know Ethel Merman and Joan Crawford. What is your fondest memory about each of them?
My fondest memory of Ethel was the day I first met her. It was backstage after a performance of Gypsy. My father was a friend of her father and he introduced us. It was a religious experience that transformed my life – making me want to spend the rest of it in the theatre. It's strange though – a friend of mine who I hadn't seen in 40 years said to me, "Do you remember the night we had dinner with Ethel Merman?" And would you believe, I didn’t.

Joan Crawford was a fascinating person. I went to visit her one night, and she was wearing no makeup, a housecoat and a babushka. She was making soup for a party she was having the next night. We were in the kitchen and there was a little TV on her counter. A pizza commercial came on and Joan said, "Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go out for a slice of pizza?" I said, "Let's go!" She looked at me, rather forlornly and said, "It would take me two hours to get ready." I asked her why and she said with a sigh, "Because I can't leave this house unless I'm Joan Crawford."

You've acted in many theater productions over the years. What is the most memorable moment you have had while performing onstage?
During the opening night of my second off-Broadway show which was called To Be Or Not To Be...What Kind Of A Question Is That?, I was suppose to bound on stage, leap onto a box and sing a song. A very bad song. I ran out, jumped for the box, missed and hit my head on the stage. I saw stars, but still got up and sang the terrible song. Next day in The New York Times, Clive Barnes wrote in his review, "You've heard of a play within a play, last night we saw a flop within a flop."

You've appeared on many interesting television shows and films over the years. What's the first thing that pops into your mind about:

The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight?
I really thought De Niro was an Italian immigrant. He never broke character.

I did two episodes of Maude and loved Bea Arthur. The set was a lot of fun to work on. Bea became a friend and was very nurturing when my partner Steve was very ill.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman?
I played Officer Jerry Chandler and my storyline involved the Christmas tree murders. Most of my work was with Louise Lasser who liked me because I could improvise. The others in the storyline were Marty Mull and the late great Susan Browning.

All My Children?
I played Father James and was on call for most weddings, funerals and other religious events. I think I got the job because I had a black suit.

Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter (a 1991 TV movie)?
I played Desi's boss who was angry with him for almost missing the opening night – having run off to Connecticut to marry Lucy. Frances Fisher played Lucy and my book, Lucy in the Afternoon, had just been published so she was picking my brain for details. I thought she gave a lovely performance as Lucy.

How did you end up as a writer on the short-lived 1980 TV variety show, Pink Lady?
I was hired by the head writer Mark Evanier because I had a theatre background and could write quickly. The two girls, known as Pink Lady, were sweet and talented but out of their element as sketch comedians. But it was a joy to work with Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis and Red Buttons – three of the greatest.

Which did you prefer being - a dancing raisin or "The Lemon from Outer Space"?
Being a dancing raisin was a lot more fun. We spent days in and out of that bowl.

In high school I was:
Ignored until I acted in plays. Then I was noticed.

My favorite comfort food is:
Macaroni and Cheese – and lots of it.

The last good book I read was:
Original Story By Arthur Laurents

I never miss a television episode of:
Dexter and The Daily Show.

If I was stranded on a desert island for a year, I would want to listen to:
The original cast albums of Gypsy, 1776, Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha and The Apple Tree.

Three of my favorite movies are:
The Song Of Bernadette, Yankee Doodle Dandy and All About Eve.

If I could have anyone in the world - living or dead - be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
Jesus, Jackie Kennedy and Orson Welles.

What's next for Jim Brochu?
I'll be doing Zero Hour for another few years and then a long ocean voyage that goes from NY to LA through the Panama Canal.

Thank you, Jim, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. To learn more about Jim Brochu, check out his website at To purchase tickets to Zero Hour and for more information on the show, go to Zero Hour is playing through January 31 at the Theatre at St. Clement's (423 West 46th St.).

Jim will also be introducing - with actress Lee Grant - the acclaimed 1959 teleplay of The World of Sholom Aleichem at the Paley Center (25 West 52nd St.) in New York on Thursday, January 14, at 5:30 pm. Based on writer Aleichem's tales of Jewish life in the ghettos of Eastern Europe, this film features several actors who were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era, including Grant and Zero Mostel. The screening is free with admission to the Paley Center.

1 comment:

Mark R said...

Interesting article.