06 January 2012

William Duell

Like the great character actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Duell pops up in dozens of roles. Here he is in his recurring role as an informant in the short-lived TV series Police Squad!
I imagine he looked much like this when playing Filch.

The New York Times reports that the character actor William Duell has died, at the age of 88, and in his obituary the Paper of Record very nearly does justice to the length and varied breadth of his career. Long after the heyday of quirky character actors in Hollywood, Duell lent spice and interest to dozens of movies and plays. He was never a star, as we understand these things, but he was a lovely man, whom I had the pleasure of meeting once. The Times does give you some sense of that.

What the Times neglects to mention is that Duell set and held a record for the longest-running performance in an off-Broadway play. Starting in 1954, and ending in 1961, Duell played in the ensemble of the legendary revival of Weill’s Threepenny Opera, in Marc Blitzstein’s adaptation at the Theater de Lys in New York.

As Filch, one of Macheath’s gang, as well as the Mounted Messenger, Duell became a crucial part of one of the most important cultural events in postwar America.

Yes, you do know that face:
Duell in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Outside the tiny theater, the Cold War and the Witch Hunt raged — but inside, dissenting voices rose in song. Blacklisted actors, including my beloved Madeline Gilford, found work in the show, and a steady stream of lefty intellectuals at the box office guaranteed the show its long run.

But it wasn’t only the congregation of those who were already persuaded to whom the Threepenny choir sang. Surely most of the people who have heard Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darrin’s recordings of “Mack the Knife” (which use Blitzstein’s lyrics and incorporate Lotte Lenya’s name among the list of Mack’s conquests) have had no idea where the song came from. I certainly didn’t, when I first heard it.

What’s more, the Theater de Lys Threepenny inspired a younger generation of smart, progressive kids; its score provided their anthems, and, among those who were artists, the show itself helped to focus their ambitions. When I found out that Madeline Kahn was a Weill fan in her youth, everything about her mind and her sense of theater became clear to me.

Poster from the Theater de Lys production.
Today the theater, on Christopher Street, bears the name
of its most celebrated producer, Lucille Lortel.

Bright young New Yorkers went out and learned about Bertolt Brecht, and tried to adapt his ideas for their own shows — very often in tiny little theaters “off-Broadway,” a locale that hadn’t even existed before Threepenny.

We’re still feeling the effects of those performances and calculating the show’s influence. As a training ground for actors, too, the show was unparalleled: among the cast members over the seven years were Beatrice Arthur, Ed Asner, Estelle Parsons, John Astin, Jerry Orbach, Jane Connell, Jerry Stiller, and hundreds more. Going through the old playbills in the Weill archive, I marveled — and without going through them again, I can’t give you anything like a complete list of the distinguished names. Suffice to say that, for decades, you couldn’t turn on the TV or watch a movie or go to a play without seeing an alumnus of Threepenny.

Some 700 actors cycled through the cast of that show, creating a landmark in American culture — but only one actor stuck it out to the end. His name was William Duell, and I thought you ought to know.

Meeting Duell in a rehearsal studio many years ago, I talked to him about Threepenny. (At the time, I nurtured a little fantasy of writing a book of interviews with the cast of the revival.) He was immensely proud not only of his record-setting run but also of the show itself.

NOTE: William Duell’s obituary in Playbill makes prominent mention of Threepenny, and reminds me that Duell took part in Richard Foreman’s Lincoln Center revival of Threepenny in the 1970s. Although I now recall that Duell himself made a point of mentioning it when we spoke, I’d forgotten completely when I wrote this essay this morning. So I really ought not be so quick to criticize the Times obituary-writer.


Michael Leddy said...

Bravo for adding this story to the record.

William V. Madison said...

Thank you, sir!