“I’m profoundly grateful I’m not on it,” said Frank Langella during his moving speech at The Episcopal Actors’ Guild’s annual Memorial Service for deceased show business figures on November 13, 2016.
This crowded celebration was the centerpiece of an 80-minute inter-faith religious service that was held at the 400-seat Church of the Transfiguration. This bucolic landmark was built in 1849, and is also well known by its knick name, “the Little Church Around the Corner.” It has been a haven for actors since the 1870’s.
The Episcopal Actors’ Guild was founded in 1923, and its main mission is to provide emergency aid and support to professional performers of all faiths who are undergoing financial crisis.
A long-time lapsed Catholic, the 78 year-old, New Jersey born, Mr. Langella explained that he had not been inside a church in many years. “Better an old habit should die rather then an old actor.” Aged but vital, this titan of the performing arts was serenely commanding.
“It petrified me,” he revealed of his personal brush with death earlier in the year and how that incident instigated his appearance at this event.
In the early morning of Sunday June 19th, he was taken ill, nearly died and was in the hospital for eight days. Without specifying his malady, he declared that he has since fully recovered.
The date was significant as that afternoon he was to give his final performance in the acclaimed Broadway production of The Father. His performance as a proud, elderly man beset with dementia was critically hailed as among the greatest of his renowned, 54-year career. He won that season’s Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for it.
His understudy, actor Anthony Newfield went on for him. Mr. Newfield is on the council of The Episcopal Actors’ Guild and urged Langella to deliver this year’s Memorial Address. Reluctant at first, he eventually agreed, “So Tony wouldn’t do it better then me,” he joked.
After quoting Noël Coward’s allusion to the dead as, “Blue Shadows,” he estimated that he personally knew 35, of the 250 individuals being commemorated. “Actors have always been my heroes. They’re so profoundly human.” He reminisced about a few of them.
“We were two impossible people,” Langella observed of playwright Edward Albee and himself. The two had a contentious relationship during the 1975 production of Albee’s Seascape, for which Langella won the first of his four Tony Awards. They had not seen each other in many years but had met again relatively recently. “He was shaky and frail. He kissed me on the cheek and said, ‘It’s all water under the bridge. Isn’t it?’”
“Peter Shaffer tried to pick me up in a bar in the 1970’s.” Langella was at a London bar with Mel Brooks. “He’s my boyfriend!” roared Brooks and mock threatened Shaffer. Some years later in 1981, Langella was appearing in the playwright’s Amadeus on Broadway. Shaffer had no memory of this incident, “It was the 1970’s. I was trying to pick up anyone I could!” They were never physical with each other because, “No sex. He’s British.”
“Alan Rickman was my go-to pal in London. He loved shopping for clothes and spending money.”
In the mid 1960’s, in Los Angeles, Langella befriended the young, future Oscar-winning film director Michael Cimino. Cimino had written a script for a never realized movie that he planned to direct and that Langella was to star in in. “I was to be paid $1000 for the whole thing and would have been glad to have it!”
In 2003, he and Tammy Grimes were inducted into The Theater Hall of Fame. The ceremony took place at the Gershwin Theatre. Langella got wistful looking at their names painted in gold on the white walls. “Did you ever imagine when we were starting out in the early 1960’s that this would ever happen to us?” he said to Grimes. “They’d look better against a black background,” she quipped.
“A boy with a profoundly beautiful soul,” Langella remarked of Anton Yelchin, the 27 year-old actor who was crushed to death by his truck in a freak accident. The two worked together several times, and recalling this relationship, Langella was at his most emotional and thoughtful. He held forth about the reality that death might come at any time, and at any age.
“I’ll leave you with cheap sentiment,” he said at the end of his
17-minute address. He then recited a quotation from the 1948 film, Portrait of Jennie that starred Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten.
“There is no life, my darling, until you love and have been loved. And then there is no death.”
He then left the pulpit, and reflectively sat in the front row of the church as Elowyn Castle, the president of The Episcopal Actors’ Guild and Mr. Newfield read the names of the departed.
Earlier, the gregarious Ms. Castle joyously introduced Langella. “He was everybody’s favorite Dracula!” Castle recounted the highlights of his illustrious career. From Dropped Names, his book of memories of deceased celebrities that he knew, she quoted his personal summation, “I consider myself a work in progress.”
(Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster ahronfoster.com)