Gardner, Herb(ert) 1934-
GARDNER, Herb(ert) 1934-
PERSONAL: Born in 1934, in New York, NY; married, April, 1957; wife's name, Rita (an actor), (marriage ended). Education: Attended Carnegie Institute of Technology and Antioch College.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Sam Cohn, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
MEMBER: Dramatists Guild.
AWARDS, HONORS: Named "promising playwright of 1961-62" by New York Drama Critics; Antoinette Perry Award nomination for best play, 1963, for A Thousand Clowns; Screenwriters Guild award and Academy Award nomination, best screenplay, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, both 1965, both for A Thousand Clowns; "Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Me?" was named one of "ten best short stories of 1968"; Emmy Award nomination, 1970, for Annie: The Women in the Life of a Man; Antoinette Perry Award for best play, 1986, for I'm Not Rappaport; Writers Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award, 2000.
A Piece of the Action, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1958.
The Elevator (one-act), produced in 1952.
A Thousand Clowns (three-act; produced in 1962), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1962.
The Goodbye People (produced in 1968), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1974.
Thieves (two-act; produced in 1974), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1977.
A Thousand Clowns, Thieves, [and] The Goodbye People, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1979.
(Author of play and lyrics) One Night Stand (two-act musical; music by Jules Styne), produced in 1980.
I'm Not Rappaport (two-act; produced in 1985), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1986.
Conversations with My Father (produced in 1991), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1993.
Herb Gardner: The Collected Plays, Applause Books (New York, NY), 2000.
A Thousand Clowns (adapted from Gardner's play), United Artists, 1965.
Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Me? (based on Gardner's story), National General, 1971, published by New American Library/Signet (New York, NY), 1971.
Thieves (adapted from Gardner's play), Brut/Paramount, 1977.
The Goodbye People (adapted from Gardner's play), Castle Hill, 1986.
I'm Not Rappaport, (adapted from stage play), Universal Studios, 1997.
(Coauthor) Annie: The Women in the Life of a Man (teleplay), CBS-TV, 1970.
Creator of cartoon The Nebbishes in Chicago Tribune. Contributor to periodicals, including Saturday Evening Post.
SIDELIGHTS: When asked why he wrote plays, Herb Gardner responded, "God help me, I love it. Because it's alive." Known for his low-key comedies such as the Broadway successes A Thousand Clowns and I'm Not Rappaport, Gardner has written for both the stage and screen. He has gained widespread recognition as the creator of witty and sympathetic, if somewhat conventional, renderings of humanity's more eccentric members. A Thousand Clowns, for instance, concerns a social dropout, while I'm Not Rappaport's protagonist is an irascible, elderly activist. A Toronto Globe and Mail interviewer once commented to Gardner that "many of [his characters] seem to have fallen by the social wayside," whereupon Gardner responded, "I guess I always think of the wayside as my neighborhood." Ray Olson of Booklist characterized Gardner's work as "giddy melodramas that end happily even though death and defeat has struck. Like their colorful New York characters, they are torn between the exuberance of living life freely and the loving necessity of adapting to 9-to-5 routines."
Gardner began his career as a cartoonist, although as he told Hettie Lynne Hurtes of Back Stage West, "'I really wanted to be a sculptor like Rodin, but I had to pay the rent.'" At the Chicago Tribune he created the popular comic strip, The Nebbishes, which centered on endearing social outcasts. Due to successful merchandising, The Nebbishes won Gardner substantial earnings in the late 1950s, by which time he had also issued a novel, A Piece of the Action. But he was dissatisfied, and in the early 1960s he abandoned his lucrative comic work to concentrate on play writing, having completed several one-act works earlier in his career. Gardner commenced writing a play that was about a man who abruptly abandons a lucrative job; that play developed into A Thousand Clowns, wherein a social outcast is pushed by relatives into resuming a regular lifestyle, presumably as an example to his admiring young nephew.
With its accessible humor and its sympathetic characters, A Thousand Clowns won immense acclaim when it appeared on Broadway in 1962. For this work Gardner was named the theater season's "promising new playwright" by the New York Drama Critics. Three years later, when Gardner adapted A Thousand Clowns as a motion picture, he realized further success, receiving an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay. The play was again acclaimed as a stage production in 2001 when renowned television and movie actor Tom Selleck was cast in the lead role of Murray Burns, previously played on Broadway and in the film by Jason Robards. Critics, however, tended to view the play after forty years as dated. Robert C. Page III of Variety noted that the "family-oriented romantic comedy runs counter to the current culture of the theatrical world." While producers saw this as a mark of uniqueness, Page vouched that Selleck's performance would please the play's fans and give a boost to the play. Although Irene Backalenick of Back Stage found it less successful than Gardner's "later, more mature, work," she conceded that "funny, insightful lines are scattered throughout." She further noted that the play addressed "the intriguing theme of freedom versus responsibility."
In 1968 Gardner completed a major stage production, The Goodbye People, which New York Times reviewer Richard Eder described (while appraising a revival ten years later) as "a sentimental comedy about a noble failure." The play's hero is an old man who decides to open a hot-dog stand on the Coney Island boardwalk during the winter. Helping the hero in this unlikely enterprise is his insecure daughter and an eccentric song-writer who wears sunglasses in the dark. A National Observer critic noted that The Goodbye People possesses "charm and comic flair." In 1986 Gardner adapted The Goodbye People as a film that he also directed; the film version, however, did not gain recognition comparable to the original stage work.
Gardner returned to screen writing in 1971 with Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Me?, an adaptation of his own prize-winning story. It concerns an enormously successful songwriter who is nonetheless plagued with insecurities; furthermore, he is being harassed by a mysterious stranger who is slandering the protagonist among his friends and peers. Who Is Harry Kellerman failed to match the acclaim of Gardner's previous works, although New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby conceded that the film "is very glib, very funny in short takes."
Gardner's next work, Thieves, marked his return to Broadway. Here he assays the trials and tribulations of two glum schoolteachers in their twelfth year of marriage together. Both husband and wife enter into flirtatious interactions with others, but neither of these interactions culminates in infidelity. Meanwhile, the couple contemplate ending their marriage. Although the play was popular, it received little critical acclaim. The New Yorker's Brendan Gill proclaimed Gardner "a man . . . of undoubted intelligence," but he considered Thieves "a sentimental comedy written in cold blood."
Gardner enjoyed greater success with I'm Not Rappaport, his mid-1980s play about a feisty old socialist and his nearly blind friend whose modest employment is threatened by "modernization." Thus the combative hero conspires to save his friend's job for him and, furthermore, inspire him to greater social involvement. David Richards reported in the Washington Post that I'm Not Rappaport "triumphantly proclaims the right to life" and added that it is "one of the most satisfying plays to come our way from Broadway in some time." Gardner told a New York Times interviewer that he would be satisfied if the play's success were merely sufficient to assure his continued activities as a playwright. "My ambition consists entirely of being able to do it well enough that they let me do it again—and to avoid public disgrace," he confided. That article concluded with Gardner musing, "I just figure, whether it's love or work, you live from one moment of hope to the next."
In 1997, with the help of Tom Pollock, Gardner wrote and directed the film adaptation of I'm Not Rappaport, starring his old friends Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis. Gardner had wanted to produce a film version every since the play was first staged. He told Hettie Lynne Hurtes of Back Stage West that it wasn't until he read an article in Premiere magazine in which numerous moguls, stars, and agents in the movie industry were interviewed that he saw a way to do it. He said, "'Pollock was one of [those interviewed and] . . . he said the reason he got into the movie business was that he'd seen A Thousand Clowns in law school, and it really affected him. So I called him up and asked if he wanted to do [a film version of I'm Not Rappaport]. Just like that, he said OK . . . the movie wouldn't have been made if it weren't for Pollock. That's how it works."
Drawing on the strength of both the film media and his actors' distinct gifts, Gardner directed the film by encouraging Davis and Matthau to respond to each other rather than strictly following the script. Back Stage West reported Gardner as saying, "I didn't want my version of Nat Moyer on the screen—I wanted Walter [Matthau]'s." Bruce Forer of Entertainment Weekly wrote, "you . . . won't know whether to laugh or cry at these lovable, irascible, but ultimately annoying characters."
Herb Gardner: The Collected Plays, published in 2000, was greeted with critical applause. Containing the complete texts of five plays, the collection includes A Thousand Clowns, I'm Not Rappaport, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying These Terrible Things about Me?, along with introductory, laudatory essays by such well-known actors as Jason Robards and Dustin Hoffman. Barry X. Miller of Library Journal wrote, "F-i-n-a-l-l-y—Gardner . . . has been given his theatrical publishing due with this first compilation of five plays and a screenplay." Ray Olsen of Booklist declared, "Gardner seems incapable of writing an unprofitable play—or a bad one—and he gets less respect than he deserves. The five plays and one screenplay in this handsome volume are all moving as well as very funny. They have furnished star actors with some of their most memorable roles and star directors with some of their biggest successes."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Back Stage West, January 2, 1997, Hettie Lynne Hurtes, "Just Say It," p. 10.
Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 11, 1987.
Library Journal, July 2000, Barry X. Miller, review of The Collected Plays, p. 90.
National Observer, December 9, 1968.
Newsweek, May 14, 1962, p. 101; December 16, 1968, p. 114.
New Yorker, December 14, 1968, p. 180; April 15, 1974, pp. 104-05.
New York Times, December 4, 1968; June 16, 1971; June 20, 1971; May 2, 1979, p. C7; June 2, 1985; June 7, 1985; January 31, 1986.
Time, December 9, 1985, p. 94.
Washington Post, April 2, 1987; April 3, 1987.*