Tally, Ted 1952-
TALLY, Ted 1952-
PERSONAL: Born April 9, 1952, in Winston-Salem, NC; son of David K. (a school administrator) and Dorothy E. (a teacher; maiden name, Spears) Tally; married Melinda Kahn (an art gallery director), December 11, 1977. Education: Yale University, B.A., 1974, M.F.A., 1977.
CAREER: Playwright and screenwriter, 1977—. Playwriting seminar instructor at Yale University, 1977-79; master artist-in-residence at Atlantic Center for the Arts, 1983.
MEMBER: Writer's Guild of America, Dramatists Guild, Playwrights Horizons (member of artistic board), Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
AWARDS, HONORS: Yale University Kazan Award and Theron Rockwell Field Prize, both 1977, and Drama-Logue award, 1979, all for Terra Nova; Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Foundation playwriting fellowship, 1977; New York State Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1980; John Gassner Award, New York Outer Critics Circle, 1981, for Coming Attractions; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1983-84; Obie Award, Village Voice, 1984, for Terra Nova; Guggenheim fellowship, 1985-86; Christopher Award, 1988, for The Father Clements Story; Academy Award for best screenplay based on material previously produced or published, 1991, for Silence of the Lambs.
White Palace (adapted from the novel by Glenn Savan), Universal Pictures, 1990.
The Silence of the Lambs (adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris), Orion Pictures, 1990.
Before and After (adapted from the novel by Rosellen Brown), Buena Vista, 1996.
The Juror (adapted from the novel by George Dawes Green), Columbia Pictures, 1996.
All the Pretty Horses (adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy), Miramax Films, 2000.
Mission to Mars, Touchstone Pictures, 2000.
Red Dragon (adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris), Universal Pictures, 2002.
Terra Nova (two-act; first produced in New Haven, CT, 1977; produced off-Broadway, 1984), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1981.
Hooters (two-act; first produced off-Broadway, 1978), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1978.
Coming Attractions (one-act; first produced off-Broadway, 1980), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1982.
Silver Linings (revues), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1983.
Little Footsteps (two-act; first produced off-Broadway, 1986), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1986.
Hooters (adapted from author's play), Playboy Channel, 1983.
(With John Bruce) Terra Nova (adapted from author's play), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBCTV), 1984.
(Contributor) The Comedy Zone, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS-TV), 1984.
(With Arthur Heineman) The Father Clements Story, National Broadcasting Company (NBC-TV), 1987.
Works represented in anthologies, including Plays from Playwrights Horizons, 1987.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A film version of Little Footsteps, for release by Twentieth Century-Fox; a film version of Glenn Savan's novel White Palace, for release by Universal; Free Spirit, with A. J. Carothers, for TriStar.
SIDELIGHTS: Ted Tally's best-known play, Terra Nova, made its debut at the Yale Repertory Theater when its author was only twenty-five years old. A Yale drama school student who, according to a People magazine contributor, "was frankly hurt" that the university "rejected him as an actor," but "relieved to be accepted for his play-writing credits," Tally featured six of his classmates in his play's premiere performance. As Samuel G. Freedman reported in the New York Times, the set was built "out of scrap wood and yards of white muslin from Connecticut's tobacco fields." The audience, however, included New York producers and talent agents, and Terra Nova has since been performed off-Broadway and in countries all over the world, including Great Britain, Australia, and Japan. Tally's more recent efforts have been in a lighter vein than his darkly dramatic first success, and his comedic credits include Hooters, Coming Attractions, Silver Linings, and Little Footsteps. Tally has also supplemented his career with scriptwriting for film and television.
Terra Nova, named for the ship that bears its protagonist to the play's setting, is the story of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Describing himself in Tally's drama as a "footnote to history," Scott is remembered as the Englishman who came in second to Norwegian Roald Amundsen in the race to discover the South Pole. Terra Nova depicts Scott's expedition and its tragic end—the slow, torturous death of Scott and his men from exposure and hunger a mere eleven miles from safety—but as Frank Rich pointed out in the New York Times, "in a sense, there are three plays here." The historic action is intertwined with the psychological action of Scott's inner thought, and both are tied to the theme of Great Britain's decline as an empire. Though some critics, like Rich, felt that these different aspects do not successfully "converge in a single dramatic entity," others applauded the work. J. W. Lambert declared in Drama that "structurally the play is ingenious but not obtrusively so."
Terra Nova is often performed on a more-or-less completely white set. Speaking of the off-Broadway production at the American Place Theater, Rich affirmed that "the white stage serves as the terrain of both Antarctica and the hero's mind." Thus Scott's imagined conversations with his wife and with rival Amundsen are presented to the audience. Mrs. Scott appears on stage to reenact the couple's courtship and to add substance to the conflict in Scott's makeup between duty to country and duty to family. Amundsen's function is to force the hero to question the value of ideals—or, as James Harris put it in Plays and Players, to "chide him for being so sentimental as not to take dogs and eat them en route." Tally carefully blends his speculative interpretation of the explorer's psyche with illustrations of the horrible realities of the polar expedition. Many reviewers noted with David Richards the effectiveness of the scene in which Scott's daydreams of a triumphant banquet celebrating the expedition's return dissolve into despair. Richards, critiquing Terra Nova for the Washington Post, called the drama "an act of poetic conjuration" and described the banquet scene, with Scott and his men "spankingly attired in crisp tuxedoes," thus: "At the height of the festivities, the elegant crystal service is stripped away and the table is instantly transformed into the sled of death. The men are back in a freezing hell." Similarly, Rich praised the "startling images" the play created and cited as an example the scene in which "we see a celebratory group photograph taken at the Pole decompose into a vision of an entire civilization's imminent extinction."
Because Terra Nova is an "historical, heroic and narrative work," Freedman labeled it "a play that seems innovative in part by being such a throwback." But, combined with the scenes which take place in Scott's imagination, the more conventional storytelling nature of the play helps make it appeal more broadly. As Freedman explained, a "mix of traditional and modern elements" partially accounts for "the attraction of Terra Nova to so many . . . theaters." Freedman quoted Yale Repertory Theatre artistic director Robert Brustein when Terra Nova made its debut: "It wasn't going to alienate people who dislike experimental or avantgarde theater. And it wasn't going to alienate those who like experimental or avant-garde theater. It has a wide audience."
Tally's next play, Hooters, differs greatly from Terra Nova. A comedy taking its name from a slang term for female breasts, Hooters is set in 1972 and concerns two college freshmen vacationing on Cape Cod trying to pick up women. The freshmen, Ricky and Clint, meet two banktellers on holiday, Cheryl and Ronda. Cheryl is attractive and adventurous, Ronda is plain and reticent. Both women are older and more experienced than Ricky and Clint. In the New York Times Richard Eder described the boys' "meeting with Cheryl and Ronda" as having "the quality of two blind men groping at two porcupines." Hooters has "a farcical structure and an endless supply of gags about pick-up rituals, about sexual role-playing, [and] about 'hooters' themselves," asserted Rich. He went on to affirm that "Tally, an intelligent writer, is not just interested in locker-room humor; he aspires to make some larger points about men and women in our supposedly liberated age," and praised as the play's best scene one in which Ricky and Clint confront the falseness of their own friendship. Eder applauded Tally's characterization of Cheryl, proclaiming her his "best creation." The reviewer declared: "She is a character with more than one dimension. . . . She loves her body, sex, men; and there is a real warmth and humor contending with her growing conviction that there is something more to life than to be used." John Simon in New York concluded the play's best features to be "the generally peppy, often genuinely droll, dialogue, and the consistently smile-producing interaction of the characters."
Tally's Coming Attractions also drew superlatives from Simon. Again reviewing for New York, the critic announced that the play contains "that most desiderated and least available commodity in our theater: purposeful satire." Coming Attractions spoofs the tendency on the part of Americans to make celebrities of notorious criminals. The musical comedy's protagonist, Lonnie Wayne Burke, begins as an incompetent thief holding four hostages. He is taken in hand by a theatrical agent who is down on his luck; with his guidance, Lonnie becomes a headline-grabbing mass murderer known as the "Halloween Killer." Then, as Rich reported, "like all American celebrities of the first rank, Lonnie is quickly rewarded with book contracts, movie deals, groupies, product tie-ins, nightclub appearances and magazine cover stories." Lonnie also appears on a television talk show in a scene almost universally applauded by critics—other guests include a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorist-comedian who needs a translator to tell his jokes—and the host is a parody who "glides about in gold lame, fawning over his murderous guests with obscene abandon," chortled Rich. Simon rhapsodized over "several sequences as exquisitely roguish as anything you have ever delighted in," possibly among them the show's finale, which Rich described as "a singing-and-dancing television special saluting Lonnie's electric-chair execution." Simon concluded that Coming Attractions produces "the best kind of laughter there is—the thinking kind."
"Civilized, literate, mind-stretching entertainment" by "an authorial athlete as fit and playful as a fiddle" was the verdict Simon handed down on Tally's 1986 comedy, Little Footsteps. The play features Ben and Joanie, an upwardly mobile couple in their mid-thirties expecting their first baby. Both have doubts—Joanie is not sure she has chosen the right reasons to become pregnant, and Ben is uncertain that he can be as self-sacrificing as he feels a good parent should be. These doubts explode in marital fighting, and the couple separates. Act II begins with Joanie living with her parents and having the baby's christening party. In Rich's opinion, Little Footsteps is "merriest" in this act, which includes a "farcical game of hide-and-seek." Simon avowed that "the scene in which the wised-up Joanie tells a Ben bursting with paternal resolve what infant rearing is really like comes off as sustainedly riotous, verbally and visually, as anything the comic muse has granted a farceur."
Tally has also expanded his talents from playwriting to become a screenwriter. Talking about his second career with Tim Appelo in an interview for Entertainment Weekly, he said that he was "never very good at making up plots." Able to adapt novels to film, Tally brought Thomas Harris's infamous serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, to life both in Silence of the Lambs and its prequel, Red Dragon. Tally took the opportunity of rewriting Harris's work to insert some of his own wit into the Silence of the Lambs script, and garnered an Academy Award in the process. In an interview on the SydField Web site, Tally explained that in adapting Harris's work, new characters had to be developed in order to preserve plot continuity. "You can't be a slave to the book. . . ," he explained. "You want it in your head but you don't want it oppressing you. After a while you reference your own story outline more than you do the novel. . . . [The screenplay] becomes about itself only. It starts to develop its own logic and its own meaning in writing."
Stanley Kaufmann, writing for the New Republic, found Tally's 1996 script for The Juror better than his work on Silence of the Lambs. The critic wrote that "the climax of The Juror is credible, at least within the credibility range of thriller endings." Breaking from thrillers, Tally also adapted Cormac McCarthy's western novel All the Pretty Horses for the screen. His work on All the Pretty Horses was noted by Variety critic Todd McCarthy, who wrote that Tally "respects the language and structure and is alert to the main themes pertaining to the essence of one's character, coming of age and Cole's search for a father figure."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 42, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Tally, Ted, Coming Attractions, Samuel French (New York, NY), 1982.
Tally, Ted, Terra Nova, Samuel French (New York, NY), 1981.
Drama, summer, 1979. Entertainment Weekly, June 24, 1994, Tim Appelo, p. 64.
Nation, February 25, 1991, Stuart Klawans, review of Silence of the Lambs, p. 246.
New Republic, February 26, 1996, Stanley Kaufmann, review of The Juror, p. 28.
Newsweek, December 15, 1986.
New York, December 15, 1980; November 8, 1982; March 17, 1986.
New York Times, May 1, 1987; December 4, 1980; October 21, 1982; April 26, 1984; April 29, 1984; February 28, 1986.
People, October 1, 1979.
Plays and Players, June, 1980.
Variety, December 18, 2000, Tod McCarthy, review of All the Pretty Horses, p. 26.
Washington Post, April 7, 1982.
Yale Drama, summer, 1977.
SydField,http://www.sydfield.com/ (September, 2000), interview with Tally.*