Hal Linden: A man of ‘letters’
By: Jim Longworth
There aren’t too many people on the planet who have won an Emmy, a Tony, and a Golden Globe, but then, there aren’t too many people like Hal Linden. By age 15, he was playing clarinet for a major symphony orchestra. In his 20s, he sang and acted his way onto the Broadway stage. And, as middle age approached, he gained worldwide fame as T.V.’s Barney Miller. Now at age 87, Linden’s considerable talents are still in demand, and on March 7, he will put them on display at the High Point Theatre when he teams with “I Dream of Jeannie” star Barbara Eden in a production of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters.” I caught up with Hal last week, and we talked about the play, his co-star, television versus live theatre, and much more.
Jim: Ever since “Love Letters” was introduced in 1989, a lot of famous actors have performed the play, including Charlton Heston and Elizabeth Taylor. What makes it such an attractive property for actors?
Hal: It’s an amazing property. The only action in the play are people reading letters aloud, and yet through the use of these personal letters between two people who have had a relationship since elementary school, you get to know how those two characters feel about each other. I suspect that’s the draw for actors because you can perform it just by reading a letter in the moment, about the moment.
Jim: Given that format, let me ask you about chemistry between you and Barbara. On television and in film, chemistry between the actors is crucial, but on stage, there’s no camera in your face. So is chemistry still important in a play like “Love Letters?”
Hal: It’s extremely important, but not as important as the chemistry between my character and the character that Barbara creates. That’s the person who gets to me. What she says as a character, and my memory of her when we were kids together, that’s what stokes the humanity and the feelings in the play.
Jim: And makes it believable.
Hal: Yes. I’ve played “Love Letters” with different people, and each person gives you a different dynamic when they read it. Barbara’s humanity is what’s out there. Her character’s past, her history is what I’m listening to. In other words, the past that she puts out there as opposed to any other actress. So it’s an acting challenge based on who you’re sitting next to.
Jim: Let’s digress for a moment. Do you think letter writing is a lost art these days?
Hal: Definitely (laughs). When was the last time you wrote a letter?
Jim: I think it was to the IRS (both laugh)
Hal: I mean, your mailbox is full of bills and advertisements. Nobody writes letters. You get maybe a Christmas card or birthday card. It’s a dead art.
Jim: So you don’t write letters?
Hal: No, I was never much of a letter writer, except there was a period in my life, in my early marriage, when I had to spend extended times on the road with shows, pre-Broadway, or something that took me away for six or eight weeks. Then I wrote letters because we couldn’t afford telephone calls (laughs).
Jim: Let’s talk about accessibility to the arts. We’re fortunate to have you and Barbara come to the Triad and perform on stage, but you can’t go everywhere. Plus, most people can’t afford to travel to New York or L.A. to see a major production. Would you like to see cable networks broadcast Broadway plays so that those productions are more accessible to more people?
Hal: I would much rather they go to their local community theatre and see the same plays. I don’t care if it’s professional or not. I would much rather have people see a live play, with performers, live on stage. I think the live quality is important because that forces the audience to become part of the dynamic. I sat in the third row to see James Earl Jones play “The Great White Hope,” and one moment, he was furious and whipped his head around, and a bead of sweat came out and landed on my forehead. That was a long time ago, but it is as vivid to me today as it was when it happened. Those experiences of actually seeing living people being living people is one you can only approximate on the screen.
Jim: I can’t let you go without asking one “Barney Miller” question. Why has that show held up so well?
Hal: It was a brilliantly written show. It didn’t settle for cheap jokes. Instead, it was all about the frailties and humor of human behavior. We were also ahead of our time in presenting topics that are still relevant today.
Tickets to “Love Letters” are still available by calling the High Point Theatre box office at (336) 887-3001 or visit www.highpointtheatre.com. You’ll get to see two great actors at work, and, if you’re lucky, maybe a bead of sweat will hit you in the forehead.
Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).