If you had to sum up your career so far, what would you say?
I can say categorically that there’s very little that I haven’t done, pursuing every possible way of acting and doing, leading then to directing and producing…I did very well.
When and how did it all begin?
When I stayed at the University of Georgia 2 years as an undergraduate, they had a great theatre program and veterans had come back from the Korean War and were going to school. There was nothing we couldn’t do, so I stayed there and did theatre, everything from Stanley in Streetcar to Hector in The Tiger at the Gates to Shakespeare…it was grand…and then I would do summer stock or the Shakespeare Festival in San Diego, playing Antony and Benedict or at the Shakespeare Festival in Oregon, playing Hotspur and Horatio. It was all good.
Then on to Stephens College in Missouri with the Male Actors Resident Company… William Inge had taught there. I got an offer for a workshop, which was the first of four grants. They would choose 10 actors at $200 a week for 40 weeks. I came in at $110-$115 in a full company of 25 actors in the TCG (Theatre Communications Group) in San Francisco. That was the whole beginning of the Great Oedipus Complexes where Ford put the money in…the one that kicked it was Tyrone Guthrie…there wasn’t anywhere to go…except there was the Houston Alley. Ford went in and gave the money to the person, not the theatre…it was given to Irving and Blau to administer the Actors Workshop.
I walked in and did Beckett, Genet and Ionesco, castrating myself in the balcony as the chief of police with a bayonet and I said “It doesn’t get any better than this”. They were doing Godot and taking it to Brussels. It was a dynamite company and I was there for 3 years until they closed. It was the last real commitment I wanted to make. That was 1965.
You said that was in San Francisco?
Yes, it eventually became the famous ACT at the Geary Theatre.
So, where did you go when you left there?
In LA Pasadena offered a resident repertory season and they offered me Peer Gynt, but during that season I got the sequel to the famous film Gunfight at the OK Corral with John Sturgis directing…Robert Ryan, Jimmy Garner; I came in with Billy Windom and Lonny Chapman. Then I played twin roles in The Second Hundred Years for TV. That was 1966, 67.
Then in 68 I got a call to meet Ray Bradbury and to do his Irish plays at the Coronet, where I played Ray Bradbury in a wonderful play.Unfortunately, theatre in LA has been very minimal for me, because of the unpredictability of the Equity Waiver situation. It’s very easy to delude 8 people into believing that they’re doing something of value and then it fizzles.
Tell me about your documentary film making.
In 1992 I formed a production company and since that time I’ve done over 150 hours of documentary programming all over the world and that was the beginning of Cable Television: The History Channel, A & E, Discovery…it was a great time…the journey has been beyond belief.
What about your acting?
I stopped acting in about 1994 and I directed some episodes of Baywatch.
How did you enjoy that?
It goes under the heading of harmless…David (Hasselhoff) was perfect for the role: a straight arrow guy, funny, charming, and knows his limitations…
Let’s back up a little. I saw you in Irene in the early 70s on Broadway. You sang and danced up a storm. Was that a great experience?
Paul Gemignani and I had been in the Actors Workshop in San Francisco together. He was assistant musical conductor, and eventually became conductor for Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim. I read the script of Irene in 1972. I looked at the role of Donald Marshall, loved it, but realized it could be cut substantially. I learned tap with Al Antieri from the original Guys and Dolls and then went to Vegas to meet Debbie (Reynolds). It was three in the morning, she had finished her show and I got up and sang “Try to Remember”. She said “OK” and then they made the offer. I met Sondheim and Sir John Gielgud, who was directing, so I felt I should take it. Hugh Wheeler wrote the book, Peter Gennaro was choreographer. Billy De Wolfe was playing Madame Lucy and Patsy Kelly was in it …it was all there, this big thing. The crapshoot and the upshot was … in Philadelphia at the Shubert Debbie was concerned about Sir John, who had never directed a musical before - charming, funny man, we had a grand time. So, all of a sudden, Gower Champion shows up and Sir John’s told that he’s fired. Gower told me that Debbie wanted me out of the “Irene” number. It became a solo number for her and the guys. We opened at the Minskoff on Broadway– great opening night – spectacular, a big hit. I told Gower I wouldn’t stay, though. When I came into New York, I had been asked to do The New Perry Mason for CBS Fox, 26 hours, no pilot.
Did you get along OK with Debbie Reynolds?
I got along with her, but it’s that kind of show business thing I really abhor “Step aside, honey. This is my show.” When we opened in Toronto she’d come out on stage and I had just danced my ass off and she’d blot my face from sweating in the middle of the finale and she’d turn to the audience and say “He hates when I do that.” I finally told her, “I’m doing a legitimate show and you’re doing Vegas." And she said “That’s what I’m doing. It’s my show.” The other side of that terrible coin is that she wanted more numbers, so everything was added on for her. Broadway grosses determine your percentage each week…they gave away 150% of the pie. The investors could never see their million dollars, but the law was changed and they were paid back at the rate of 50% until they’re completely paid off before everybody gets full royalty. And that was the Irene law and that was an interesting time. It was a cluster hump of people, but it was Debbie Reynolds’ Irene and that was the big sell…
Is there a favorite play that you did?
Same Time Next Year was my best professional experience. I did it with Betsy Palmer, who was wonderful.
I saw you in that. How did that come about?
I got a call…Don Murray had been playing it and they were building the movie. Bernie Slade’s show, he had written my pilot of “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” in 68. Bernie said “I want you for the play”, but Charlie Grodin opened it. Bernie’s new play Tribute was coming in to the Brooks Atkinson with Jack Lemmon in June – this was December of 77. We opened during one of the biggest snow storms in New York, but despite that we got audiences out the wazoo. The point was that the show was about to close in two or three or four weeks to make room for Tribute. We got such good publicity that all of a sudden box office picked up, we were making money, so they moved us to the Ambassador and we played another two months.
Tell me about doing Antony. You’ve played it before, correct?
Yes, at Carnegie Tech in San Diego. Everything was great, but the gal who came in to replace the original actress cast as Cleopatra kind of wanted to have an affair…during rehearsal she said “we should do the same thing” and I laughed…I thought she was kidding. Hell hath no fury: I wouldn’t have laughed if I didn’t think it was funny. I was very straight arrow…so, needless to say, we had a tough time …otherwise it was great…
Now you’re working at CART. Who is playing Cleopatra?
Samantha Eggar. We read some scenes together. She’s wonderful!
I agree. You should be great together! You were originally scheduled to do the Norman Corwin evening.
Yes, and I knew Norman. I had done Jefferson Hamilton and Burr in 1976 with Dana Andrews and Howard Duff. It was wild. There were ten of us on a bus for 20000 miles covering 40 cities. Norman’s changed the name now to No Love Lost.
You have done it all in the theatre. The classics, comedies, dramas and musicals. What’s your favorite time?
I love university theatre in the sense that you double cast it, you all work your ass off, there’s no money… there’s politics, but you’ve still got to perform, you’ve still got to do it…
What a great life in the theatre! Monte Markham, apart from being a great actor and a true gentleman, is still a go getter and a very hard worker. Don’t miss him on October 9 at the Beverly Garland as Antony in a scene from Antony and Cleopatra as part of CART’s great 25th Anniversary Production.
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