Olympia Dukakis went on to win an Oscar in Moonstruck. Jane Alexander eventually landed two Emmys and a Tony and also garnered four Oscar nominations. Mitchell Ryan went on to fame in several TV shows, including the cult hit Dark Shadows. Terrence Currier would spend more than two decades performing at the nation’s pre-eminent theater, Arena Stage. Ned Beatty went on to star in more than 100 films, garnering an Oscar nomination in Network. Joe Raposo ended up penning several songs for Sesame Street. James Rado went on to co-write Hair. Jill Clayburgh received back-to-back Best Actress Oscar nominations in 1979-80. James Cromwell went on to win an Emmy (one of four nominations) and gain an Oscar nod for Babe. Richard Mulligan picked up Emmys for Soap and Empty Nest. Swoosie Kurtz went on to garner nine Emmy nominations, winning once, and five Tony nods, winning twice. Charles Keating became a leading man in soap operas, winning a Daytime Emmy. Christina Pickles went on to win her first Emmy this year after six previous nominations for Friends and St. Elsewhere. Linda Lavin eventually gained five Tony nominations, winning once, and an Emmy nomination for her titular role in Alice. John Cazale went on to star in five films in the ’70s, all of which were nominated for Best Picture, including The Godfather. Al Pacino went on to … become Al Pacino.
All of those actors—many of the finest of the late 20th century—made their bones at the Charles Playhouse. A theater company that was founded in 1957 as the Actors Company, it was rechristened the Charles Playhouse in 1958 as it moved to new digs on Warrenton Street inside a building that presently houses residencies of the Blue Man Group and Shear Madness. But for a decade from 1958 till 1968, under the artistic direction of Michael Murray, it stood as the shining light of Boston’s theater scene during one of the city’s greatest performing arts eras. Now, 50 years after Murray departed over creative issues, those glory days are on the verge of becoming an even more distant memory despite the fact that the company’s struggles still ring true with today’s theaters: Money issues, talent departing for New York, a search for stage space and fights over artistic control. Although the company continued on and off till the mid-’80s, its heyday was during the decade of Murray’s control as it chartered a course as one of the country’s finest—and earliest—regional theaters. Some of those actors and Murray shared their story one more time.
Olympia Dukakis never grew up wanting to be an actor. The Lowell native went to Boston University to get her degree in physical therapy as a way to help during the polio epidemic. All that changed when she was tapped to help direct a variety show in college. And soon after graduating and starting her physical therapy job, she saved enough money to return to BU to work toward a graduate degree in acting under the direction of professor Peter Kass.
Dukakis made fast friends with some of the other acting students such as Ed Zang, Jane Cronin and John Heffernan, and one day she was at a bar with a classmate who mentioned her brother was interested in staging plays for the summer in a tent outside of his bar in Buzzards Bay. “He wanted to see if he could get more customers in his bar. That’s how it started: A couple of Greeks got together,” Dukakis says.
She recruited Zang, Heffernan, Cronin and a few others from BU, and they staged a handful of shows, including Three Men on a Horse and plays from Eugene O’Neill and Agatha Christie. They drew some crowds, but it was attention of a different kind that followed the band of actors. They were staging Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde—in which Dukakis was to portray a prostitute—but a religious uproar ensued and the company was censored. Still, the group found a way around it.
“We did it, but we didn’t charge,” Dukakis says. “People came because they wanted to see what we were going to do. There wasn’t even kissing—none of that.”
When the summer was up, the crew of actors decided they were going to stay together and work in Boston. They came up with a name—the Actors Company—and moved into a loft at 54 Charles St. above Welch’s Fish Market, a setting that would last for a year.
“We had people who were very ambitious—not for themselves in the business, but to evolve as actors. If we were ambitious in the business, we wouldn’t have stayed there and done that,” Dukakis says. “In those days, starting in theater was about having the opportunity to really push yourself and grow. It wasn’t about getting another job. It was different.”
The crew—which had bonded over their shared mentor, Kass—was in complete control of the Actors Company. They chose the plays for the season, they decided on the directors, they built the sets, they lit the shows and they made the costumes. For a production of View From the Bridge, Cronin called in her old college pal, Michael Murray, who had just finished working in New York alongside José Quintero, staging Iceman Cometh. That play garnered national accolades and gave Murray valuable experience that he then used to direct the Arthur Miller-written View From the Bridge.
“Olympia Dukakis was the center of it. She was this very powerful woman at the age of 25,” Murray says. “She played the mother in View From the Bridge better than anyone else, no matter what age. She was fantastic.”
With big crowds and the potential for something even bigger, the company was fast outgrowing its Beacon Hill digs. The group brought on Frank Sugrue, a law school grad and businessman, as the company’s managing director and named Murray as the artistic director. They found a building on Warrenton Street, owned by Joe Savino, that previously housed a nightclub on the second floor.
With the move, the company renamed itself as the Charles Playhouse as a nod to its fish market beginnings on Charles Street. Despite that it felt like the company was moving on up, the building was a dump. There was a hole between the first and second floors from an explosion and, while there were mirrors and swaths of fabric along the ceiling, there was no money for major renovations. Instead, a stage was built in the middle of the top floor and seats were arranged around it. Dukakis recalls that there wasn’t even an entrance stage left. For the first performance, Murray directed Heffernan and Dukakis in his own version of Iceman Cometh, but opening night had a little hitch before the more than 4-hour performance.
“Elinor Hughes was the critic for The Herald at the time. Her chair collapsed, but fortunately it was before the show began. She took it well. She stood up and hollered at [fellow critic] Elliot Norton: ‘Elliot, Elliot, my seat has collapsed.’ And the whole audience kind of got into it,” Murray says. “But it went very well.”
The next production, Hotel Paradiso, starring Zang, Heffernan and Dukakis, was also a hit, while later in that season Dukakis starred in The Crucible alongside John Cazale as the Rev. Paris.
“I was nervous for that one,” Dukakis says. “That was one I really needed to prepare for. I didn’t know about preparing and I learned it there. I learned what I needed to do for myself. I tried different things like being offstage and concentrating. But I needed to stay alive with people around me and not protect myself like that.”
While Dukakis played the Elizabeth Proctor part, Cazale stole the show—long before he shined on movie screens in The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon. The Revere native and BU grad gained recognition in plenty of roles during his time with Charles Playhouse, including as Bernard in Death of a Salesman and as the boy in Our Town.
“Rev. Paris is this sort of very crazed, religious guy, and John was really spectacular. He was always spectacular,” Murray says. “John had his own way of functioning that wasn’t like any other actor. You had to be patient and let it happen. There were times when I would think to myself, ‘I wish you would kind of get it together and move from where you are to that other place and not wait.’ But it always paid off to let him do it at the pace he wanted.”
Offstage, Cazale befriended many of his fellow actors. He dated Mary Weed, who starred in Hotel Paradiso. “Mary was terrific. John always had the greatest girlfriends in his life,” Murray says of Cazale, who was later dating Meryl Streep when he died of lung cancer in 1978.
“He was always kind of poetic and introverted,” Dukakis says. “We’d do these sort of escapades—there wasn’t anything going on—but we’d like to roam the streets at night, and we’d go around in dark alleys and stuff like that. He was a very kind man and thoughtful.”
When Mitchell Ryan joined the company in 1959, he even ended up judging a drag contest with Cazale in the basement of the Charles Playhouse one night after they performed in Death of A Salesman. “We were judges at the beauty contest. And these drag queens—I mean, they were gorgeous, I had never seen anything like that before. And all of sudden there’s these 10 gorgeous women, which were men, so we had to pick the winner.”
While there was critical success for the first few shows at the Charles Playhouse, drama heated up behind the scenes. A fight ensued between the actors and Sugrue and the investors. The actors were hoping for steadier pay, while Sugrue was struggling to make ends meet even in the theater’s current state. Midway through that first season on Warrenton Street, actors such as Heffernan began to split for New York. By the end of the season, even Dukakis left her full-time status at the Charles to move to Manhattan. Although she later returned for a few shows through the years, she recalls being bothered by the pay issues, enough so that she took a little something on her way out.
Mixed-media illustration: Hannah Businger
“I stayed till the bitter end. I was the last to go. I didn’t want to go to New York,” Dukakis says. “I guess we owed him money and he kept a lot of the stuff, but I stole something. I don’t remember what I stole. I think it was a costume, but I remember walking out of the theater with it.”
It was a loss of talented actors that was devastating for the company just as its reputation was rising in Boston theater circles.
“To be able to work with people who were as good as Olympia and Heffernan and Cazale was spectacular. And it really did make a difference—as far as the theater being able to make a difference—because they were so good and they could do anything. They could carry off the old people and the young people because they weren’t just leading men. We did such a range of stuff,” Murray says. While some actors like Cazale committed to staying past the first season at the Charles Playhouse, a decision had to be made to keep the theater afloat for the 1959-60 season. “It was really at stake whether we could actually continue. At that moment, late in that first season, some of the actors departed unhappily. And we were non-equity still. So the following year, I said to Frank, ‘Well, we should just turn this into an equity theater now.’ ”
As artistic director, Murray was tasked with casting the plays, something he couldn’t do from the comfort of Boston because of the lack of professional actors in the city. Instead, he’d hop on a plane for the short ride to New York, paying a small fee for his ticket while he was already on the plane. He’d check into a hotel and spend a few days auditioning New York actors for roles they’d play in Boston. But Murray couldn’t always leave New York when he was done with his work.
“I’d call Sugrue and say, ‘I’m ready to come back.’ And he’d say, ‘Stay a few days longer until I can find some money to pay the bill.’ So there was that constant money problem going on, but it was amazing how good actors were willing to audition in hotel rooms and then come on up to Boston.”
It’s how Murray found Ryan, convincing the Ohio native to move to Boston for a turn as Biff in Death of a Salesman and as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, a role Ryan still remembers because he was stuck in the shadow that Marlon Brando had cast on the part: “You couldn’t get away from it. I mean, you bring your own stuff to it and Brando is sort of branded in your head because he was so incredible. All we did was run around imitating him all the time.”
If Ryan needed a little guidance, whether as Stanley or in a different role, he would always seek out Murray, who was one of the reasons he was convinced to head to Boston.
“It was all around New York that there was a great theater up in Boston,” Ryan says. “Mike would emphasize relaxation and concentration on what you’re doing. And it was just a joy to work with him because he never got upset, never lost his temper, never even spoke loud, or hardly ever. He was great. He had been around José Quintero—he was influenced by him—who was the same way, a deeply intuitive, relaxed human being, which makes for really great results.”
Those results led to a few more years of good reviews for the Charles Playhouse as revenues began to rise—albeit not exactly steadily. For the 1961-62 season, the company had 3,400 season subscriptions and took in a little more than $159,000 in income, but total expenditures of more than $175,000 meant the theater again operated at a loss.
Jane Alexander and Norman Bowler in You Never Can Tell
Offstage, while the money might not have flowed, there were plenty of stories about gangsters to keep everyone entertained. Murray even recounts how the stout Savino would go after bar patrons with a 2×4 block of wood.
“[Savino] was one of the Mafia-type people. At its peak, we were doing plays on the top floor, the ground floor was operating as an after-hours bar and all kinds of stuff was going on there. For awhile they had strippers. It was a place for all kinds of people to gather from the underworld. There were raids. There were all kinds of things going on down there,” Murray says. “Then on the bottom floor was a gay bar, where they had dancing. That was very illegal at the time, so there was kind of a wild thing going on down there.”
Ryan says that one night after a show, he was at the nearby Bradford Hotel with some of his fellow actors when he became enthralled with a singer at the bar. They flirted, talked and Ryan set a date for dinner in a couple of nights. But when the time came, he blew it off—a move that prompted a visit.
“In the dressing room the next night, two guys came and said she was very disappointed, and I said, ‘Oh God, I’m very sorry.’ They said, ‘We think you should take her out to a nice dinner.’ And all of a sudden, I realized these were two Johnny boys who hung around at the Bradford and they had come to straighten me out. So I spent a lot of time with her after that,” Ryan says. “This girl actually came backstage bawling after Death of a Salesman, and she was really touched.”
Although Ryan would depart for greener pastures, the stars kept rolling into the Charles. Murray had spied Jane Alexander in As You Like It in New York and he cast her as Gloria, the lead role in the early 1962 production of Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell.
“Talk about a leading lady—she could do it all for me,” Murray says. “She could do anything. She could do Shaw, she could do very emotional stuff.”
What Murray didn’t know was Alexander had to lie to get the part. “He said, ‘Well, you’re a member of equity, right?’ ” Alexander recalls. “And I said, lying bald-faced, ‘Oh yes! Of course, I’m a member of equity.’ And he said, ‘Well, you got the part then.’ And then I ran over to equity and I said, ‘I just got the part!’ So I became a member of equity. I think I did it all in a matter of about 24 hours so he didn’t know I was lying.”
For Alexander, the opportunity at the Charles Playhouse was personal for her. She grew up in
Boston and attended Beaver Country Day School, often taking the subway to see Olympia Dukakis perform at the Charles.
“She was, at that time, my favorite actress in the area, when I was a teenager,” Alexander says. “I remember being very taken with her.”
But nearly a year after Alexander debuted at the Charles Playhouse, the theater was once again in peril—only this time it wasn’t financial. On an early February morning, a fire tore through the theater’s lobby, causing the building to shut for a few weeks and jeopardizing the company’s future for the 1963-64 season.
In the months after the fire, the Charles Playhouse officials worked hard to boost their subscriber base for 1963-64, debuting with 7,600 season subscriptions—more than double the previous year’s total. While Sugrue had taken up the push for subscribers, Murray was busy hunting for actors.
Terrence Currier, a Harvard grad who had done a few plays in college before interning for Westinghouse Electric Corp., was working at a liquor store on Huntington Avenue when he saw an ad that said, “Actors Wanted.” He auditioned for Murray and got a part, but a couple of days later Murray called Currier back to let him know that the rights deal to perform the show had fallen through.
“I said, ‘Well, I quit my job at the liquor store,’ ” Currier recalls. “He said, ‘We’re looking for another show. I’ll try to find another show you can fit into.’ A couple of days went by, and I’m sweating about it, and he called and said, ‘Can you do an Irish accent?’ So I came in to audition for Brendan Behan’s Hostage, and that was my first play.”
Opening that important 1963-64 season, The Hostage was Charles Playhouse’s biggest financial hit and it was later followed by the musical The Boys From Syracuse in which Currier also starred as well as Six Characters in Search of an Author, which Dukakis returned for along with her husband, Louis Zorich.
By the 1964-65 season, the Charles Playhouse began a run as a resident company, meaning actors were cast for a full season of plays. One of the first commitments that Murray secured was from Alexander, who had just given birth and moved to Boston with her husband. Also a part of that resident season was Currier and Joe Raposo, a Fall River native and Harvard alum who was a musical composer. Raposo would soon leave to begin a collaboration with Jim Henson that led to him writing music—including the theme song—for Sesame Street when it premiered in 1969.
“While [Raposo] was there, he wrote ‘Not Easy Being Green,’ ” Alexander says of the tune Kermit the Frog would later croon. “I remember him sitting down at the piano and saying, ‘What do you think of this song?’ And I had this little baby, and I said, ‘Oh, this is wonderful. So sweet.’ ”
Currier remembers that Raposo contacted him a few years later with an opportunity in a children’s show in New York. But Currier, who had worked on Rex Trailer’s Boston kids’ show for a few years, was burned out. “I said, ‘No I don’t want to be on a kids’ show anymore.’ It was Sesame Street,” Currier says with a laugh. “I guess we don’t always make the right choices.”
Raposo also did some work with the Charles’ James Rado in 1964 in the musical She Loves Me. A few years later, before Raposo hit it big on Sesame Street, Rado debuted a project he had been working on with Gerome Ragni in the mid-’60s. It was Hair, the musical that ran for nearly 2,000 shows on Broadway.
Music wasn’t the only other form of art that the Charles was dipping its toe into. Murray brought on Anne Sexton to be a poet-in-residence. She’d pass along notes or make gentle suggestions or insights into the way actors were voicing their lines. Sexton, a Newton native, was in her 30s and had a couple of kids at the time. She would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1967.
“Anne was already a renowned poet. I mean, we were flabbergasted when she walked in for the first time,” says Alexander, who served as the director of the National Endowment of the Arts under President Clinton. “While she was there, she wrote her only play, which we did a reading of, called Mercy Street. I remember it as being rather abstruse, and not really a play play, more of a poem play. But I remember Anne distinctly, and she took a liking to me. She was a young mother as well, but she was clearly tortured. She spoke of Sylvia Plath’s death later, and then she killed herself.”
The Boys From Syracuse
Although Alexander left after that 1964-65 season for a role at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., her time at the Charles left a mark on the actress who went on to win two Emmys and one Tony, while garnering four Oscar nominations. Her role as Nora Clitheroe in The Plough and the Stars is one she remembers fondly.
“She’s terrified and she goes mad. So my memory is a visceral one of being on stage and going mad,” Alexander says. “It was a highly emotional role, but I did get a lot of response from the audience for it, and it really catapulted my reputation as a young actress doing high drama and tragedy.”
In the few years after Alexander’s departure, the Charles Playhouse would continue to catapult careers, but perhaps none more than Jill Clayburgh and Al Pacino. Clayburgh started in the Charles’ junior company—by the mid-’60s, it also had an extensive children’s musical theater group, for which James Cromwell did a short stint as the director. Murray, however, quickly saw Clayburgh’s talent and promoted her to the main company in the 1966-67 season.
“She was just spectacularly alive on stage with an amazing energy. We did a play called MacBird!, which was this scandalous musical thing suggesting that Lyndon Johnson was responsible for JFK’s murder,” Murray says. “It was a very shocking play, and there was a chorus of three people who did a lot of singing and dancing, and she was in that and really terrific. She could do a lot of things.”
Clayburgh started dating Pacino, who Murray brought in for the 1967-68 season at the suggestion of a friend. Murray was looking for an actor who had to be alone on stage and talk to the audience—in other words, he had to be compelling.
“He was absolutely compelling. There was no question this guy belonged on stage,” Murray says. “I remember in Awake and Sing he played the young son. One scene began with a whole lot of arguing at a dinner table. Believe it or not, I could not get him to put some energy into it and get the kid into a fight with his family. I remember doing all kinds of improvisation and, finally, he gave me that boost. I just remember thinking about his career after that. He was terrific to work with.”
Murray continues: “I remember a few years later that he and Jill had an apartment at 93rd Street and Broadway and my wife and I were four blocks away. I remember having dinner with them after he had shot The Godfather, but before it had come out. And he was telling me he was terrified. He was absolutely terrified. He didn’t know what was going to happen, but he knew something very large was going to happen. And he had trouble with Brando. He was annoyed with him because Brando gave him a hard time.”
But before Pacino and Clayburgh went on to film stardom, trouble was brewing at the Charles during that 1967-68 season. Subscriptions, which had reached more than 11,000 in each of the 1965-66 and 1966-67 seasons, dropped to 8,300 for the season that included the pair of up-and-coming actors. Suddenly, the board started asking questions of Murray and blaming him for choosing what they perceived as radical plays during the Vietnam era.
“They decided they would have a board committee that would oversee the artistic future of the Playhouse,” Murray says. “I said I wouldn’t hang around for that.”
In January 1968, Murray resigned, eventually publishing a two-part series in The Boston Globe on consecutive Sundays in February 1968 about the dwindling prospects of regional theaters. The shows went on under the orders of Frank Sugrue for a couple of years, but the Charles Playhouse never reached the same heights. The Theatre Company of Boston, which ran from 1963-75, filled some of the creative void, luring Pacino and Cazale to the stage as well as other great actors such as Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall and Dustin Hoffman. But the Charles Playhouse stands as the O.G. of Boston’s theater scene.
“Looking back on it, I was lucky that I was able to stumble into that at the time,” Murray says. “It was such an adventurous time, and gradually over time it grew and grew.”
Mixed-media illustration: Elijah Watters
Michael Murray surveys the landscape a bit differently now with the help of a half-century of hindsight. After spending a decade in charge of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and nearly two decades at Brandeis University, he’s retired in Los Angeles. But he keeps tabs on the Boston performing arts scene and rattles off more than a handful of local repertories, which he declares as progeny of the regional theater movement he helped spawn.
And yet, memories of the Charles Playhouse have fallen off in recent years. “Time moves on, and the number of us who are still around is dwindling I’m afraid,” Murray says. He even had to petition the Boston Public Library to revise the description of its Charles Playhouse collection, which Sugrue donated before his 2017 death, to better reflect Murray’s artistic input on the theater.
But while physical testimonies to Murray might be a little hard to find, the actors in this story were more than willing to offer up their glowing views of him. Currier called him his mentor, while Dukakis described him as the perfect balance to her adventuresome self. Alexander recalled his soft-spoken notes that would make all the difference in her performance.
“He was one of the best directors I ever worked for, and that includes Arthur Penn and all the big boys,” Ryan says. “He just had it.” ◆