CHICAGO — — Jim McGrath and I first met during the filming of the second Mike Hammer series in the 1990s in California. Jim has always been a wonderful writer, and we discussed the possibility of doing a one-man Hemingway show together. Ever since playing Papa in a mini-series in the late ’80s, I found myself reading his short stories for audiobooks, and I wanted to continue to explore his unique persona.
We decided to set the play in a boat, with a sort of “gangplank” leading to the stage and various scenes from his life depicted in an open space. Malgosia, my sweet wife, read the draft, didn’t like the setup, but pointed to the particular sequence where the running of the bulls was depicted. She suggested that we begin the play there, scrap the whole idea of the boat, and call it “Pamplona.”
I was initially resistant, as I knew it would require a complete rewrite, but nevertheless, I pitched the idea to Jim McGrath and, to my surprise, he loved it! Jim began to craft the story of Hemingway, having just won the Nobel Prize and experiencing writer’s block while on assignment for Life magazine in Spain to pen an article covering the mano a mano between two great matadors, Antonio Ordonez and Luis Miguel Dominguin.
I’ve often been asked what it’s like to play Hemingway at 77, having played him on television some 30 years earlier.
In a word: Revealing.
As a younger man, I was not fully able to grasp the intricacies, the complications and contradictions, surrounding his suicide. For me, it is, and has been, an ongoing source of curiosity. What I have managed to learn, over time, is just how much I don’t know about the circumstances that led to his decision.
What I do know is that he was depressed and in pain, unable to write, and unwilling to withstand the inevitable downhill physical spiral before him. That other members of his family took their own lives, a fact pointing to a possible genetic influence, illuminates the mystery of such an act. How are we ever to know what strand of DNA causes one to pull the trigger?
I feel that I have also matured in my evaluation of his personality overall, particularly in terms of his relationships with women, with his father and especially with his mother. When I played him in the late ’80s, I was completely oblivious to the emotional pain he experienced with his mother, who had hoped for a girl when he was born.
“Pamplona” explores those relationships and reveals Hemingway’s deep-seated fixations with his mother; with J. Edgar Hoover; and with the whole notion of what it means to flourish, and to fail.
I have always felt that Chicago was the perfect place to premiere the play, as Hemingway grew up in Oak Park. Also: I love working with the director Robert Falls! We began our relationship when he directed Arthur Miller’s “Finishing the Picture” in 2004 at the Goodman Theater, and two years later collaborated on “King Lear.”
Bob flew out to Los Angeles, and together with Jim McGrath, we worked through “Pamplona,” scene by scene, line by line, transposing, cutting, adding, editing, all in preparation for a May 2017 opening in Chicago.
After 11 successful previews, on opening night the unthinkable occurred. I had a mild heart attack onstage.
The night of my “incident” was, in many ways, totally surreal.
As the play began, I remember something happening to me in our hotel room set, after the first phone call. It resembled a fog rolling in, causing me to completely lose track of where I was in the dialogue.
The painful irony of the situation pitted Hemingway (in the play) trying to find the words to express the article he was assigned to write, against me, the actor, trying to remember his lines.
As a result, there was a five-minute period where I’m sure the audience couldn’t detect anything amiss. However, as time went on, it became painfully apparent, after I repeated the same line a half dozen times, that something was terribly wrong.
Bob saved me by coming onstage, hurrying me into the wings, giving me a hug, and informing the audience that the play was over. Naturally, I was devastated. My wife rushed backstage in tears, accompanied by my daughter, Karolina, who was also in a state of shock. I wanted to go back and resume the play, but that was out of the question.
The audience had left the theater, and there was a consensus that I should get to an emergency room.
I didn’t feel it was necessary. I was now cogent, in no pain whatsoever, so it was decided that I would see a doctor first thing in the morning, which I did. My brother, James, had some contacts at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and thanks to him I was admitted.
After a battery of tests, it was revealed that I had had a mild heart attack, but also that I had some seriously clogged arteries, and unless I underwent immediate bypass surgery, there was a good chance that I wouldn’t survive any future episode(s). So I elected to undergo the surgery.
Happily, the six-hour triple bypass operation was successful. Everyone was greatly relieved, including me, but my main concern, the main thing on my mind, was when I might be able to resume performing Hemingway.
I felt terrible that I hadn’t opened the play, especially given the fact that our preview period had felt so successful.
Since that time, I am happy to report that my health has never been better, my recovery aided by diet and exercise. I am deeply grateful for the love and support of my family and friends.
I have also been totally preoccupied with returning to “Pamplona.”
Jim and I continued to tweak a line, a word here or there, and I confess to spending the better part of the year going over the new lines and committing them to memory.
Now that we are back in production, I want to say thank you to the theater, and to the people of Chicago, for their warm reception.
I have always enjoyed the challenge of playing big roles, and to do that I need to be in the best possible shape. “Pamplona” is a daunting physical challenge; going in we decided that I’d only do one show in a day, six performances a week.
Still, during the course of its 90 minutes, I have discovered those places where I have to take a breath, and recharge my batteries. These accommodations allow me to give my all to each performance, and I must say, I am very happy with the audience response, which is very positive.