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  • Writer's pictureDuke Daniel Pierce

From the Archives: Cronyn & The Cape

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

During a visit to the archives at the LA campus Director of Alumni Relations Jon-Michael Hernandez and Vice President of Operations Dan DeShirley came upon a unique article of theater history that had been stored away in the Academy archives for over a decade. Upon his passing, Hume Cronyn’s estate bestowed a large cache of awards and memorabilia, most of which have been on display at our New York and Los Angeles campuses. We now welcome Hume Cronyn’s red wool stage-worn papal cape from the Broadway touring production of the play Hadrian VII to our Los Angeles campus!

The Cape & Ahmanson Run Poster on Display in the LA Lobby

Opening on Broadway in January of 1969 starring Alec McCowen, Hadrian VII  received five Tony nominations, winning one. The Broadway production closed in November of 1969, but before that, the Stratford National Company of Canada presented it at the Stratford Theatre Festival and embarked on an international tour in September of that year with Hume Cronyn in the leading role of Frederick William Rolfe. The show’s first stop was at the Merle Reskin Theatre in Chicago, and its last stop was in May of 1970 at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit, with twelve stops in between. James M. Lewis at The Harvard Crimson said of the production after seeing it in Boston, “The play's overall success… must be attributed to a remarkable acting job by Hume Cronyn…. Cronyn is superb, biting off bittersweet epithets, swivelling quickly, daintily crossing his legs on the Papal throne, as a long cigarette dangles from his fingers.”

Alongside the cape displayed at The Academy is Hume’s personal poster from the run at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, the show’s second stop, and a still from the production. The vibrant red cape is illuminated to show the costume’s masterful craftsmanship.

One of the most prolific stage and screen actors of our time, Cronyn amassed ninety screen credits and appeared on Broadway in over thirty productions. Born in London, Ontario, Canada, on the 18th of July 1911, Cronyn was originally studying pre-law at McGill University in Montreal and was exploring the life of an amateur featherweight boxer. He went so far as to be nominated for Canada’s 1932 Olympic Boxing Team when he switched his major to drama. After graduating from McGill, he studied at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduating with the Class of 1934. His Broadway debut came in the short-lived Hipper’s Holiday, where he served as an understudy and appeared as a janitor.

The late thirties and early forties were a bit of a rough patch for Hume, both professionally and personally. He was summoned to Harry Cohen’s office at Columbia Pictures to do a screen test for Room Service - a play Hume was doing that Columbia was going to make a picture of. The meeting did not go well. Cronyn found Mr. Cohen pompous, and his ego fought back. “You’re working in a show we’re going to do—you’ll need to do a screen test,” said Mr. Cohen. “I’m playing the part eight times a week at the Cort Theater. Anyone who wants to see how I play it can see me there,” replied Cronyn. He did not get the part. Of course, Hume understood the need and value of a screen test - he just didn’t like the way Harry Cohen was asking. He did go on to do a screen test for Paramount and was offered a standard seven-year contract but wanting to remain primarily a stage actor, Hume made the impossible demand of only being available from May to September (the theater off-season). Paramount refused and stowed away his screen test. Another unsuccessful audition came when he read for the Lunts - the premiere theatrical power couple. From March 1938 to December 1940, he appeared in seventeen plays, eleven in stock and six on Broadway - all six flops. He had an option on nine one-act plays written by an out-of-work writer, but nothing came of them (that writer was a then-unknown Tennessee Williams). He did get to work with the famed Group Theater during this time on a new play called Retreat to Pleasure  under the direction of Harold Clurman and stage managed by Elia Kazan. While Hume retrospectively considered this a highlight of his life, the play was another flop, closing in three weeks. It was the Group Theater’s last production.

“After the performance I went backstage… and was duly introduced to Miss Tandy. Did lights flash, bells ring? Were there internal fireworks? Nothing of the sort. It was all rather mundane, leaning in fact towards disaster.”

One of the most significant moments in Hume’s life came in October 1940 after seeing a performance of Jupiter Laughs at the Biltmore Theater - he was introduced to Jessica Tandy.

Hume & Jessica, Credit: Pinterest

As seen in the quote above, the encounter was obviously not very memorable, and if it was, not in a good way. They were both taken to dinner by a mutual friend and at one point, Tandy referred to Cronyn as a “fool,” according to Cronyn, “ a tone which implied that she’d been considering that possibility for the past hour or so.” Still, Cronyn was able to lure Tandy to dinner again, just the two of them, and a courtship began. He would ask Jessica numerous times to marry him, but each time was met with rejection. Finally, in the spring of 1942, he got a “yes” out of her. Jessica took off for a six-week stay in Reno. It was here during a visit that, while Cronyn was witnessing the rebirth of his personal life, he also received a call that would signify the rebirth of his career. Finally, a break had come. He was summoned to LA to meet with Alfred Hitchcock.

“It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and an enormously rewarding professional association.” 

Cronyn made quite a splash with his film debut in 1942 as the scene-stealing Herbis Hawkins in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly lauded Shadow of a Doubt, but the part almost fell beyond his grasp. When Hitchcock was struggling to find a suitable actor for the role of Herbis, casting director Bill Meikeljohn dug up Hume’s Paramount screen test from a few years back and showed it to the director. Next thing Hume knew, he was making the trek to Hollywood to meet with one of the town’s premier directors. When he got here, however, he was approached by Mr. Hitchcock’s secretary, who informed him that they were very sorry for making him come out all this way but that he was far too young for the part. But since he had made the journey, he should meet the man anyway.  Somewhat defeated, Hume walked into Hitchcock's office. There was no talk of him being too young - in fact, there was no talk of any problems. Hitchcock was speaking as if Hume was already in the part.

The film Hitchcock claimed to be his best, Shadow of a Doubt , zooms in on a normal American family in a quiet California town when things get shaken up by the arrival of the beloved but mysterious Uncle Charlie. Hume plays the kooky neighbor Herbis Hawkins, the intellectual sparring partner of the patriarch of the family who always seems to conveniently show up around dinner time. Released in 1943, the film is celebrating its eightieth anniversary this year.

He would have a good working relationship with Hitchcock over the years, giving a memorable performance in 1944’s Lifeboat, appearing on two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and writing an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s play Rope for Hitchcock to direct in 1948. 

Between his screen debut and the end of the decade, he appeared in seventeen films, amongst them three memorable noirs: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Brute Force, and The Seventh Cross. Postman is considered one of the great films from its era, starring Lana Turner as a married woman who falls in love with John Garfield's drifter. Together they plot the murder of her husband.

Cronyn in "The Seventh Cross," Credit: IMDb

Cronyn plays Arthur Keats, who helps Tuner beat the murder rap. In Fred Zinneman’s The Seventh Cross, he plays Paul Roeder, an old friend of escaped POW George Heisler, played by Spencer Tracy (Class of 1923), who comes to his aid. The film also featured alumna Agnes Moorehead (Class of 1929) and was the first time Cronyn and now wife, Jessica Tandy, appeared together on screen. Hume received his first and only Oscar nomination for “Best Actor in a Supporting Role.” 

Hume’s film work in the fifties occurred mostly on television with appearances on the anthology shows Studio One and General Electric, as well as the TV-Movie of A Doll’s House  opposite Julie Harris and Christopher Plummer. He continued his work on Broadway, appearing in ten productions, none running much longer than a month. The exception, during this time, was The Fourposter which ran, with Cronyn, from October 24th, 1951, to June 7th, 1952. The show chronicles the joys and troubles of a married couple spanning thirty-five years. Hume was, of course, joined in the two-person show by his wife, Jessica Tandy.

Hume with Taylor in "Cleopatra," Credit: Shutterstock

“I had not become the actor I wished to become—someone in the mold of a Gielgud, Olivier, Richardson, Guinness or Alfred Lunt. I had wanted to play the classics, but in twenty-seven years I had managed to appear in only two of them… In the theater I was established, but not a star—an asteroid perhaps.”

The 1960s proved more fruitful for Cronyn. He co-starred in one of the more ambitious and memorable motion-picture epics to come out of that era of Hollywood, Cleopatra, as Sosigenes - Cleopatra’s prime minister. “Joe (Mankiewicz) is reported as saying [Cleopatra] ‘was conceived in a state of emergency, shot in confusion, and wound up in a blind panic,” recalled Hume. He arrived in Rome mid-September 1961, didn’t start filming until after Christmas, and didn’t wrap filming until June of 1962. A whole year of gallivanting around Rome in a snazzy red Fiat sports car, contemplating his status as an actor and his marriage, and growing weary of Roman monuments. Tandy and his kids would make short and sporadic visits. The actual filming was very strenuous, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz was writing script pages the night before the next day's shooting. When shooting finally wrapped for Hume on June 26th of 1962, he celebrated by jumping off Cleopatra’s barge in his full prime minister regalia - nearly drowning but “I didn’t care. I was free.”

On Broadway, he had success with Big Fish, Little Fish, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, and, most notably, Hamlet - all three of which gave Hume a Tony nomination. This Hamlet became a production of legend - for better and worse. It was directed by renowned English-actor John Gielgud (Becket, Arthur), and Cronyn, playing the shadowy Polonius, was once again working opposite Richard Burton, who took on the titular role.

Hume with Burton in "Hamlet," Credit: The Boston Globe

Gielgud's vision for this production was to add a sense of the contemporary - having the actors play in modern clothes and with limited set to give the feel that the show is still in the final rehearsal stage. “...I was persuaded that John’s concept had validity—not that I gave it much thought. Perhaps I should have done because, in this case, it really didn’t work.” The play opened in Toronto to bad reviews and finished in New York to more favorable mixed reviews however, that didn’t stop the crowds from flooding in to see the much-talked-about star Burton take on the Bard’s greatest male anti-hero. The box office returns did extremely well, and the show enjoyed a long run. At the time, Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were still heavily embroiled in the scandal of their love affair and subsequent marriage, which no doubt added to the large audience attendance but put an extra strain on the cast, as Burton could not go anywhere without a swarm of press and fans surrounding him. 

In the 1970s, Cronyn starred alongside Kirk Douglas (Class of 1941) in There Was a Crooked Man… and in Alan J. Pakula’s thriller The Parallax View and co-starred in two episodes of the long-running hit police procedural Hawaii Five-O. One of Hume and Tandy’s great successes came in 1977 in the form of The Gin Game. Serving as The Gin Game’s producer and star, Hume played the role of Weller Martin, who befriends Fonsai Dorsey (Tandy), a fellow resident of his nursing home. Weller offers to teach Fonsai how to play the game of gin rummy. As they play, however, Fonsai keeps winning, which increasingly frustrates Weller. As they play, they talk about their lives and past relationships, slowly beginning to dig at one another and discover each other’s weaknesses. When Hume and Jessica began rehearsals, they found it incredibly difficult for them to learn the lines and keep track of which gin rummy game they were on. Finally, the director, Mike Nichols (The Graduate, The Birdcage), told them to write prompts down and leave them on the table, “You’ll never get it with clenched heads,” Nichols said. “I thought the idea professionally outrageous…. However, we did as he suggested–and within a couple of days, the problem had disappeared…. Mike had handed us a security blanket that resolved what was largely a psychological problem.” The play had 517 performances and landed four Tony nominations, with Tandy winning “Best Actress in a Play.”

Hume & Jessica in "Cocoon," Credit: Science on Screen

Refusing to slow down, Cronyn continued to produce strong work all throughout his life. In the 1980s; he appeared in a string of popular comedies: George Roy Hill’s The World According to Garp, Brewster’s Millions, and Ron Howard’s sci-fi Oscar winner Cocoon. Foxfire, written by Hume, Susan Cooper, and Jonathan Brielle, was another Broadway success for the Cronyn-Tandy power couple. Opening in the fall of 1982 and closing in the spring of ‘83, the show brought Tandy another Tony win.

Foraging into the nineties, Hume starred in several TV movies, including an adaptation of Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound  with Anne Bancroft (Class of 1950), To Dance with a White Dog, and a star-studded rendition of 12 Angry Men  featuring Jack Lemon, George C. Scott, and James Gandolfini. It was directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A.).

Jessica & Hume on Tony stage, Credit: YouTube

“When I left The American Academy of Dramatic Arts… sixty years ago last month I don’t think that even in my most euphoric or ambitious fantasies I thought I’d ever be here tonight on an occasion like this.” Hume on the Tony Awards stage 1994. 

Throughout his illustrious career, Hume was lauded with several awards for both his performances on stage and screen, including a Primetime Emmy Award, the Presidential Medal of the Arts, and Tony Awards. All are on display at The Academy Los Angeles and New York campuses. He was nominated for seven Tony Awards throughout his career, winning two, one in 1964 in the competitive category of “Best Featured Actor in a Play” for his turn as Polonius in Hamlet, the other was a “Lifetime Achievement'' award granted to Cronyn and Tandy in 1994 - the first “Lifetime Achievement” award to be given out. Hume was awarded the Drama Desk Award ``Special Award” for his “continuing theatrical partnership” in 1986. He had previously been nominated for two Drama Desk Awards in competitive categories, both for The Gin Game - one for “Outstanding Actor in a Play” and the second for “Outstanding New Play,” as he also served as producer on the production. He was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1979 and, on July 11th, 1988, was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada, giving him the post-nominal letter of “OC” for life.

Hume and Jessica stayed married for fifty-two years until her death at eighty-five in 1994. Hume remarried to long-time professional partner Susan Cooper in 1996. He died on the 15th of June in 2003 at the age of ninety-one, leaving behind a rich legacy of theatrical performances and filmography.

“[C]ourage is a divine asset to the actor. ‘Oh, you want me to do it that way?... Right. Here goes.’ And to start with, until you’ve made the change your own, you may make an ass of yourself. Never mind. ‘On, on, on!’”


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