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Show Business: Lights! Camera! Author!

5 minute read
Gerald Clarke

Many writers are turning to acting for fun and profit

“A writer must write what he has to say, not speak it,” said Ernest Hemingway. But times change and so do writers. If The Old Man and the Sea were published today, Papa would probably play the old man—and perhaps the fish too. And if he did not, no doubt Norman Mailer would volunteer for the role, and perhaps such other aspiring actor-writers as George Plimpton, James Leo Herlihy or Jerzy Kosinski would audition. Nowadays it is almost as fashionable for writers to act as it is for actors to write. In recent months, filmgoers have seen Mailer get violently murdered in Ragtime and Herlihy shoot both his daughter and himself in Four Friends. They have watched Reds in wonderment as Plimpton tries to seduce Diane Keaton and Kosinski helps guide the Russian Revolution. “It has become a trend,” says Ragtime Director Milos Forman. “Writers have a hidden affection for show business.”

Writers have been actors for a long time, of course; Shakespeare and Molière learned their craft on the boards performing in their own plays. It can also be, and often is, argued that writing is a form of acting. “I act all my parts when I write a play,” observes Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge). Miller says that he would probably have become a player if he had failed as a playwright. “I well could have,” he says. “Some people think I’m pretty good.”

But never before have so many writers actually stepped upon a stage or gone before the cameras. In months to come, John Irving will be seen as a wrestling coach in the film version of his novel The World According to Garp, Herlihy will play the king of the hobos in a new play by California Playwright Henry Murray, and Novelist and Screenwriter John Sayles will take Plimpton’s cue and assume the role of seducer in a film titled Lianna.

The reason for the sudden popularity of actor-writers is as mysterious as other movie trends. Kosinski’s explanation is probably as good as any: television talk shows have turned writers into market able stars, recognizable to even the nonliterary. “Our photographs are every where,” he maintains. “I have a portfolio that rivals Brando’s. I’m routinely stopped by people who say, ‘I saw you on a talk show.’ I’m known.” More modestly he adds: “There are also some people who have read our books who will come to see us out of curiosity.”

Whatever the reason for their popularity as actors, most writers are happy to accept it—and the parts they are offered. Off-Broadway Playwright Wallace Shawn, who can currently be seen co-starring in the film My Dinner with André, frankly admits that he acts primarily for the money. “It’s how I make my living. One day of film acting will pay roughly half the annual salary of an off-Broadway playwright.” But Shawn, like many of the others who need the money less, also does it for the entertainment and education. “It is 10,000 times more exciting and fun than being a shipping clerk,” he says, “and it’s very liberating to do all sorts of things that you would not normally do.” Plimpton, who believes—though he is not quite sure—that he was paid $1,000 for his part in Reds, enjoyed it so much that he claims he would have paid for the experience.

On a more serious level, almost all scribes, the novelists as well as the playwrights, say that acting has improved their writing. “Until you put yourself inside the character, you will never realize the dilemmas an actor faces,” says Playwright Sam Shepard (Buried Child, True West). “A lot of playwrights think that actors are automatons and can pick up wherever the writer leaves off,” adds Shepard, who, after major parts in Raggedy Man and the forthcoming Frances, is probably the most visible of all the actor-writers. “That doesn’t happen.”

“Acting helps me write screenplays,” says Sayles, who has written ten of them (including Return of the Secaucus Seven and The Howling). “I see when I haven’t written a full person. I look at every part as an actor would.” Sayles, unlike most of the others, can also say that his writing helps his acting: he has taken parts only in films he has written. His working routine is a performer’s dream: if he does not like his lines, he changes them, and if his part is too small, he makes it bigger. “I work cheaply,” he jokes. “I hire myself.”

Still, not for all the fun and money in the world would a real writer drop his pen or unplug his word processor for the full-time life of an actor. “It takes too much time and it’s boring,” declares Truman Capote, who played the sinister Lionel Twain in Neil Simon’s 1976 movie comedy Murder by Death. “It’s easy, but it’s a terrible job and an awful profession,” adds Sayles. “An actor has to take what he is offered, and the smart ones are always apologizing for their work.” Besides, says Kosinski, what director or actor has the power a writer has when he sits down at his desk? “I have a cast of thousands—an army, in short—at the touch of a key.”

—By Gerald Clarke. Reported by Dorothy Ferenbaugh/New York and Martha Smilgis/Los Angeles

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