Special Thoughts for 
by Alan Waldman


I just flat adored the writing of Herb Gardner and I mourn his recent passing deeply. As a writer, a non-conformist and a humorist/humanist, he was one of my heroes. His first hit Broadway play (and most successful film), A THOUSAND CLOWNS, probably influenced me more than any other stage or screen work. It is one of the three movies (along with JULES AND JIM and WEST SIDE STORY) that I have seen five or more times—and would happily watch again any time. (If you’ve never seen it, go rent it right now—and invite lots of people you love to come enjoy it with you!)

To write this tribute, I’ve just re-read his five major plays—A THOUSAND CLOWNS, THIEVES, THE GOODBYE PEOPLE, I’M NOT RAPPAPORT and CONVERSATIONS WITH MY FATHER—and was once again deeply moved, frequently convulsed with laughter and left shaking my graying locks in reverent astonishment at Gardner’s rare combination of intelligence, humanity, mad energy, deep insight into character, and true comic brilliance.

Herb Gardner’s career was unusual. He zoomed to spectacular early success but then worked very slowly—producing only a handful of plays and scripts over his final 37 years. His voice was so distinctive however, his lead characters were so mesmerizing and his humor was so appealing, that he became and remained one of the most-produced playwrights worldwide.

At age 17 young Herb had a play staged in New York; at 19, he had created the massive hit cartoon phenomenon “The Nebbishes” (the 1950s’ equivalent of THE SIMPSONS); by 24 he had a published novel; and before his 28th birthday A THOUSAND CLOWNS was a hit on Broadway—en route to earning him a Tony nomination (Best Play) and the New York Drama Critics “Best New Playwright” honor. By the time Gardner was 31, CLOWNS was also a hit movie, earning him an Oscar nomination for “Best Adapted Screenplay” and the Writer’s Guild Award for “Best Screen Comedy.”

He only wrote four more screenplays from 1965-96 (directing two of these pics himself), and none of them did much at the box office. Nonetheless, three of his five plays had long Broadway runs, and his works won numerous honors—both for Gardner and for his star performers.

Herb Gardner was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for CONVERSATIONS and a second Best Play Tony for RAPPAPORT. A couple years ago, Gardner also garnered the Writer’s Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Judd Hirsch won two Best Actor Tony Awards, for RAPPAPORT and CONVERSATIONS. Martin Balsam pocketed his only Oscar as Best Supporting Actor in CLOWNS. Tony Shaloub’s career took off after he was Tony-nominated for CONVERSATIONS. Barbara Harris was nominated for a Golden Globe for CLOWNS and for an Oscar in Gardner’s 1971 movie WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN AND WHY IS HE SAYING THOSE TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT ME? And many believe Walter Matthau gave his greatest performance in RAPPAPORT and that Milton Berle did the same in THE GOODBYE PEOPLE.

Gardner’s works were all wonderfully witty, although they dealt seriously, intelligently and movingly with issues such as conformity, ageism, anti-Semitism, crime and dysfunctional marriage. Each piece pitted a larger-than-life free spirit and/or dreamer against forces who sought to make him or her conform to what is generally accepted to be “normal.” Although CLOWNS dealt with a beautifully loving family relationship, Gardner’s later stuff all featured witty duels between parents and children who couldn’t remotely walk in each other’s shoes.

Herbert George Gardner was born on December 28, 1934, in a very Jewish section of Brooklyn. After the debut of his extremely Jewish–yet wonderfully universal—play CONVERSATIONS WITH MY FATHER, 56 years later, Gardner commented, “I was born in Coney Island. Who should I write about: Swedes?”

Herb’s dad ran a Canal Street bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and its habitués inspired many of his more voluble and interesting characters. “I grew up with people who lived at the top of their voices,” he explained in 1985. “Some of them were in my family; some were just around.”

He hung out in a local deli where old Jewish lefties spent hours discussing “either Leon Trotsky or the egg salad.” Despite this highly Hebraic environment, Gardner always felt that various ethnicities had a lot in common. He once confessed, “Growing up, I thought the Italians were just happy Jews.”

Young Herb loved stories, frequently begging his grandfather, “Tell me a story—even if it’s not true.” As a teen, he sold orange drinks and checked coats at the Court and National theatres, where he watched some plays 140 times.

After graduating from NYC’s Performing Arts High School, he attended what is now Carnegie-Mellon University and then Antioch College. To pay for his studies, Herb sculpted dolls, walruses and nativity scenes for Bliss Display—until he was fired “for making cross-eyed wise men.”

While still at Antioch, he began drawing his revolutionary Nebbishes, which were picked up by the Chicago Tribune in 1954 and syndicated to more than 60 major newspapers. They became a national craze for six years, appearing on greeting cards, barware and anything white—except surgical masks. I remember enjoying the funny Nebbishes cocktail napkins in my parents’ home in the late 1950s. The humor appealed more to adults than to kids and had a slyly left-wing slant.

Over time, according to Gardner, “the balloons were getting larger and larger and there was hardly any drawing left.” After it became more like writing than cartooning, he dropped the extremely lucrative strip (and merchandizing bonanza) in 1960—devoting himself exclusively to play writing. “People thought I’d gone crazy,” he later reported.

Years back, young Gardner had written a few one-act plays and sold some scripts to TV. In his first three-act play, “I wrote about what it felt like to start another life—and it became A THOUSAND CLOWNS.”

A THOUSAND CLOWNS, which opened on April 5, 1962 and ran for 428 performances on Broadway (a lot for a drama), starred Jason Robards, Jr. as a TV kids’ show writer who drops out and raises his nephew with his own antic, iconoclastic spirit—until the Child Welfare Bureau forces him to take a mind-numbing job.

In 2000, the final year of his life, Jason Robards wrote: “I feel A THOUSAND CLOWNS is his masterpiece. It is a real human comedy of poignancy and laughter, with all of humanity’s foibles and eccentricities. There is a great depth of love and understanding for all in this play. There are great life lessons to learn daily, which I find myself still doing. For Herb Gardner to have written this play in his early twenties is a miracle.”

The play opened to rave reviews in every paper except one: The Jewish Daily Forward. At the Gardner family's Passover seder that year, the playwright's Aunt Rose read the Forward's review aloud. “Rose didn’t know that it was his only pan,” Gardner's widow Barbara Sproul told playwright Wendy Wasserstein. “As she read it, the family was at first silent, and then they all began laughing. So a new tradition began.” At every subsequent Gardner family seder, the Forward’s pan of CLOWNS was read—right after the Four Questions.

In 1965 the film version of CLOWNS appeared with Gardner as screenwriter and associate producer. Jason Robards and Barbara Harris reprised their stage roles—as did two future presidents of the Screen Actors Guild: Barry Gordon and William Daniels.

Critic Bob Aulert, in culturevulture.net, wrote, “A THOUSAND CLOWNS was one of the first of many counterculture/anti-establishment films, but, unlike many of the films that followed, it's hardly dated. The main reason is that the things it pokes most fun at aren't temporary trends or specific individuals.

Gardner chooses perpetual targets like conformity, television, advertising and dullness. And unlike gag-laden scripts from say, Neil Simon, the humor here always works because you almost never see the punchline coming.”

Gardner’s second Broadway effort, THE GOODBYE PEOPLE, brought Milton Berle back to the Great White Way for the first time in 25 years, performing with Brenda Vaccaro, Bob Dishy and Tony LoBianco. It only lasted eight performances—but I saw one of them and enjoyed it greatly. The play tells of an elderly cardiac patient determined to revive his old Coney Island hot dog stand—in frosty February. Berle called Max “The meatiest role that’s come along since Willy Loman.”

In 1984, Gardner wrote and directed the film THE GOODBYE PEOPLE, starring Martin Balsam, Judd Hirsch and Pamela Reed, and featuring Ron Silver and Michael Tucker. It was too talky or stagy for many viewers and critics, but I enjoyed it—particularly the nutso character of Max.

A Gardner short story that was included in The Best American Short Stories of 1968, was turned into the strange 1971cult hit WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN AND WHY IS HE SAYING THOSE TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT ME?, starring Dustin Hoffman and mega-cute Barbara Harris.

In 1974, Gardner contributed stories to Marlo Thomas’s animated kids’ telepic FREE TO BE…YOU AND ME. That same year, his THIEVES was Broadway’s longest-running play—at 313 performances. The 1977 movie version (which Gardner scripted), with Thomas, Ann Wedgeworth and Richard Mulligan reprising their leads—abetted by Hector Elizondo, Charles Grodin, Irwin Corey and John McMartin—only grossed $250,000 in its five-week run.

Gardner, Neil Simon and other scribes contributed segments to the 1975 TV special HAPPY ENDINGS. Herb’s 1979 play LOVE AND/OR DEATH ran off-Broadway at Circle Repertory. And he wrote the book and lyrics for the 1980 Jules Styne Broadway musical ONE NIGHT STAND—which didn’t even manage that, closing during previews.

Gardner followed those efforts with a major success: I’M NOT RAPPAPORT, which started in 1984 at Seattle Rep, starring Harold Gould and Cleavon Little (another of my all-time favorite actors), ran for a year off-Broadway and then ran two more years on Broadway, starring Little and Judd Hirsch (who took the Best Actor Tony Award for it). RAPPAPORT brought Gardner a Tony for Best Play.

In 1996, Gardner wrote and directed the powerful film version, starring Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis, and featuring Amy Irving, Martha Plimpton and Craig T. Nelson. Both the play and film were just flat fabulous.

Nat, an 81-year-old perpetual Jewish radical, and Midge, an old, nearly blind boiler operator, cope with pushers, junkies, an official who wants to fire Midge, and Nat’s daughter (who wants to put him in a nursing home).

Speaking of the Nat character, Gardner once reflected, “In my history there were these extraordinary guys, men and women, all immigrants, passionate people, who believed a great, humane kind of America existed—and when it didn't, they decided to make up the difference.”

That’s it for Gardner’s movies, although he wrote one more great play: the highly autobiographical CONVERSATIONS WITH MY FATHER. It too started at Seattle Rep (in 1991) before opening on Broadway in March 1992 and running for 402 performances. Among its many raves, was this from UPI, “A distinguished play, laugh-provoking yet notable for its shattering emotional range.”

Set in a Canal Street bar like the one Gardner’s dad owned, it dealt with anti-Semitism, assimilation, cultural identity and father-son conflicts—while dramatically spanning the four decades from 1936 to 1976. (It also dramatized a little-known 1944 New York incident in which rightists attacked Jews in the streets, accusing them of wanting the war.) Judd Hirsch won another Best Actor Tony for CONVERSATIONS, and it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It has played all over the world (as many of Gardner’s works have) and has resonated with all ethnic groups.

In 2000, Applause Books published HERB GARDNER: THE COLLECTED PLAYS, which I highly recommend to you, along with the four films listed below. In his introduction to RAPPAPORT in that book, Judd Hirsch characterized Gardner’s male lead characters thus: “They all believe they are being pursued by time and silly people.”

On September 24, 2003, 68-year-old Herb Gardner died at his Upper East Side home in Manhattan, after a long, grueling battle with lung disease. He is survived by his sons Jake (15) and Rafferty (11), and his wife Barbara (Chairman of the Hunter College Religion Department) as well as five magnificent plays and four fabulous films.

In Britain’s Guardian newspaper, David Patrick Stearns wrote, “Few writers have dramatised the plight of the elderly with such penetrating insights as Herb Gardner. Gardner's voice was an authentic New York one. He created a gallery of stubborn, pain-in-the-ass personalities who refused to accept the paltry corners of the world that society left them. His plays were unapologetically talky. His characters would not shut up until the audience accepted their humanity.”



 1.  A Thousand Clowns (1965)
 2.  I’m Not Rappaport (1996)
 3.  Thieves (1977)
 4.  The Goodbye People (1984)


© Alan Waldman (11/4/03) 



Alan Waldman, believed to be the secret love child of actress Mae West and anti-war activist Benjamin Spock, has published thousands of articles on topics ranging from medical malpractice to Monty Python—winning a handful of awards and a $7 million libel lawsuit in the process. As a Jewish native Texan—previously known on his Brandeis University campus as “the Yiddishe cowboy”—Waldman is “proud to be a member of the two groups who are allowed to wear their hats in the house.”