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.