Who is Ernest Thompson?
New York theater people are asking, "Who is he?" in the wake of Thompson's play. "On Golden Pond" at the Hudson Guild Theater.
This comedy drama about an elderly couple's summer at their Maine cottage, starring Frances Sternhagen and Tom Aldredge, has inspired reviews play-wrights dream about.
"A golden play about the golden years" wrote UPI's Glenne Curri. The New Yorker's Edith Oliver exulted: "What courage it must have taken Mr. Thompson in the 1970s to write a play with so much affection in it." John Beaufort declared in The Christian Science Monitor that it "combines good humor, sweetness and tenderness - commodities infrequently encountered by your constant playgoer. And therefore the more welcome."
There are dissenters but the dominant tone is positive to enthusiastic and the remaining weeks of the run in the Off-Broadway theater are sold out.
Thompson is 28 and graduated cum laude seven years ago from American University. I first saw him when he was 20 acting in an original poetic drama at AU. Written by fellow student the play was lugubrious indeed but watching the actor face up to the part of a rich, 56-year-old man was arresting. "An actor to watch." I said to myself and checked him out on later productions at Maryland and the Folger.
For the opening of the new Hartke Theater at Catholic University. Cyril Ritchard held two nights of student auditioning for "The Devil's Disciple," in which he would direct and appear. When Thompson, next to the last to appear at the end of the second night, finished his brief scene, Ritchard turned silently and made a circle with his thumb and first finger.
"What took you so long?" Thompson was asked later. "I was in the John throwing up," he replied.
Ritchard's recognition of Thompson's potential was a critical career factor, as had been F. Cowles Strickland's at AU. Ritchard subsequently cast him in his summer touring company of "The Pleasure of His Company." Television parts came along - the streetcar conductor in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last of the Belles," directed by George Schafer, and "The Rimers of Eldritch" for Public Broadcasting. He was in NBC's soap, "Somerset," for over two years. He landed a starring part in a nighttime series, "Sierra." (The first offer was for $300 an episode. Eventually the offer reached $3,000 an episode, so finally Thompson took it.) An equally short-lived series, "West Side Medical," followed.
At the Kennedy Center and in New York, he was costarred (against his will but the part demanded it) with Alexis Smith in "Summer Brave." At the Los Angeles Ahmanson, he was with Jean Stapleton in "Time of the Cuckoo."
In short, as parents were both educators andas an actor Thompson has not done badly at all, though he's far from a household name and has spend as much time looking for work as he has acting.
Thompson's parents were both educators and as the father went from teaching into administrative work, the family of three boys and two girls moved a lot. Earliest friends knew him as Richard E. Thompson, then R. Ernest Thompson and finally, Ernest Thompson.
"All that moving," he once said, "should have made me gregarious but it didn't. I'm not an easy mixer. I always like to sit in the back row and not be called on. I do like to observe other people. I had no idea what I was going to do. What I liked best was summers when I worked as a camp counselor. I got into my first play by accident. My college buddy was trying out for a part and I went along with him. I was picked, not he, and that got me going. But I still find auditioning and all that goes with it downright painful. Awful. Torture."
Thompson's reserve possibly pushed him into writing. And writing dialogue seems to come naturally to him. His "state-of-the career" letters over the years were often in the form of dialogues, pithy lines reporting an event or situation which would spring to life with vivid immediacy.
From such happy wrestling with written language. Thompson's swerve toward playwriting now seems to have been foreordained. Living at the edge of the Santa Monica beach, the temptation was to spend every hour sporting in the sun, and that's what friends, including Ritchard, figured he was doing.
"It's just a year ago," Thompson muses, "that I began trying to write plays. The first I finished were three one-actors titled 'Answers.' Then I wrote 'Lesson,' a full-length play about college dramatics which some in Washington may recognize. I was to come East and have dinner with Cyril last winter when I planned to surprise him with my one-act scripts. Instead, that day we buried him in Connecticut.
"Back on the coast, I ran into George Schaefer, who had directed me in 'Belles.' He asked what I was doing. I reported that I hadn't an acting job in nearly a year and so was trying to write,' 'Let me see what you've written,' Schaefer said. I sent him 'Answers' and , by gosh, the day he called to take an option on it. He's been trying to get a production but he's busy man and we did have a good, professional reading of it.
"Then I finished 'Golden Pond.' Luckily, I had been put in touch with a lively writing agent, Earl Graham, and I could hardly believe it when Crai Anderson offered to produce it as the Hudson Guild's first play this season. Tennessee Williams is scheduled for later. Can you believe it? I can't.?
It was Anderson's Hudson Guild that presented Hugh Leonard's Olney hit, "Da," last spring in New York. The Irish play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle award, so Thompson's play couldn't have fallen into hotter hands than Anderson's, whose direction of th play is masterful.
"It's been a dizzying month," says Thompson, "a total switch. I've gone from wrestling with lines as an actor to a strange ownership of them as author. I think I fell for actors more than I ever have now, the meanings they can put into words, their gradations. There's one scene in the play that, in early previews, just didn't seem to fit. It should be there, it has to be there, but you could feel the audience didn't like it. So I cut it, a long scene, eight, ten pages.
"That hurt, but you know I learned something. Maybe that scene is part of another play, not this one. And without it, the audience doesn't drift away as the first ones were so unmistakably doing. To me the audience is never wrong. We're working on that scene, a few lines achieving, through Franny and Zina Jasper, at least the subliminal meaning of the original scene.
"A lot of crazy things have happened. The grapevine word has gotten around fast. I went to a TV audition today for a good part. The producer had seen my play and wanted to talk about it, not how I might act this new role. The director assumed I'd been in the play, not written it. Everything got out of focus. Frustrating. I'd like to act that part, but I doubt I'd even want to try it now. The director seemed to resent me, and I just can't take part when I don't feel welcome.
Do the couple in the play resemble his parents, residents of Westminster, Md., who have long summered at their Maine cottage?
"No, though perhaps superficially. I used our Maine home and boyhood incidents for it but neither Norman nor Ethel of the play are like my father and mother. I suppose the major trait I have is self-discipline, which came from our mother, who assigned all five of us daily tasks which had to be done. We always were kept busy. It was that discipline that kept me writing when I couldn't get acting jobs. The folks have read the play and agree they don't see themselves. They'll be seeing it pretty soon, have it all typically worked out. They'll drive to Boston, bus to New York, see three weekend performances and go back to Maine. Norman and Ethel would have done that very differently."
Does Thompson feel like Lucky Pierre?
"Are you kidding? This was work. I've had my rejections, role turn-downs that hurt and baffled. Agents have made promises and broken them. I've had the digs from my fellow actors.No, it hasn't been easy, but I've learned a lot."
Will "Golden Pond" follow "Da" to Broadway?
"At the moment we don't know exactly what's going to happen. Craig has had four offers to move the production to Broadway when its 26th Street run ends Oct. 15. That probably will depend on how long the newspaper strike continues.
"There's no sense in trying to move an unknown's play while that's going on. Though neither Eder nor Barnes were enthusiatic, most everyone else has been, so there are a lot of fine reviews to reprint. One idea that's been broached is to move it to Boston, Baltimore or even Washington before tackling Broadway. We even have an offer for a London production. It's amazing. My world has changed, literally, in a single week."
How about Ernest Thompson, the actor?
"We should hear pretty soon about the Mary Tyler Moore series being planned for PBS. I'm lucky to be in a great-cast for the one, a family story called 'Going Home Again.' I play a heel in that, best part I've had since 'Belles.' If they follow up on the pilot we shot last spring, that means I'll be going back to the coast in mid-November."
"You mean that if the series is picked up, you'd be in California for the Broadway opening?"
"Guess so. That's the contract if the series is picked up. I wrote a play because I wasn't acting. Now because I might be acting, I could miss the Big Transfer. Crazy, isn't it? But no crazier than a lot of what I've seen since I played that rich, old bastard at AU."