It was during a forlorn period in Tennessee Williams's career, and a heady one in Keith Baxter's, that the two men solidified a lasting bond. It was on Broadway in 1970. Baxter was starring with Anthony Quayle in "Sleuth," the Anthony Shaffer thriller that would win the Tony that season, and Williams was adrift in New York, nursing the psychic wounds received after a series of failed plays.
They shared a New York agent, who arranged to bring them together over lunch at Joe Allen, the theater world hangout on West 46th Street. The prognosis for a connection was not instantly promising. Williams had been to see "Sleuth" -- "I don't think he liked the play," Baxter recalls -- and the playwright proved a bit shy. "He was not a chatterbox. That was something I learned quickly."
Nevertheless, Williams soon became a part of Baxter's life. Despite his reservations about "Sleuth," the author of "A Streetcar Named Desire" made several pilgrimages to the Music Box Theatre, where the play was in residence. Baxter remembers Williams sitting in the wings each time and basking vicariously in that elusive intoxicant in his life: a hit.
"He just loved being in the theater," Baxter says, reflecting more than 30 years later on the visage of the dapper Williams, immaculately tailored and soaking up the raw energy of success. It was clear to the actor that his new friend was reliving his own momentous evenings on Broadway: "How could he not, sitting there, listening to the applause and the cheers?"
Baxter, 71, is relaxing in the downtown Washington apartment he's been provided by the Shakespeare Theatre for his appearances in its "Henry IV" marathon, in which he plays the titular monarch, and talking about his friendship with one of the American theater's true immortals. A Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-trained veteran of Broadway and London's West End, Baxter first rose to attention in the 1960s as Prince Hal in Orson Welles's film adaptation of the story of Falstaff, "Chimes at Midnight."
The discussion was precipitated by the opening of "Tennessee Williams Explored," the Kennedy Center's four-month examination of Williams's legacy. Its first production, "Five by Tenn," an evening of one-acts produced by Shakespeare Theatre, closed last Sunday; the second installment, a "Streetcar" featuring Patricia Clarkson as Blanche and Adam Rothenberg as Stanley, continues at the Eisenhower through the end of the month.
The actor had proposed the talk, a leisurely discourse that began in his flat and continued over a long lunch in a nearby restaurant, to dispel what he contends are some flagrant misconceptions about the Williams he knew until the writer's death -- he choked on a bottle cap -- 13 years later, in a Manhattan hotel. Baxter says that popular portraits of Williams as chatty and flamboyant, a drama queen in the mode of Blanche DuBois, are irritatingly inaccurate.
In fact, he didn't like the way Williams was depicted in "Five by Tenn," in which an actor, Jeremy Lawrence, impersonated the playwright. He felt the portrayal merely reinforced the idea of Williams as a garrulous, fey eccentric.
And while he does not dispute that Williams struggled with addiction, he believes that accounts that describe Williams as an inveterate inebriate, a debaucher, are gross exaggerations."They write about somebody I never met," Baxter says. "I know he made occasional sorties into the seamier side of life. And I saw him drink. But I never saw him drunk."
There may be a bit of hero worship in Baxter's memories of Williams. Other theater veterans have stories of their own, about encounters with the playwright when he was in an altered state. But Baxter's point seems to be that the public does not hear as much about the playwright's finer qualities, his gentility and generosity, his humor, his work ethic. He exhibited a vulnerability, too, that nonetheless masked his steely determination to survive. "He made you feel that you had to be strong for him," Baxter says. "He made you feel very protective. Well, that was rubbish, too. He was stronger than anyone."
Baxter, who recounted their friendship in his 1998 memoir, "My Sentiments Exactly," was introduced to Williams at a party in Manhattan in 1961, but their comradeship did not flower until a decade later, during "Sleuth." Although it would be easy to believe Williams had been attracted to Baxter, a classical actor of classic beauty, the friendship was platonic. Baxter stayed on several occasions with Williams at his home in Key West, Fla., and Williams would sometimes stay with Baxter on visits to London. In the mid-1970s, Williams did, in fact, write a part for Baxter, in his anti-capitalist "The Red Devil Battery Sign," in which Baxter appeared. The play won the plaudits of critics in Vienna, but had a more muted reception in London.
On the play's opening night in London, the dramatist slipped a note under the door to Baxter's dressing room. "Maria says to write you another poem," it began, referring to Williams's devoted friend and literary executor, Maria St. Just. "I think the play is a poem and the poem is yours. Love always, Tennessee."
The years of their acquaintance were not fruitful ones for Williams. Although he continued to write religiously, his triumphs of the '40s and '50s, with plays such as "Streetcar," "The Glass Menagerie," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "The Rose Tattoo," were long past. Now he was struggling to get his new pieces before audiences, a distressing process that seemed to give him no end of heartache. Though the playwright's personal life hit pronounced pockets of turbulence, Baxter never got the sense that Williams, a confirmed nomad, was convulsed by romantic turmoil. (The love of his life, Frank Merlo, had died by then, of cancer, and he'd become involved with a troubled younger man.) It was Williams's inability to climb back up and replant his flag at the summit, to match, or even come close to, the acclaim of the beautiful spoken symphonies of his younger days that seemed the more anguishing aspect of his life.
"I never felt he was pursued by personal demons," Baxter says. "Maybe he was. But it was the lack of his success that mattered terribly to him. It wasn't that he wanted adulation, not at all. But his work wasn't being received with any kind of encouragement."
The heartbreaking fate of many great playwrights is to fall out of favor. (All too often in old age, famous actors get lavish testimonials and writers get dismissive notices.) After dramas like "The Red Devil Battery Sign," which closed in Boston, and the critically savaged "Clothes for a Summer Hotel," Williams was on intimate terms with failure. But Williams's faith in his own talent was such, apparently, that he was able to view these setbacks as temporary. Indeed, some of Baxter's most cherished recollections are aural ones, pertaining to Williams's eternal plotting for a comeback: "The lovely sound," as Baxter put it, "of tap-tap-tap."
"It was wonderful in Key West," Baxter says of the times he spent at Williams's sweet little compound. His memories are of his friend, "always beautifully dressed," bicycling through town or taking his sister Rose out to eat, or wearing goggles and a bathing cap and creating huge wakes in his pool. "It was like a hippo, the water he would displace." Conversation, as always, was measured, but Williams loved to crack open Shakespeare and act out all the parts with Baxter. One evening, they read "Hamlet" aloud, and Williams seemed transported.
"He was mad about Polonius," the actor says. "And he was a terrible reader, overacting so broadly."
It's funny to imagine Williams overemoting late into the night, in the privacy of his home. (He actually did take the stage in New York in the early '70s, substituting for an actor in one of his own plays, "Small Craft Warnings"). Other images from Baxter's mind's eye strike more familiar chords. "When he woke up at 2 or 3 in the morning, he'd go into the kitchen and switch on the percolator. Then he'd take the percolator and a bottle of wine, Almaden white, and go off and write."
The writing. It's where an impression of Williams begins and ends. Once, after Williams had been Baxter's guest in London, a cleaning lady found a piece of paper in the bed he had slept in. It was Williams's scribblings. Baxter later had them framed. At the time, however, he wasn't sure if these were important to Williams, so he called him to report the discovery. "What does it say?" Williams asked.
Baxter read him the fragment. "The clock ticks," it began, "with a sound that is infinitely more gentle than any word that was spoken tonight. It reminds me not to fear the prison of present time. It will pass. I shall have escaped."
To this day, Baxter recalls with relish his friend's reaction: "Oh, baby," Williams said. "I do write such rubbish sometimes."