Wednesday, November 8th, 2000
Fred Stewart - a Contender
I noticed a television listing for the motion picture Splendor in the Grass in the paper the other day. It's a movie I will probably never again watch as it holds a very sad memory of death for me. No, not that of Natalie Wood, although her death was, of course, very tragic. No, my remembrance is of a gentle character actor named Fred Stewart who portrayed Natalie Woods' father in that movie. He died virtually in my arms.
When I was 19 years old (during the 2nd Punic War), I was an apprentice at the Actor's Studio on west 46th street in New York City. I first interviewed for the position with an actor named Peter Masterson who later achieved a small degree of notoriety as the co-author of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. He's probably now best known as the father of the actress Mary Stewart Masterson. Pete was a very engaging and ambitious man and, while his intentions for the apprenticeship program were good, he was far too busy with his career to be able to provide much time for three very eager and very green teenagers. He handed the job over to Fred Stewart, one of the most delightful men I've ever had the pleasure of knowing.
Fred was a wonderful character actor who had appeared on stage in quite a few prestigious productions such as the original Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. He was a fixture at the Actor's Studio and was always involved in fund raising and other activities to keep the old place from falling down. I remember once being sent on an errand to various theatres and apartments around New York to obtain personalized signatures from Studio members on a fund raising letter. To my astonishment, at one point I ended up sitting on a sofa next to Paul Newman in a very well appointed apartment in midtown Manhattan. We were apparently both in the same boat awaiting an audience with producer Cheryl Crawford who, at that point in her life, was conducting business from her bed in much the manner of an ancient Egyptian queen.
Fred taught me a lot about the theatre and a lot more about life. He had me performing mental exercises that I never knew were possible such as memorizing a Shakespearian monologue while simultaneously carrying on two different lucid conversations and continually performing a menial task such as filing pictures and résumés. He also included me as an actor in an ongoing 5-year rehearsal for a production of the Falstaff legend. I learned something wonderful from him every day that I knew him.
One rainy December evening, Lee Strasburg, then the Artistic Director of the Studio, had planned an evening lecture about the Italian actress Eleonora Duse. The main thrust of the lecture was that, as opposed to Sarah Bernhardt, Duse truly understood the new film media of the silent era. During a showing of the actress' only film, the 1916 silent Cenere (Ashes), in the Studio's upstairs "auditorium" (and I use that term very loosely), Strasburg contrasted Duse's minimal gestures and facial movements to the wildly exaggerated and still "stagy" acting style of Bernhardt and made an excellent case for the often-overlooked Duse as the world's first true film actress. As apprentices, my cohorts and I (including my college friend Dave Robbins) were designated as ushers for this program, which was presented on consecutive nights.
The first night we all stood in the back and listened raptly to Strasburg's lecture. On the second night Fred, the apprentices and a few out of work actors hung around downstairs in the "office" area. The older actors entertained each other (and we fledglings) with old acting adventures, impressions and horror stories of the various stars with whom they had worked. As the evening wore on, Fred, sitting in the large old leather receptionist's chair, began telling a story about the making of the motion picture On the Water Front. He spoke offhandedly about one backstage intrigue or another and at one point started performing an amazing impression/parody of the famous "I coulda been a contenduh" scene switching between Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger. Suddenly, he pitched over backwards in the chair and landed splat on his back. At first we laughed, thinking that this was part of the act he was performing. It soon became apparent, however, that something was terribly wrong. This dignified man lay sprawled with his glasses askew, eyes fixed, never to entertain us again. We later learned that he was probably dead of a massive cerebral hemorrhage before he ever hit the floor.
We covered him and waited in silence for the ambulance to arrive. The lecture ended and the guests filed out unaware of the tragedy that had occurred while they were in thrall to the so-called genius, Strasburg. Finally, as the last sound of footsteps scraped down the sidewalk we few players still sat stunned - the only ones left in the now eerie studio.
Suddenly, as I held Fred's white-haired head in my lap and gently wept, the old West 46th street Studio building began to rumble. Chairs skittered across the floor and the desk in front of me started moving in a strange circular pattern. No one said anything, and I was sure I was hallucinating until I saw one of the other apprentices grabbing the stair landing. Just then the ambulance arrived and Fred was carted away. His family soon afterward had his body cremated as was his wish and all his meager belongings were given to the Actors Home in New Jersey.
I was still dazed some days later when I found out that that a small earthquake centered in southern New Jersey had struck shortly after Fred died which accounted for the movement of the building and its contents.
I miss Fred to this day. And, at times, I still hear him, with a Brando mumbling slur, saying his last words:
"You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money."
The rest was silence.
current music: Mozart's Requiem