9/12: TRTC Opens ‘On Borrowed Time’

HoganGreyVeteran character actor Robert Hogan (left) stars in ON BORROWED TIME, the season-opening Two River Theater Company production directed by Broadway legend Joel Grey (right). 

It’s a moving pre-war story of life, love, death and devotion — set in small town America, shot through with a plain-speak wit and eloquence, and featuring an ensemble cast of young and old actors. 

It’s not Our Town, but On Borrowed Time, a fantasy that also made its bow in 1938 — and beginning this weekend, Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company celebrates the play’s 75th anniversary with a new production that kicks off the troupe’s own 20th anniversary season, and that marks a homecoming of sorts for a genuine Broadway legend.

The script by playwright and screenwriter Paul Osborn concerns an elderly “Gramps,” whose young grandson “Pud” is left in his care after Death — personified as one Mr. Brink — claims the boy’s parents and grandmother. Wanting to keep Death away from his own doorstep — and seeking to fend off Pud’s money-grubbing aunt Demetria — Gramps employs a little wishing magic and wily wisdom to trick Mr. Brink into becoming trapped in the old man’s apple tree. When Death takes a holiday, what seemed like a victory soon poses its own set of problems.

A hit in its original run, the play was made into a film with Lionel Barrymore in 1939 — and two years later, a nine year old performer by the name of Joel Grey stepped into the part of Pud, inaugurating a long-playing stage career that would see him win a Tony (and an Oscar, for the same role) as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret. With TRTC’s season-opening production, Grey (whose Broadway roles in recent years have included Wicked and Anything Goes) returns to On Borrowed Time — this time as director.

The 81 year old Grey — whose most recent Tony nomination was as co-director of 2011’s The Normal Heart, and whose latest work as an acclaimed photographer is on exhibit right now at Steven Kasher Gallery in NYC — had been spotted at several Two River openings and special events before TRTC artistic director John Dias announced the collaborative venture at last spring’s season intro presentation. For the production that goes up in previews this weekend and continues through mid-October, Grey works with a Gramps who’s being portrayed by a character player with more than 50 years experience in major plays, all the big soap operas and countless prime time TV shows — New York based actor Robert J. Hogan.

While he’ll be the first to admit that he’s not a household name, Hogan’s is a face that generations of viewers have encountered regularly on the tube — from a star baseball player on Batman, a diabetic pilot on M*A*S*H and the Reverend in Peyton Place, to recurring roles in Law & Order and The Wire. Married to novelist Mary Hogan, he’s played Hamlet’s dad and JFK; co-starred on a sitcom with Don Rickles, and can even claim the distinction of having served as the nominal inspiration for Bob Crane’s character in Hogan’s Heroes.

Oakes,etcL-R: Oakes Fegley (Pud), Tom Nelis (Mr. Brink), Angela Reed (Demetria), and Steven Skybell (Dr. Evans) co-star under Joel Grey’s direction in Two River Theater Company’s ON BORROWED TIME. 

The veteran actor — who’s due to celebrate his 80th birthday during the Red Bank run of the show — will be sharing the stage with a company of castmates that include young newcomers Oakes Fegley (as Pud) and Alex Garfin; Two River returnees Patrick Husted, Steven Skybell and Lorenzo Villanueva; fellow Broadway veterans Tom Nelis (as Mr. Brink), Betsy Hogg, Diane Kagan, Angela Reed (as Demetria) and John Thomas Waite — in addition to Brian Gildea, Brian Michael Hoffman, and canine co-star “Snickers” (working with premier Broadway animal trainer William Berloni).

Your upperWETside correspondent spoke to Robert Hogan about old friends, new collaborators, and the life of the character man.

upperWETside: A lot of the buzz about this production centers of course on Joel Grey and his full-circle, personal connection to this play…but we’re very pleased to see you attached to the project as well. I’m guessing that you’ve got close to sixty years experience as a professional actor yourself, on both coasts, and I’m wondering if you’ve known Joel Grey, and have ever worked with him at some point…  

ROBERT HOGAN: No, I’d never met him before, believe it or not…I do have friends who’ve worked with him in the past. He’s one of those guys who makes you say Holy Toledo…when he talks, you listen. He was one of those kids who developed as an actor, and a person, in a tough business…he didn’t get all koo-koo about it!

When we had our first meeting with him, he got up to talk about the play; about his experience with it all those years ago. It was sweet to have been there while he talked…it would have been great to have a pin spot shining on him, while he spoke about the show and what it meant to him.

The young boy that I’m working with here is very good; a very natural actor. During rehearsal, I made it a point to tell him ‘it’s fun workin’ with ya’…something like that can stay with an actor all his days. And Two River Theater is a great joint…my agent told me how nice it was, and when I finally got a look at it I was sold. The people in charge here really care about what they’re doing, too; this is as good a place as you’d have the pleasure of working anywhere.

Not to bruise the old actorly ego, but…when you started out in this business as a young buck, all those years ago, did you ever envision the day that you’d be reading the part named Gramps? 

It’s a really wonderful part…one that I’m sure I’ll cherish. I don’t know that I’ll ever get a chance to play a part like this again! And without romanticizing it too much, it’s kind of fun to step away from the cameras and lights; to be able to work on something this special, for more than three hours at a time!

Well, I’ve always had a special fondness for the character actors, and when I saw the name Robert Hogan on the casting announcement, I thought immediately of the old Don Rickles sitcom from 1972 or thereabouts, where you played his buddy…then that got me thinking about old episodes of Batman, M*A*S*H, Twilight Zone, and how you were one of this tremendous pool of talent working the TV soundstages in that era. What’s even more impressive is the fact that I’ve seen you on recent stuff like The Wire, Law & Order SVU… 

I’m out there shaking my tin cup; I tell ’em I work for cheap (laughs). I went to California right at the end of the contract era, about 40 years ago…I got a contract with Warner Brothers; I moved my family out there and we wound up staying there just six months. Warners lost twelve half-hour shows that season, and they informed me in no uncertain terms that they were not gonna pick up my option.

But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, you know; I worked with some amazing people. Bill Shatner…and Jim Garner, who when he was directing some episodes of his show (The Rockford Files) would see to it that the actors were treated with respect. He’d make it a point to see that we finished up on schedule on a Friday night and didn’t have to work late.

Even doing something like Batman — I grew up on Batman, as a kid, and to be able to do an episode of that show, which everybody wanted to be on at that time, was a thrill. I played The World’s Greatest Pitcher, who was kidnapped by Mr. Freeze…and Adam West had such a great attitude; I can’t tell you how much of a delight it was to work with a guy who knew that there were more important things in life than all this stuff.

You mentioned your family, and I’m guessing that they were among the things in your life that kept you grounded? 

Plus, even when I had a network show I would continue to do furniture refinishing work — something that I’d done for a number of years. I had a little Toyota truck that I’d use for my work, and I’d park it on the studio lot right next to the star’s Rolls Royce.

I came back east and did soaps, other things that filmed in New York…and I got back on the stage and did things like A Few Good Men on Broadway, which was an absolute dream to work on.

I have to ask…if only to settle an old urban legend…whether you were actually the inspiration for Bob Crane’s character in Hogan’s Heroes? 

A buddy of mine, Bernie Fein, who I got to know when we were both doin’ parts in California, co-wrote what became Hogan’s Heroes. In the original version of the show, it was set in a prison camp in Washington state…after CBS got a hold of it, they changed it to a POW camp in World War Two, and they changed the name to Hogan, because, I dunno, it just seemed to fit the character. And I was acting in Mister Roberts at the time, which might have had something to do with it. Bernie told me, ‘y’know, this’ll probably help you, Hogan’…it’s never helped me (laughs).

All I got out of it was the occasional comment when they saw my credit card at the checkout counter…’hey hey, Hogan’s Heroes!’ ‘yeah, that’s me…’ And I get less and less of that as time goes on!

Still, it’s something that people recognize you for, in a long run as “that guy in that thing”… 

You’re the one who remembered the Rickles show…I’m impressed. Working with Don Rickles was an experience…he’s one of the sharpest guys in the business; he’s very perceptive, and just like when he performs in front of a nightclub audience, he’s able to size you up in a very short time. One night, during that brief time that we worked on the series, he took all of us out to Vegas to see his act, and he told everyone ‘I wanna introduce you to to the hockey pucks I’m workin’ with’…and for the rest of the night we were the butt of the jokes! We were just raw meat.

Another time, we were there on an empty soundstage, just the actors in first rehearsal with scripts in hand, and two guys in suits come walking in…they looked kind of important, like they could be network executives. Don just up and said ‘are you important? If you are I’ll kiss your ass…if not, then get the fuck outta here, we’re workin’!’

All of which goes toward explaining why Don Rickles doesn’t get to play Gramps…actually, to be fair, the play is a little more sharply written, a little saltier I guess you could say, than the old movie with Lionel Barrymore, which was skewed toward the sentimental side, toward a Hollywood studio kind of folksiness.

If you mess around with folksiness then you mess with the core of the play…every character has a reason for being, and there’s a real humanity there that develops organically, rather than just by laying on the sentiment.

On Borrowed Time goes up in the first of five previews on Saturday, September 14; opening on Friday, September 20 (that show is SOLD OUT) and running through October 13 with a mix of matinee and evening performances. Tickets ($20 – $65 adults) and details on special performances can be obtained by taking it here.