Detour on the Road to the American Dream – Village Voice

It’s a classic “What might have been” tale: A handsome young man wanders the streets of the Village on a beautiful fall day in 1960. A clown delights a quintet of kids on the sidewalk in front of a grocery store. The players in this serendipitous drama cross paths at Sheridan Square, within the viewfinder of Voice staff photographer Gin Briggs.

We know from the rest of that November 17, 1960, paper’s front page that future mayor John Lindsay had been re-elected to Congress a week earlier, that District Attorney Frank Hogan was promoting a plan “by which narcotics addicts will be treated as patients rather than criminals,” and that the clown’s name was Lumia—a trio of those fabled “eight million stories” the TV show Naked City beamed from coast to coast back then.

One thing we don’t know is the name of the young man in rolled shirtsleeves, high-water jeans, and unruly forelock, who glances at the yawping harlequin as he strides by. But it was not from lack of trying on the part of the producer of a new Off-Broadway play, as we know from this notice, which appeared in the December 1, 1960, edition of the paper, under the anonymous man’s image, cropped out of Briggs’s photo from a fortnight earlier:

If a big-screen writer had gone to his producer and proclaimed, “I’ve got a smash: An Everyman is strolling along West 4th when he’s spotted by an impresario who transforms him from a complete nobody into a glittering star of stage and screen! I call it, ‘The American Dream’!”—no doubt the moneyman would’ve muttered, “Too sentimental. Come back when you’ve deep-sixed the cliches.”

Yet there it was, in black and white: the Off-Broadway version of teenage Lana Turner—she of the marquee looks that launched a thousand pin-ups and scores of films—being discovered in Schwab’s drugstore in Hollywood. Myth becomes the fame of endless press clippings! So it was with no little anticipation of a legend in the making that we thumbed through the winter leaves of the 1960 Village Voice editions, looking for the next chapter, only to be stopped short by a headshot on page six of the December 29 issue:

So, was the broody page-one mystery man not an actor? And would that really have stopped him from at least going to a tryout and faking it? Or did neither he nor any of his friends read New York’s bible of downtown culture? Had this Mystery Date–esque stud simply been a day tripper, just off the bus from his hometown to take in the wildlife he’d heard roamed the crooked streets of the Village?

And who’s this Tom Hunter, he of cleft chin and furrowed brow? Well, something happened between the publication of his headshot in the Voice and the debut a few weeks later of Albee’s one-act play at the York Playhouse. Turning to the February 2, 1961, issue of the Voice, on a page that included an ad for the cantankerous, ghoulish monologist Brother Theodore as well as a notice for Lenny Bruce at Carnegie Hall ($2.75 to $4.75 to see “America’s Most Controversial Comedian”), we get the paper’s first theater critic, Jerry Tallmer, reviewing The American Dream, praising “Mr. Albee’s unquestionable talent for making a hilarious joke of his grimmest forebodings,” but ultimately concluding, “you just can’t get satisfaction from The American Dream.”

Which, presumably, was true for Hunter, who was not included in the cast list—the role of “The Young Man” instead being taken by Ben Piazza, who later dedicated his 1964 novel, The Exact and Very Strange Truth, to Albee, and went on to play the father of the family harassed by Jake in The Blues Brothers

So what should have happened? First, the unknown heartbreaker photographed with the clown would’ve trooped into the producer’s office, gotten his break in a breakout role, and been plied with Broadway offers and a first-class Pan-Am ticket to Hollywood, followed by a string of hits, a few career-stalling flops, collapsed marriages, DUI’s, despair, drugs, and then rehab and a boffo comeback role leading to that long-deferred Best Actor Oscar.

Or, the truth? Although Thomas O’Driscoll Hunter (1932–2017) was apparently bumped from The American Dream, he did make a career in showbiz: He studied with Sanford Meisner and Uta Hagen and in 1966 landed a minor part in Blake Edwards’s What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, then went on to bigger roles in various action films and scored leads in a string of second-tier spaghetti Westerns. He also earned various writing credits, including co-scripting the star-studded sci-fi flick The Final Countdown, in 1980. Later, he founded the New England Repertory Company, and told an interviewer, in 2007, “Teaching is almost as exciting as acting. Passing the torch. Creating a more supple and emotional Frankenstein monster. Too many people have lost touch with their feelings. Nice to feel like a kid again and get back in touch with the joy, anger, and sad times. As an actor, there are no negative feelings. Maybe that’s why audiences enjoy villains.” 

For real.  ❖

Future “Voice Lore” columns will focus on whatever strikes our fancy—staffers, stories, artworks, ads—to illuminate the Voice’s 67-year-and-counting history.

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