The Don as Teacher:  William Hickey's Other Role

Jenna Orkin

For a couple of years in my twenties I chose music for soap operas. It was a dispiriting job. The music wasn't from the great works I'd studied in college but was music that had been written for the show and combined the sickening swells of muzak with pseudo-climaxes. The scripts, too, made to order at the rate of an hour's worth a day were doomed to mediocrity. I was frustrated with the work and ashamed of the job which I would have been able to do just as well at the age of sixteen. The hierarchy of the studio did nothing to improve my mood. Music supervisors lacked both the star quality of the 'creative' members of the production - directors and actors - and the muscle of the unions. We were lowest on the studio totem pole. But people find interest where they can and in the course of the job I came to admire the actors who had to call on their deeper selves from six in the morning til six at night.
A couple of them, however, were bad. This didn't give me cause for contempt; I empathized. I, too, would not have been able to cry or get angry on cue. But more important than empathy, watching the bad actors gave me hope. Actors made real money and got respect too.
I decided to take acting lessons, enrolling in an introductory class taught by William Hickey at Herbert Berghof Studios. No audition required.
I quickly learned how out of place my motives for being there - greed and narcissism - were. The other students in the class, many of whom had studied acting before, went through thorough soul searching before even reading the script aloud. This acting business wasn't as easy as it looked and I realized with cold dread that I was a fraud who didn't belong, But meanwhile, Hickey himself was so pithy, so insightful and aphoristic that I realized what my real purpose was in being in that class: to preserve his words.
I didn't know who would be interested in reading about him. Maybe, I thought, when he died, I'd send the article to the Times. But when he did die the Times printed nothing more than an obituary; no reminiscences in the Arts and Leisure, nor a profile. I followed plan B, sending the article to the woman who had been listed in Hickey's obituary as his survivor.
She sent back a kind letter and eventually, a book from Hickey's library about Brooklyn. I recognized in it a picture of a house on Monroe Place which, a friend pointed out, had been the house used in Prizzi's Honor, the movie that had made Hickey's career. My friend and I imagined that was why Hickey owned the book but who knows.
I felt vindicated by the reaction of Hickey's "survivor" for having written the article. But while she may be its most appreciative reader, the writer in me wants her not to be the only one.


"All right, what did you go for?"
It is two p.m. We are in the basement of Herbert Berghof studios where William Hickey is about to comment on the first performance of the afternoon's class.
On a stool across the stage from the two young actors who have just performed a scene from Shakespeare's As You Like It, Hickey's leprechaun-like figure rocks and nods rhythmically as he listens to the answer. A match flares to light the first of the afternoon's many cigarettes.
"Well in the beginning I was preoccupied, thinking about Rosalind."
The young actor's eyes cast about restlessly, unseeing, for an answer within himself.
"What I really had trouble with, though, was trying to justify standing there and asking her all those questions: 'Who does time gallop withal?' and all that. If I were in that situation, I would get very impatient with so much banter."
"Uh huh." Hickey continues to nod and chew his cigarette.
He is small as a chimney sweep and dressed like one, in black and various shades of dirt. He loathes washing and therefore, the rain. For years typecast as a derelict or drunk, he more recently played the upholder of family pride, the most princely of the Prizzi clan in Prizzi's Honor.
At the moment, hunched in simian attitude, he looks like a gargoyle surveying human life on the stage below his perch. But his eyes pierce the Dickensian smoke of the room as well as the psyches of his actors, with the intensity of a laser.
"She dazzles you. 'Who is this?'" he asks as Orlando. "'It's a boy, but what a boy!'
'You say you're preoccupied when you come on. But who are you?"
He pauses between observations to allow them to sink in, to think and to light another cigarette. "The Statue of Liberty may be preoccupied but she is still the Statue of Liberty.
'The actor's work is in the beginning - how to walk on. Everything else, the author wrote."
Nodding in recognition, the actor listens with the attention one might bestow on a gifted fortune teller.
"Art is the opposite of life. In life we never know the end. In art, we know the end but never the beginning.
'As for you!" Hickey fixes his gaze on Rosalind, "this is a disgrace, I've seen you improvize and I know you can do better than what you showed us here. If you took this to an audition they'd say, 'It's interesting,' and they'd see you had some sense of style but that isn't all I want - from you."
A girl who is to perform later in the class rummages through her backpack for a prop.
' "Quiet!" Hickey shouts out of courtesy to his two performers as much as in delight at startling the audience of students.
Rosalind is not among those affected.
"I want more than that too," she pleads with tearful conviction.
"Do it again and this time think about what you're saying. Don't prance around the stage so much. I'll probably miss what you're doing now but then you can put it back in later. Is that enough to go on?"
The actress nods and gathers up her sword and costume-bag with the efficient gestures of one who is determined to exit with her dignity intact.
The studio is long and divided ad hoc into performance and audience sections. Deep in the dark expanse of backstage, behind a curtain, are kept props and a few pieces of furniture that turn up in nearly every scene: a door in a frame, a chest of drawers supporting a mirror, jumble sale china.
For the present scene the actor performing a monologue from Richard III has put out several grey papier mache boulders to indicate a bleak terrain. Among the rocks he leaps and crouches, grinding his teeth between the words as though hungry with vicious visions. When his speech is finished, he looks over at Hickey, eyes still flashing like a clash of daggers. Hickey gestures him towards the customary chair.
"Why did you choose to do it that way?" he asks.
"I didn't choose to. It just happened," the actor explains in triumph.
"Well who do you think did it to you?" Hickey retorts rhetorically. "The great ventriloquist in the sky?
'All I want is for you to be you. I don't want how you think the character should be feeling at any particular time. The way you're feeling is the way the character feels and I don't give a fuck about interpretation or anything else. Excuse me. I mean that in the spiritual sense of the word." He bows in exaggerated aplogy.
"I don't care if you do this again or do something else but take it slowly. Quiet!" he barks at the girl in hgih-heeled boots carrying her props up for the next scene.
"Sorry," she mutters.
"I doubt it," Hickey snaps.
The actress casts back a look of hurt annoyance and disappears behind the curtain.
Hickey turns to the audience and whispers conspiratorially, "I'm trying to get her mad at me before she does this scene." He returns to the villainous king who is following him with the enthusiasm of a game-show M.C.
"It doesn't matter if we're here all day waiting for something to happen. If nothing happens, fine. 'Nothing' is fascinating."
Prepared for any challenge the actor leaves, unfazed even by the prospect of coming face to face with nothing.
'The quality of mercy' follows, delivered by Virginia, the girl whom Hickey has been trying to annoy. She is tall and dishevelled with the air of someone who isn't fully awake. The previous week, Hickey assigned her the role of Portia as a contrast to those she has always chosen herself: depressed cocktail waitresses and waifs.
She conveys the monologue simply, with sincerity and even, to everyone's surprise, clarity. When it is over, Hickey speaks quietly.
"First of all I want to say, that's the best acting I've ever seen you do. Did you have someone in mind for Shylock?"
"May I ask who?" Hickey does not shy away from questions that might shed light on how his students work. On the contrary, his curiosity is the sort most often found among great people and boors.
"My ex-husband. He was a very hard, unforgiving man."
"Can't you think of Shylock as someone to be won over? After all, he hasn't had an easy life. He's been discriminated against.
'If we try to show what's wrong with something, we have no show." He nods as though to encourage a nod in response, to goad his listener into understanding. "Lillian Hellman once said she didn't like writing about the theatre because theatrical anecdotes were always about disasters: 'the time I pulled the door-knob and the door came with me and I had to spend the whole scene holding it up.' Actually, these are achievements; you did it!
'Now get her the hook." He waves at no one in particular in the front row. "I want to see Abbie and Ron."
The pair summoned have chosen a scene from what appears as frequently in acting classes as potatoes at English school lunches: A Streetcar Named Desire. In the scene about to be performed, Stanley reveals to his wife Stella that her sister has been a whore.
It opens innocently with Stella arranging a birthday party for Blanche. The actress playing Stella is a lovely, dark girl with large eyes and round limbs. She is wearing a pillow under her dress to show Stella is pregnant and as she fusses around the kitchen, humming, she creates a cozy scene.
Stanley enters, mumbling at his wife with a listlessness that is unusual for this actor. Ordinarily he has a robust stage presence which he is not ashamed to throw into his roles. I wonder if he's emulating the underacting method of Brando, who first played the role, but is overdoing it as he tends to overdo everything.
When the scene is over Hickey addresses Stella first.
"Do you think that thing makes you pregnant?"
Abbie laughs. "I thought this might help me feel what it's like carrying a baby around. I -"
"Don't give me that," Hickey interrupts. "That's just actor stuff.
'There's a scene in St. Joan where the archbishop says to her, 'My child, you are falling in love with religion.' And now I say to you, 'My child, you are falling in love with acting.'
'What are you trying to do in this scene? If you want to be Stella don't stuff yourself with a pillow. Do what she's doing. If you want to play my life, don't act like me. Try to do what I'm trying to do. Anything else is imitation which is jerking off. And I mean that in the dirty sense of the word." He savors the word 'dirty' with the delight of a preacher describing the details of Hell.
"And you!" he shouts to Ron. "What do you think you're doing up there?"
"You told me last time to stop walking around so much. So I tried to tone the whole thing down, I guess."
"Whatever I told you, it doesn't work. Any suggestion I make is intended to help you. If instead it kills what you had before, then don't take it. Acting should never make us less than we are. It should make us more. You can gamble, throw Stella around, celebrate the world... The only thing the actor has to be afraid of is the feeling of, 'Oh my God, I'm going on and I don't give a shit. Capisc?"
The actors nod with restrained enthusiasm. Hickey has given them something more real and useful than praise.
The final scene of the afternoon is from Birdbath, a play about a young writer who becomes intrigued by a misfit girl. In his apartment, she refuses his offer of a drink and avoids his questions, talking instead about her mother whom, as we later learn, she has just killed.
The girl's part should be a good shelter for this novice actress whose nerves and inhibitions can be used to her advantage. However, they're not. As the scene is drawn out to a pace that would try the patience of a monument, we feel the actress' agony a little too keenly.
"All right, what did you go for?" Hickey addresses the actor who is playing the writer.
"Well, I thought she was really different, but I started to get exasperated when she didn't understand my desire to write. I mean, it's my life... "
"But why can't that in itself be fascinating to you? After all, how many times do you meet someone as naive as she is? How refreshing it would be to find someone who knew absolutely nothing as opposed to the rest of us who all know the same goddamn stuff. You could think, 'Here's something to write about.' You could be nuttier than she is."
The actor smiles slightly at the array of possibilities the suggestion presents.
"How about you?" Hickey asks the ignorant matricide. "What problems did you have, if any?"
"I felt really uncomfortable; I couldn't get all the nuances we had in rehearsal. I was just waiting for it all to be over."
"I got a great compliment once, from a friend of mine who sat in on one of my classes. She said, 'I've been to other acting classes. They were like productions. Yours was a mess.'
'I don't want you to be comfortable. I'll get you a nice, comfortable coffin.
'We are living in an era when people discuss their libidos with a bus driver. If you're uncomfortable, you should be proud of it."
"It was worst in the middle," the girl goes on, not entirely convinced. "I didn't know if I should be as shy as in the beginning or if I should begin to like him or if I was supposed to think about what I'd done to my mother."
"Never mind what you're feeling. What are you trying to do? To him? 'Drama' in Greek means 'action.' When we divide a scene into beats, it's not according to what we feel, it's according to the events that take place.
'Did you ever hear the story of Solomon Grundy?" Hickey recites: 'Born on Monday, christened on Tuesday, married on Wednesday, sick on Thursday, worse on Friday, died on Saturday, buried on Sunday and that's the story of Solomon Grundy.' Never felt a thing.."
The caretaker of the school has appeared at the door to warn us that the building is about to close. The class, listed on the schedule as two hours long, is finally over after four, at least, officially. Hickey leaves with his last two performers in tow, talking on the stairs as they head out. In the street, darkness and a cold rain are descending but the trio and much of the rest of the class huddle around as Hickey continues to teach.