The Time of Your Life - 5 Impressive Productions
It has been argued that The Time of Your Life is the gem of William Saroyan’s theatrical oeuvre. A deserving winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize, it is a story played out inside a bar called Nick’s, a dive bar based on San Francisco’s legendary tavern Isadore Gomez' Café, affectionately known as Izzy’s. Nick’s is populated by colorful characters of wildly varying repute. The action centers around Joe, a well-heeled ne’er-do-well who is more than willing to bankroll the adventures of the denizens of Nick’s. It’s a prized role, and one that requires a deft hand in performing. Too eager a portrayal and the subtlety of the dialogue can be lost, too reserved and there’s little to hang the entire scenario on. The entire play is a gift for an actor, especially one looking for new worlds to conquer.
The work was written in just six days in a New York hotel room. Saroyan’s career was coming to full-flower in 1939, a year many refer to as Saroyan’s “Miracle Year.” Just five years after his victorious entrance onto the literary scene with The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, he had gathered an ever-growing list of publications. His entry into theater was the impressive one-act play, My Heart’s in the Highlands, and the double-threat of a world-class playwright who was also an exceptional prose stylist was irresistible to producers! Many wanted to work with him, but Saroyan wanted to return to his beloved San Francisco. He mentioned this to theater critic (and his major NYC supporter) George Jean Nathan, but added that he had an idea he thought would make for a good play. Nathan thought he should stay in New York to write it, but Saroyan would only consider it if he had a production commitment. Nathan set the wheels in motion through a cunning plan that saw Saroyan given a citation by the Drama Critics Circle for most promising playwright during a banquet at the world-famous Algonquin Hotel. There, he was put at the same table as Eddie Dowling. Dowling mentioned how much he liked Saroyan’s first play, and if he wrote another, he would buy it.
Dowling was a hot commodity as well, having become a name in the Ziegfeld Follies, and writing and producing a number of successful shows. His Richard II, where he served as producer and star, was a major hit in 1937. He was seen as highly bankable at the time, no small feat for New York during the Depression, and more importantly, he was able to gather interest from producing partners.
The Time of Your Life had brief runs in New Haven and Boston, both of which could be described as chaotic, with changes made to the material right up until the final curtain. When the show finally came to New York City in October of 1939, it was a hit. The production is a classic example of a young upstart bringing the heat. William Saroyan co-directed the play with star/producer Dowling. Dowling had convinced the Theatre Guild to co-produce with him, and it was launched at the Booth Theatre. Though there was apprehension following the road shows earlier in the year, Saroyan and Dowling had a hit on their hands when things came together in New York.
There are few shows one can point to as having been perfectly cast for more than just the moment, and without doubt one can make that claim about The Time of Your Life in 1939. The cast included no less than four future members of the Theater Hall of Fame. Alongside Dowling were some future legends. Gene Kelly, who created dances for the show, would become one of America’s most popular stars of all time, and just a year later would turn Pal Joey into a major hit. Future Oscar winner Celeste Holm, and Oscar nominee William Bendix also appeared, both just at the beginning of their cinema careers. Saroyan also arranged a role for his cousin, Ross Bagdasarian, who would go on to become a Grammy-winning singer, composer, and producer under the pseudonym David Seville.
The production ran from October 1939 through April 1940, then toured before a return engagement in the latter half of 1940. It would twice be revived on Broadway, in 1969 and 1975.
World War II put a pause on many productions, partly due to many creatives, including Saroyan, being pulled in to assist with the war effort. Broadway was not shuttered, nor were movie theaters around the country, but tastes were changing and productions tended more towards lighter fare or pieces directly dealing with the war. Following the war, there was a great burst of production that lasted for several years. Hollywood producers greatly ramped up production, adapting plays and novels from the late 1930s and early 40s. One of the plays that had not yet been adapted for screen was The Time of Your Life.
James and Jeanne Cagney admired the play greatly. The power siblings snapped up the film rights, hired brother William to serve as producer, and brought on H.C. Potter to direct. James Cagney played Joe, the role originated by Eddie Dowling, and William Bendix returned, this time playing saloon owner, Nick. Others in the cast included Jeanne Cagney as Kitty, and Broderick Crawford, who would go on to win the Oscar the following year for his performance in All the King’s Men, as Officer Krupp. James Barton, a legendary Vaudevillian, played the role of Kit Carson. They also gave early credits to two actors who would be best known for television roles later in life: Natalie Schafer (Gilligan’s Island) and Richard Erdman (Community).
The production had several hurdles to overcome, including the Production Code Authority. The original ending of the play had Kit Carson killing Blick, a police detective. This was not allowed on screen, as it ran afoul of the violence against police officials guidelines. The Cagneys contacted Saroyan for a rewrite, but his asking price was beyond the already ballooning budget, so they simply changed Blick from an officer to a stool pigeon and blackmailer. They shot the ending, but test screening audiences hated it, so they devised a new, action-packed ending which played better.
The film received somewhat mixed, but largely positive, reviews. Even so, it failed to find a large audience. Lew Schaeffer of the Brooklyn Eagle said, “To a truly remarkable degree, it captures Saroyan’s unusual and elusive flavor. And considering that ‘The Time of Your Life’ is fundamentally unsuited to the cameras, the film is a notable achievement.” The Boston Globe claimed the film was “A fascinating try at adapting the complexities of William Saroyan to the cinema.”
The advent of television led to a great thirst for new material from familiar sources. One of the most popular formats was the anthology program. Here, a host would typically introduce a work, often adapted from a popular novel, film, or play. Several of these shows, such as Fireside Theater and General Electric Theatre, were among the top-rated shows of the early years of television. Playhouse 90, considered one of the best examples of this kind of program, debuted on CBS in 1956. Though not the ratings powerhouse of many of the others, it was a highly respected and awarded series. It won Emmys for Best Dramatic Series One Hour or Longer three times and is still remembered for one of the most impressive television scripts ever: Rod Serling’s adaptation of Requiem for a Heavyweight. In 1958, Playhouse 90 took on Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, this time with comedic legend Jackie Gleason in the role of Joe. Gleason had been wanting to take on more dramatic work, and this was a fine platform as it also allowed him to use his comedic charms. Up-and-coming television actor Jack Klugman, fresh off his crucial role in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, played the role of Nick. Dick York, who would become a major star six years later on Bewitched, played Tom, and Gloria Vanderbilt made one of her most memorable early television appearances. In an interesting casting choice, James Barton played the role of Kit Carson, just as he had in the Cagney version of 1948!
This episode also received mixed reviews, with outlets like the New York Daily News and Los Angeles Times praising it. Most reviewers gave the actors, and especially Gleason, high marks. The St. Louis Dispatch noted, “Saroyan writes about drunks with compassion, understanding and, I might add, Jackie Gleason plays the hero the same way.”
Other reviewers pointed to the unconventional structure as unappealing for the nascent format of television, or simply thought a mainstream television audience wasn’t ready for Saroyan. “It was so far offbeat from the expectations of settled middle-age,” claimed reviewer Charles Mercer, “that it probably appealed to few except members of the current beat generation.”
There were many stage productions of The Time of Your Life throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Actors such as Francot Tone had taken the role of Joe, and during that period it was one of Saroyan’s most performed works. By the late 1960s, regional and touring productions weren’t staged as often, despite the 1969 Broadway revival. By the 1970s, an entire generation of actors had come up whose first exposure to theatre had come during the post-war years. Saroyan was still a much-admired name, and in 1972, a powerful new production was launched by the Plumstead Playhouse, fronted by Hollywood legend Henry Fonda as Joe. It played in Philadelphia, Chicago, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., then transferred for a run at the Huntington Hartford Theatre in Los Angeles. The play was directed by one of the hottest theater directors of the time, Edwin Sherin, a Drama Desk winner who had spent much of the previous year directing two Hollywood films. Again, the cast featured not only the legendary Fonda, but also several actors who would go on to great things, including Richard Dreyfuss, Jane Alexander, and Gloria Grahame. The show also featured former professional wrestler Pepper Martin, who would make dozens of film and television appearances over the next twenty years.
The production was critically praised, perhaps more than any previous production. Critic Richard Coe of the Washington Post wrote, “Glorious cast, gloriously aware! See this Saroyan!” Variety was no less effusive – “Henry Fonda in total command! For those who love ‘The Time of Your Life,’ this production will stand as one of the very best possible!”
The passing of William Saroyan in 1981 was a double-edged sword for production of his work. While no longer living to provide the best of all possible promotion of his own works, his passing led to several new productions, including one in Chicago in 1984 with a cast that included many significant and rising names in both stage and screen. Joe was played by William Petersen, a major figure in Chicago theater at the time, but only a year away from major film success in To Live and Die in L.A. and Manhunter. Dennis Farina, who had appeared with Petersen on stage and in the film Thief, was cast as Nick. Farina’s career would explode almost immediately after The Time of Your Life, and he would go on to dozens of film and television appearances before his death in 2013. Kevin Dunn has had an exceptional career as a character actor and was given high marks for his performance as the Sailor. Ted Levine, playing Krupp, was already a fixture in Chicago performing with the Remains theatre company, and in 1991 would inhabit the iconic role of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, and then appeared in many film and television roles.
Perhaps the most interesting name among the cast was Del Close. Close was known for many stage and screen credits but is best known today as an important figure in the development of improvisational theater. Many consider him the founding father of long-form improvisation for co-founding improvOlympic and defining the ‘Harold’ technique. His book, Truth in Comedy, is still widely referenced as one of the primary texts in American theater. In The Time of Your Life, he performed as Kit Carson, receiving excellent notice in the press at the time, including a nomination for Chicago’s most prestigious theatre award, the Jeff. The show received great praise, with the Chicago Tribune calling it an “outstanding revival,” and “…this is a rich and vital production, blessed with many actors in its large cast, who breathe remarkable life into the loners, losers, drunks and whores whom Saroyan embraced with such unabashed delight.”
The Time of Your Life still gets produced by universities, community theatre, and regional theatres from time-to-time, but none have managed the impressively prescient casting of these five productions. Actors love Saroyan for the emotional content, the impressive humanity of his characters, and the dialogue that is crisp and honest. That may go a long way to explaining why so many productions give us so many soon-to-be-stars.
Article written by Chris Garcia, Archivist, Forever Saroyan, June 2021