Harry Dean and All Them

Henry Fonda in rehearsal at SMU

WATCHING THE OSCARS, I was reminded that Harry Dean Stanton died last year, followed by David Ogden Stiers just other day. What the two actors have in common is that both were members of the estimable cast of NBC-TV’s production of Preston Jones’ The Oldest Living Graduate, starring Henry Fonda, staged before a live audience at the Bob Hope Theater at SMU April 7, 1980 and broadcast in real time. No editing. It was promoted as the first of a series of Live TV dramas that would showcase the vitality of America’s regional theater, recalling of Playhouse 90 in the 1950s. A historic moment in Dallas theater, it went off without a hitch, directed by Tony-Awarded Jack Hofsiss, who is also gone now. Surely the best production of the play ever. The cast included, besides Fonda, Stanton and Stiers…Cloris Leachman, George Grizzard, John Lithgow, Timothy Hutton, Penelope Milford and Allyn Ann McLerie.

Fonda died two years later, after filming On Golden Pond. Grizzard died in 2007. The three actresses, Leachman, Milford and McLerie, are still alive, as are Lithgow and Hutton.

Graduate, part of Jones’ Texas Trilogy about a doomed West Texas town succumbing to the New World, was originally going to be broadcast from the stage of The Dallas Theater Center, where Jones, a member of the company, had written and developed the plays. But when the Theater Center insisted the network use DTC actors instead of a Hollywood cast, the NBC producers went down the street to SMU.

Sadly, NBC’s live theater project lasted only one more installment, with Sally Field starring in Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home, from Los Angeles in 1981. With 400 channels of dreck and dross clogging the screen, you’d think they might dare try it again.

About Sean Mitchell

SEAN MITCHELL is a journalist, critic and former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Dallas Times Herald. His articles and reviews have also appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, USA Today and other publications. He is the recipient of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music and the George Jean Nathan Award for distinguished drama criticism. Born in Bethlehem, Pa., he grew up in Dallas and is a graduate of St. Mark’s School of Texas and Brown University. He lives in Dallas.
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