Ben Gazzara, a diehard Yankee fan, plays Yogi


By Jerry Tallmer

In the days when Off-Broadway was only just sprouting — “Summer and Smoke” at the Circle-in-the-Square, David Ross doing Chekhov and Ibsen on East 4th Street, Judith Malina throwing spears at firemen who’d come to inspect the Living Theater’s Cherry Lane — there was a mysterious old venue called the Theatre de Lys, on Christopher Street, where on occasion you could, and I did, savor Rudolph Valentino as The Sheik, or perhaps, on alternate weeks, see a play.

And it was there, one night, that there walked out onto the stage — swaggered cockily onto stage, swagger-stick literally in hand — an actor I never forgot, in a role and play I never forgot. I mean, it was like first seeing Brando in “Streetcar” or Laurette Taylor in “The Glass Menagerie” or Geraldine Page in anything.

The actor was Ben Gazzara as arrogant, manipulative, sadistic, homo-baiting Jocko de Paris, top dog among the cadets of a Southern military academy. The play was Calder Willingham’s “End As a Man.”

The Theatre de Lys long ago changed its name to the Lucille Lortel, but it’s still right there on Christopher Street. And Ben Gazzara, the East Side kid, is right now, these 50 years and a good many more than 100 movies, TV jobs, and stage plays later, warmly embodying a baseball player and creative linguist of some note in “Nobody Don’t Like Yogi,” a piece for one actor by Tom Lysaght. It’s at the Lamb’s, on West 44th Street, and even if you know nothing about baseball, or the Yankees, or Joe D, or Carmen Berra, or George Steinbrenner, it’s a royal pleasure. But it helps if you do.

Yogi Berra’s real name is Lawrence Peter Berra. Ben Gazzara’s birth name was Biaggio Anthony Gazzara, and he’s sorry he ever foreshortened it. Berra was born May 12, 1925, in St. Louis, Missouri. Gazzara was born August 28, 1930, in New York City.

“I’m the son of Sicilian immigrants,” he was saying the other night before a performance at the Lamb’s, “and grew up on 29th Street between First and Second Avenues, the Bellevue district. I never spoke a word of English — only Sicilian — to my parents, in their whole lives.”

Suddenly, as he was saying this, I remembered the moment, years ago, when I was interviewing Gazzara about some show or other as we were being driven down Central Park West. As the vehicle passed a rundown old building at 68th Street, I said: “That’s one of the places where I grew up.” With a wicked grin, Gazzara growled: “Rich kid, huh?”

And I also remembered the story that, back in the late 1950s, a young woman named Marta Curro had written in The Village Voice, about two young Italian-Americans at the Actors Studio who, to celebrate their “making it,” had spent a gleeful, boozy night setting dollar bills (or fives? Or tens?) on fire and burning the stuff to ashes. The triumphant play was “A Hatful of Rain.” Their names were Mike Gazzo and Ben Gazzara.

“It was an area of tenements, half-Irish, half-Italian,” Gazzara was now saying about his boyhood turf. “They called us guineas, dagos, wops. We called them ‘the white people.’ Every scar I have on my face” — there are more than a few — “I got in a fight with Irish kids.

“Then when the Puerto Ricans came . . . and now, after the Puerto Ricans . . . well, maybe it’s a little better, but it never ends.”

The script of “Nobody Don’t Like Yogi” came first to Gazzara’s wife Elke Stuckmann, here in New York, while Gazzara was off in Sweden making a movie called “Dogville,” with Nicole Kidman. He had not long earlier, gone through the hell of surgery and six weeks of radiation — “every day of the week, boy, I was worried” — for oral cancer, and was reluctant to tackle a stage play.

“My wife said: ‘You’ll do this play or I’ll divorce you. You can get a voice coach to help you through it.’ So I read it, and it made me laugh and cry,” said lifelong Yankee fan Gazzara. “I told her: ‘All right, I’ll try.’ “

[Ms. Stuckmann, a beauteous German-born photographer’s model, is Gazzara’s third wife. His second wife, the exquisite Janice Rule, actress and psychoanalyst, mother of his daughter Elizabeth, died October 22 of this year.]

There is a Yogi Berra museum in Montclair, New Jersey, and it is to there, a year ago, that Gazzara and playwright Lysaght journeyed to try to win Berra’s approval of the project.

“The Berras had received the play and somebody in the family had read it and had had some questions as to whether they should endorse it, because of [Yogi’s son] Dale’s problems as a young guy that are mentioned in the play.

“Tom and I got dressed to the nines, and the first thing I see when we walked into the museum is a bottle of vodka on a table. I laughed and had some vodka and cranberry juice, and Yogi started asking me about my childhood. I told him I was a Yankee fan before I was born, and that I dreamed and lived and died for Joe DiMaggio. I used to sit out in the bleachers at the Stadium, that’s when the outfielders would throw their gloves on the grass between innings in those days, and I could see Joe D. up close when he came to pick up his glove.

“When I was a kid on the streets, we played stickball and softball. I didn’t play hardball — wasn’t that crazy. As a grownup I played softball in Central Park, and of course I played center field, like Joe D. He was my hero. He and Sinatra.

“Yogi brought out photographs — of him jumping all over Don Larsen after the perfect game, of Jackie Robinson stealing home on a slide that Yogi still believes was an out — and I thought to myself: ‘Ahh, we got him.’ ”

But just then Carmen Berra, the light of Yogi’s life for 50 or 60 years, entered the room, and the climate changed. Evidently concerned about Dale Berra [who works at the museum] and the various Berra grandchildren, she let it be known that she wished the play wouldn’t go forward.

“I said uh-oh to myself, and to Tom Lysaght I said: ‘Let’s not press this, let’s just be gentlemen and go home.’ Which is what we did. And I want to say here and now, as I’ve said before, when Mrs. Berra said that, Yogi let out an embarrassedlaugh. I felt his sweetness and his tenderness. He hugged me so hard, I thought my ribs would crack. It would have been nice to get the Berra family in on the production, but as I’ve also said, it speaks to Yogi’s honor that he is not participating.”

Yes, and it speaks to Ben Gazzara’s honor to have compiled a lifetime of ruthlessly honest performances. Among those most vividly burned (like $100 bills) in this viewer’s memory are his loyal, loving doctor in “Strange Interlude” opposite Geraldine Page, his stoic foil to tempestuous Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’s “Opening Night,” and, just a few years ago, his crusty, nutty old father in Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo 66.”

Then, of course, there’s that Jocko de Paris in “End As a Man” once upon a time at the De Lys. Hey, Ben, does that play, that role, ever get done these days?

Gazzara kept a straight face. “Who could do it?” he growled. And then, just barely, through all those East 29th Street scars, in a 73-year-old visage as ugly-beautiful as Yogi’s own, one might have perceived the shadow of a smile.