A conversation with Lewis J. Stadlen is like a verbal stroll through Shubert Alley. Although Stadlen has appeared in occasional movies (The Verdict with Paul Newman, In & Out with Kevin Kline) and on television ("I've taken jobs to pay the rent," he freely concedes), he is best known for a career marked by flamboyant performances cut from the same crusty mold as character actors like Zero Mostel, Sam Levene and David Burns, whose roles he often plays. Roles like Max Bialystock in The Producers, which Stadlen enacted brilliantly when that musical first played the Fox five years ago. Now he is about to make his long overdue Muny debut as the equally irascible Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly!
The son of a professional actor, Stadlen was born in Brooklyn in 1947 and was raised mostly in Queens. He made a splashy Broadway debut at age 23 as young Groucho Marx in the short-lived musical Minnie's Boys, which starred former St. Louisan Shelley Winters. "Shirley Schrifft," Stadlen says, dryly alluding to Winters by her real name. Even over the telephone you can hear his eyeballs rolling. "She was clueless, selfish and slovenly, and certainly was in part responsible for subverting that project. Curiously, the night she died [January 14, 2006] I was watching her on television in The Big Knife, yet another role in which she's murdered. I felt bad when I learned that she had died, but she was the perfect woman to be choked or drowned or hit on the head with an oar. She was the worst person I ever worked with."
If Stadlen is unsparingly candid, perhaps it's because he takes after his mentor, Sam Levene, with whom he acted in his very next show. In Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, Stadlen played the young agent who tries to reunite two retired vaudeville comics portrayed by Levene and Jack Albertson. "Sam had a reputation for being difficult, because he could not be disingenuous about anything," Stadlen says. "He was brutally honest, but I grew to love him deeply. I always hang up a picture of him in my dressing room."
And what was it like working with Neil Simon? "He's such a brilliant technician as a writer. We opened at the Shubert Theater in New Haven, and no one knew what we had yet. After the first performance, Neil came in with a pencil and cut thirty great lines. I remember Jack Albertson saying, 'No, no, please, don't do this. I've only had a chance to play them once in front of an audience. I'll do it better the next time.' And Neil said, 'No, no. This line is a 400-person laugh. But if we cut this line, the next line will be a 1,200-person laugh.' Neil had complete confidence that he could write something better. And that's rare, because a lot of writers are so in love with their own material that they won't cut a word." Stadlen has since acted on Broadway in four Neil Simon comedies.
His association with Mel Brooks extends back to 1983, when he appeared with Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft in the remake of the Ernst Lubitsch classic To Be Or Not To Be. "With that movie Mel was trying to re-create a masterpiece, which is not an easy thing to do, so the film set was very tight," Stadlen recounts. "The actors were walking on eggshells, because Mel was volatile, to say the least. But Anne was very sly and funny. One day she came over to us with a big smile on her face and said, 'You know, Mel's not really an actor. He's a performer. So if you have any notes for Mel, don't be afraid to just go over and tell him.' We said, 'Yeah, right! That's what we're gonna do.'"
After a lifetime spent in the company of prodigious talents like Simon and Brooks, Stadlen has his own theory about the state of comedy today. "It used to be that the great comedians were the objects of ridicule," he says. "Jack Benny and W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx were the butt of their own jokes. They were the unapologetic cowards, the heroic fools. Now comedy has changed to the point where the Dennis Millers of the world say, 'There's nothing wrong with me; it's society that's full of crap.' And that is a lot less clever. I admire those comics who say that the human condition is one of abject foolishness. When I act, I try to find out what's foolish about a character. I zero in on the flaw of an individual and then beat that into the ground."
Ever since he talked himself off of the TV situation comedy Benson in 1980, Stadlen has "worked very hard not to be typecast." That's why for every Producers on Broadway or the road there's a Pillowman in Philadelphia or a Seagull in Cleveland. "I'm a difficult person to handle from my agent's perspective," says the actor, "because I look at stuff and say, 'No, I don't want to do this. I don't want to be part of the noise pollution that the entertainment industry has become.' When I was growing up, the most talented people in America dedicated themselves to the theater. The reverse is now true. There's a brain drain in the American theater, and a great many people my age and even generations younger than I am are in despair.
"Broadway has been corporate-ized," Stadlen goes on. "It's become a theme park. People are paying too much to go to the theater, so there's this strange sort of collective guilt in which the audience sits there, not wanting to feel like a fool for having paid $120 a seat, so they laugh at things they don't really find funny. You can tell. There's no mirth in their laughter. Then at the end of the evening, they give you a standing ovation."
All of which helps to explain why Stadlen, unlike other more stay-at-home actors, enjoys touring. In addition to "seeing the country for free," he finds himself acting in front of appreciative audiences. Stadlen retains specific memories of every city he played during his 754-performance run as Max Bialystock. "The audiences were tremendously enthusiastic in St. Louis," he recalls. "I also remember there was a wonderful cafeteria steak house across the street from the Fox [Best Steak House], and that we established a lovely rapport with the ushers, who were very friendly."
Not only will Hello, Dolly! reunite him with Producers co-star Lee Roy Reams ("a wonderful man, I adore him"), who's directing the production, but Stadlen hopes that performing at the Muny will be a return to the past. "Everyone tells me that it's a unique throwback experience," he says. "I ran into Dee Hoty the other night. She did Mame at the Muny a couple summers ago. She said, 'It really does remind you of an era that we all romanticize about.'"
When it comes to theater, beneath the gruff Stadlen is just a romantic at heart. How else to explain the drudgery of his work? "I find acting a painful profession," he says. "I'm not one of these people that needs to be the center of attention. For me acting is a more personal thing. I like trying to figure out the puzzle of the play. Then I attempt to bring to life a fictitious character who is quite far from myself. I have dedicated my career to trying to tell a story as best I can."