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A second chance

Broadway Theatre Archive brings classic legit to the small screen -- again

Unlike Oscar-winning films, many Emmy-winning and -nominated programs that have aired once are forgotten in the passage of time. Despite the increased demand for programming created by the mass cable universe, quite a few television movies and stage productions never make it back to the small screen.

Looking to give these programs a new audience, Broadway Theatre Archive has gone into the vaults to restore and release — on video and later to ancillary markets — more than 300 plays and shows whose titles have resonated through the history of the American stage.

“We wondered what had happened to all those great programs, most of which were not rebroadcast after their original airdates,” says Basil Hero, founder and CEO of the archive. “Well, they’re sitting in a number of different places and are in a real danger of deteriorating.

“We researched the legal issues and sat down with the owners and the writers and pursued this aggregate category of TV adaptations of great literary works and decided to aggressively pursue the restoration of everything that was done of consequence. These works by (Eugene) O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets and others will stand the test of time.”

Cold, hard truth

The 1960 production of O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” is the most in-demand title of the 70-plus shows that are available through an ongoing process of accruing rights, finding and restoring titles, and repackaging them for sale.

Starring Jason Robards, Myron McCormick, James Broderick and Robert Redford (in one of his first TV appearances), and directed by Sidney Lumet, “Iceman Cometh” was deemed “a reference point for greatness in TV drama” by Daily Variety at the time and won the New York Area Emmy as most outstanding program of 1960-61.

Among the Emmy-winning performances in the archive’s recently released titles are Laurence Olivier in W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Moon and Sixpence,” under the Emmy-winning direction of Robert Mulligan for the 1959-60 season; and Jack Cassidy in the best program of 1970-71, “The Andersonville Trial,” under the Emmy-nominated directing of George C. Scott.

In addition, Shirley Booth’s Emmy-nominated performance in Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” is available as are “Hedda Gabler,” with Ingrid Bergman; “Little Women,” with Florence Henderson; “The Royal Family,” with Eva LeGallienne; and the controversial landmark “Steambath,” with Valerie Perrine. “Steambath,” directed by Norman Lloyd, was nominated for the outstanding special Emmy of 1973-74.

As with Robards and Redford in “Iceman,” the series reopens a window on performers at formative junctures: Meryl Streep in “Secret Service” (1977), a year before her first Oscar nom for “The Deer Hunter”; Dustin Hoffman in “Journey of the Fifth Horse” (1966), a year before “The Graduate”; and Faye Dunaway in “Hogan’s Goat” (1971).

All targeted 320 titles will be released by 2002, Hero says.

The majority of the programs being resurrected were produced for the PBS series “American Playhouse,” “Great Performances,” “American Short Story” and “Theatre in America” as well as New York-based “WNET Playhouse” and the Los Angeles-based, KCET-produced “Hollywood Television Theatre,” from which the archive is working to restore the late Walter Matthau’s 1972 performance in Odets’ “Awake and Sing.” Many of the “Great Performances” titles were produced by Channel 13/WNET in New York by Jac Venza.

Two Williams offerings are “Ten Blocks on the Camino Real” (1966), with Martin Sheen, and “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” (1971), with Blythe Danner, in the playwright’s reworking of “Summer and Smoke.” The “Theatre in America”-produced titles include three O’Neills from the 1970s: “Ah, Wilderness!” and “Beyond the Horizon,” both with Geraldine Fitzgerald, and “A Touch of the Poet,” with Fritz Weaver and the late Nancy Marchand.

Some of the others appeared on “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” and “DuPont Show of the Month” in the late 1950s and ’60s before the networks mainstreamed their schedules and performing arts fare moved almost exclusively to PBS in the 1970s.

“The playwrights are delighted that these programs that have been long forgotten are once again being brought to the public’s attention,” says Lance Spiro, senior VP of licensing for Broadway Digital Entertainment, the archive’s parent company.

A catalog of the titles is available by calling (800) 422-2827.

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