Actor brought fire to the role of Bickham

It was the summer of 1968, and we were casting a Broadway play, “Does A Tiger Wear a Necktie?” by Don Petersen. The director, Michael Schultz, and I were having trouble finding a young actor to play the key role of Bickham, to join Hal Holbrook and David Opatashu.

The play is set in the jail school for young prisoners on Riker’s Island in the East River. Hal Holbrook plays a teacher who is striving to get through to the unruly students, while David Opatashu plays the jail psychiatrist.

The key role of Bickham, a fiery student with a deep-seated resentment against the father who abandoned him, was proving to be harder to cast. We got a tip that there was this brilliant young actor appearing in an Off Broadway show who might be interesting. So Michael and I attended it that evening. We both were deeply moved by the intensity of his performance and went backstage afterwards.

“If you are interested in auditioning for this role,” we told him, “here are the sides, and we will be at the Broadway theater all afternoon tomorrow.”

After seeing some 300 (!) actors, including Jon Voight and others, it was 5 p.m. and we still had not settled on anyone. Then this figure shuffled out onstage, wearing a long Army overcoat and a knitted hat pulled down around his head, holding a can of beer. “I would kind of like to try it if it’s OK,” he said.

He launched into the tirade where Bickham explains to the shrink why he is so bitter about his errant barber father. One minute in and I looked at Schultz, then whispered: “That’s our Bickham.”

We took him to dinner and hired him on the spot. He explained that he was living “uptown” with a Boston actress (from a wealthy family) named Jill Clayburgh.

During rehearsals, we had our moments of doubt … his work habits were not yet set, and often he was late. But slowly the performance began to build into something special. On opening night the buzz about the show was evident.

I will never forget the moment when this young actor made his first appearance onstage. He has an appointment with the psychiatrist and slowly shuffles into his office. After a moment, he viciously kicks the door shut with his foot. The audience, startled, inhaled with a gasp, and the actor had them in the palm of his hand from that moment on.

At the end, the applause was tumultuous and the reviews reflected the amazing performance of Al Pacino. When it came time for the Tony Awards, Al was nominated for best new actor — and won hands down. (And was gracious enough to thank me for giving him his chance.)

At that time, we were negotiating with CBS Films to do the movie version. We were three weeks away from starting, with Arthur Hiller as director and Al as the star, when CBS suddenly closed down its film division.

He called me and said, “What do I do now?” I told him to sit tight and called Francis Coppola, whom I knew was casting “The Godfather.” I suggested that he meet Pacino and audition him for the role of Sonny, the (older) brother. He agreed and I sent Al over. Three weeks later, the bell rang at my office at 50 Central Park West and Al came in. “Can I borrow a quarter for the bus uptown,” he asked … and was grinning from ear to ear. “Tell me,” I opportuned, and he then said that Francis has given him the role … of Michael!

The rest is history, with one postscript: Many years later Al had starred in and directed a film of “Richard III” and it premiered at a theater on Hollywood Boulevard. I went with a friend, Penny McTaggart, and after the screening went to the party.

I spotted Al in the far corner smoking a cigar. He saw me and waved me over to him. Embracing me in a bear hug, he told Penny: “I wouldn’t be here tonight if it weren’t for him.”

Second postscript: I was trying to do the film of “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?” with a screenplay by Frank Pierson, and approached Al’s representatives about his playing the Holbrook role of the teacher. I am still waiting for an answer …

Jay Weston is a producer of both stage and screen whose film credits include “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Buddy Buddy.”

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