One evening last week, I went to refill a small portable bottle of non-aspirin pain reliever pills that I keep in my audition bag. I opened both the jumbo Costco-sized bottle and the little travel size bottle, and filled the little one with pills from the big one. I replaced the lid on the large bottle, then found myself unable to account for the whereabouts of the lid to the little bottle. I looked everywhere. And then, finally, I looked in a totally insane place: inside the large bottle. Sure enough, it was there. I could account for this mental lapse by pointing to my advancing years, but in truth I think the moment I found the little lid inside the big bottle was the moment I realized my dear friend Donald Grody was gone. The time was out of joint, and the universe was just slightly off now somehow.
The e-mail that afternoon from his wonderful wife, Judith Anderson, had been short and loving. The subject line was simply “Donald” and I knew the contents before I opened the message. I read it over the phone to my partner, Tim, and neither of us knew what to say. Donald had been in the final stage of a long and valiant battle with prostate cancer, so the news was not entirely surprising. I didn’t really have a chance to process the loss that afternoon, as I had to run into the city almost immediately after receiving the note to play Pastor Manders in a performance of Ibsen’s Ghosts. I didn’t tell anyone at the show about Donald; I just whispered something to Donald and Judith privately before making my first entrance. The four of us had been trying to get together for dinner for many weeks, with one thing or another making it not a good time, and now there would be no good time. But Judith’s note assured us that he passed away peacefully in her arms, as they had both wanted. And what actor could ask for a better exit?
There are so many things you should know about Donald, but in all fairness, I didn’t know him long enough to be the one to tell you. He told me great stories about working with Judy Holliday and Ethel Merman, among many others. At one point, he served as Executive Director of our union, Actors Equity Association. In fact, that’s where he met Judith! He was a family man. There’s just so much. I’m hoping that others will chime in with their memories as well. Together, we could write a book. I can tell you this much from my own experience: While in his 80’s he played King Lear. In two productions. And speaking as his Fool in both productions, I can tell you that he was wonderful.
I first met Donald through my friend Mark Nash, who was at the time the Artistic Director of Vermont Stage Company. I knew he was doing King Lear as the company’s first full-scale Shakespeare production, and I had always wanted to play the Fool. Although Mark was directing the production, and had directed me many times before, he said the final casting vote in this case would have to come from the actor playing the tragic king: a man named Donald Grody. I remember thinking: “Oh, dear–I have to impress another actor in order to get this job!” I also wondered how much of an auteur this fellow might be!
I needn’t have worried. I was invited to Donald and Judith’s west side apartment to participate in an informal read-through of the edited script Donald had been working on for many months. Both Donald and Judith made me feel welcome and at my ease immediately; it was impossible not to have a great time in their company. The reading seemed to go very well, and I liked Donald’s editing work–very smart and economical, without sacrificing the poetry or the passion. And besides that, both Donald and Judith were a lot of fun to be around.
Rehearsals were challenging, but ultimately rewarding. Donald understandably felt protective of his version of the script, and of the production he was carrying, but he remained open to those little moment-to-moment surprises actors love to discover, and together we discovered a great many. I looked forward to our time together onstage each night, because I knew we were going to take each other on an exciting and very personal journey, with the audience tagging along just a few feet away. In our production, the Fool was loyal to Lear to the death, and it made perfect sense to me. In fact, Mark had me double as the physician in the latter half of the play, in an all-white version of my Fool’s costume, so that my “spirit” could continue to watch over Lear. I realized over the course of our time in Burlington that I was on some level becoming Donald’s Fool offstage as well, and I couldn’t have been happier. Donald was becoming a real friend, and also a mentor. He couldn’t believe I didn’t have an agent, and was resolved to do something about that when we returned to New York. Heaven knows, no one else had ever taken such a generous interest in me, with no expectation of anything in return. He just believed I was talented and should be working all the time. He was like that. For my part, I was more than happy to swear my allegiance to this kind (and yes, regal) soul, regardless of anything that might or might not come later. I had found a new and remarkable friend.
The critical and audience response to the production, and particularly Donald’s towering performance, was fantastic. The run sold out, and the time we spent performing together in Burlington was sublime. His wife Judith (about whom he was always speaking: “Oh, wait’ll Jude hears this…!”) and my partner Tim arrived to join the fun, and we all had a great time in Burlington. I remember in particular one evening we dined together at a highly-regarded Asian restaurant called A Single Pebble. When we were seated, the owner came by our table. It turned out she had already seen the production, and had been very moved by Lear and his Fool. She advised on our dinner order herself, sent little treats along the way while we waited for the food, and at the end of the meal, surprised us with some lovely desserts, gratis. Donald and I didn’t say anything in particular to each other, though of course we thanked our host profusely. But he didn’t need to say anything. I knew we were both deeply gratified that someone out there had seen our work, and had been sufficiently affected by it that she wanted to let us know. He was quiet, but beaming. It may seem like a little gesture to some, but to us it was extraordinary. I think we were both simultaneously humbled and proud, and I was so glad to share that moment with him and with the two people we loved most in the world. Attention was paid, to paraphrase Arthur Miller.
Donald and I went on to do a second production of Lear together the following year, this time for New York Classical Theatre here in New York City. You can see a few additional pictures from it on the rotating banner at the top of this site. The rest of the cast was different, but again it was a wonderful experience–despite the many challenges of performing outdoors on the run in both Central Park and Battery Park over the course of two long, hot (and often rainy) summer months. Remember, Donald was in his 80’s, the age Lear was actually supposed to be! He always seemed to have so much energy, and in moving from location to location, often I found myself needing to keep up with him. While he was a very bright man (did I mention he was also a lawyer?), and didn’t tolerate nonsense for a moment, Donald still approached each new encounter with the innocence and frankness of a child; I saw that in every rehearsal and every performance without exception. I’m glad he got to do his Lear here in New York. I wish he could have done it somewhere indoors for an extended run so that even more people could have seen it. I’ve seen a lot of Lears over the years, including Derek Jacobi’s admirable recent turn. Donald was not a household name, but he stood among them, and bettered many of them. And by the way, Donald did introduce me to his agent, Renée Glicker, of About Artists Agency. I think we bonded because of our mutual fondness for Donald; she trusted his judgment. I began freelancing with her, she came to see us in Lear, and in due course I ended up signing with her. All because I read for a man named Donald Grody in his living room one evening and he took an interest in my career.
Donald and Judith were only able to make it up to our house in Yonkers once together, but it was a lovely summertime visit, and all four of us enjoyed just hanging out on the deck, sipping iced tea and swapping theatrical tales as the lazy day waxed and waned. By then, they had bought a little pied-a-terre in Puerto Rico, and Donald enthusiastically extolled the virtues of the fresh tropical fruits he consumed there every day, insisting they were helping him fight off the prostate cancer better than many of the medicines he was regularly asked to try.
I went to see Donald as Dogberry in New York Classical’s production of Much Ado About Nothing the following summer. He was adorable; so childlike in his innocence and delight that audience members young and old loved him immediately. After that, his health issues began to take up more of his time and energy, and getting together became difficult. But we were still planning another visit right up to the end, and that’s at the heart of who Donald was. He didn’t kid himself or anyone else, but he didn’t give up, either. He faced each new day and each new challenge, well, like a king. And Judith, endlessly patient, resourceful, and devoted, was at his side every step of the way, every inch the queen.
Shakespeare of course didn’t include the Fool at the end of King Lear, but every night of both productions I watched from the wings as Donald died, and the actor playing Kent pronounced “Break, heart; I prithee, break!” as he held the fallen king in his arms. I feel like Kent now. Because this time, of course, there will be no curtain call, no songs in the dressing room, no additional performance.
I will miss you, Donald, but I will also cherish the memories of our time together onstage and off. And I will celebrate your life every time I step onstage. Farewell, my friend.
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.