Actor Stacy Keach arrives for a chat looking a bit like a grizzled journalist. Dressed in casual rehearsal clothes, he’s got a well-worn messenger bag slung over his shoulder. And with his solid build and square-shaped face framed by a scraggly grayish-white beard, you might easily mistake him for the fabled literary character he will be playing in Jim McGrath’s “Pamplona,” the one-man show about Ernest Hemingway set for its world premiere, May 19 – June 18, on the Goodman Theatre’s Owen stage.
When: May 19-June 18
Where: Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $26 – $80
Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
As it happens, Keach’s Hemingway-esque demeanor was spotted years ago. In 1988, in an elaborate six-hour mini-series, the actor played the Oak Park-bred writer whose novels and short stories form a pivotal chapter in 20th century American literature, and whose lean prose, which has inspired both imitation and parody, earned him a 1953 Pulitzer Prize (for his novel, “The Old Man and the Sea”), and then a 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.
That series was shot in such key locales as Pamplona, Paris, Venice, the Alps, Africa, Key West and Puerto Rico (because Cuba was off-limits at the time). And of course it touched on the writer’s exploits during World War I, the Spanish Civil War and World War II, along with his passion for bullfighting, his alcohol-fueled macho veneer, his four marriages and, in 1961, his final dramatic act of suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho — an act also played out by his grandfather, father, brother and sister.
Keach was 47 years old when he played Hemingway that first time, and his portrayal earned him a Golden Globe Award. But he now says: “I didn’t really understand the emotional landscape of his later life back then. When he shot himself at the age of 61, he looked like 85 — the result of concussions from two successive plane crashes in Africa in the 1950s, as well as a car crash when he and his wife, Mary, were coming back from a party with a driver even drunker than he was. And what I’ve come to realize is that the real reason for his suicide was depression over the fact that he could no longer write — no longer do what he was put on this Earth to do.”
Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1941, Keach was the son of actors who met at Northwestern University. His dad (with whom he shares a first name), was teaching acting at a junior college but fostering dreams of Hollywood. So in 1942, when he got a call from the Pasadena Playhouse to join the company, the family moved to California, where he spent decades as a successful actor, producer, writer and director, and creator of the fabled NBC radio show, “Tales of the Texas Rangers.”
Meanwhile, the younger Keach caught the acting bug in junior high and high school. His parents were wary about such a career, but when he began to have some success on stage they got behind him “all the way,” and were especially convinced when a professor at the University of California, Berkeley (where he earned degrees in English and Dramatic Art), told them he had “some talent.”
“I was actually quite a lousy student,” Keach confessed. “But then, when I was 20, I picked up Hemingway’s short story collection, ‘In Our Time,’ and became interested in reading because I’d found someone who was writing the way I was thinking.”
His big career break came in the summer of 1963 when he worked with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and played Henry V, Mercutio and Lord Berowne in “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
“A critic from Saturday Review magazine reviewed the shows and gave me a good notice, and somehow Joseph Papp [founder of New York’s Public Theatre], got wind of it,” Keach recalled. “I went off to work on a Masters at the Yale School of Drama, and while there, went to New York to audition for Papp who cast me in several roles in his summertime production of ‘Hamlet,’ in Central Park, where Julie Harris was playing Queen Gertrude. After Yale I went to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art as a Fulbright Scholar. And from there it was back to New York to work with the newly opened Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center, and in a variety of Off Broadway shows.” (Among them was Barbara Garson’s attention-getting anti-war satire, “MacBird!,” in which he played the title role.)
The rest is popular culture history, including his television role as Mickey Spillane’s fictional detective, Mike Hammer (a character Keach played throughout the 1980s and ’90s ), and an exceptionally long list of other roles in television and movies, including a recent guest turn in CBS’ “Blue Bloods,” playing the Archbishop of New York opposite Tom Selleck, a friend since childhood. And there have been frequent returns to the stage, too, including a 2006 production of “King Lear” at the Goodman directed by Robert Falls, who also is directing “Pamplona,” and who he lauds for “understanding the actor’s process, and having a wonderful overview of the whole production and its visual elements.”
When Keach decided he wanted to try his hand at Hemingway again he commissioned his friend, McGrath, who he’d met during a 1998 episode of “Mike Hammer.” And as Keach put it “Jim became a Hemingway aficionado.”
Set in a hotel room in the northern Spanish city of Pamplona that is best known as the site of the annual “running of the bulls,” the play finds Hemingway suffering from writers’ block which he blames on “the curse of the Nobel Prize” he received five years earlier. He is struggling to write a story about the rivalrous matadors of Pamplona, but before he can proceed he must revisit the many demons of his past.
As Keach explains: “He talks about his first love, Agnes, the nurse (seven-years his senior) who cared for him when, at the age of 18, he suffered severe shrapnel wounds to both legs while working as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy. And he talks about his four wives: Hadley Richardson, who he never should have given up, although it was she who gave up on him when he had an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, a journalist who would become his second wife. She was followed by wife number three, Martha Gellhorn, the fabled war correspondent, and finally, Mary Walsh, also a journalist.”
Keach, too, has been married four times, but he is quick to set the record straight: “I was married briefly to the first three, and have been married for 30 years to my wife, Malgosia Tomassi, with whom I’ve had two beautiful children.”
“Men like Hemingway don’t exist anymore,” said Keach. “My grandfather was like him; so was the director John Huston. They just experienced life in a different way. The reason Hemingway loved bullfighting so much was the life-and-death experience of it, and you can hear it in the beautiful passages he wrote in ‘Death in the Afternoon’ and ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ some of which are in the play. He also was an incurable romantic, although he admits that he could never understand women. I think that can be traced back to his mother, with whom he had a volatile relationship, and who he never forgave for dressing him up like his twin sister as a tot, and introducing him as ‘Ernestine.’ There was also the fact that he never got approval from his parents.”
“Pamplona” is full of references to the many luminaries in Hemingway’s life during his years in Paris in the 1920s — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and the influential publisher, Harold Loeb. And, according to Keach, “It explores the creative process — how a writer lives life, observes life, digests it, and then makes it an extension of his or her imagination.”
Is there another role Keach would like to play?
“Yes, I have my eye on Teddy Roosevelt, who, later in his life [after a humiliating election defeat in 1912), took a dangerous trip down part of the Amazon River with his son, Kermit.”
Sounds like another Hemingway-esque escapade.