J.D. Cannon dies at 83; Edward Albee gracefully accepts lifetime Tony award
It wasn’t until this past Saturday, June 4, that news of the death of the actor J.D. Cannon hit these eyes through an obit that day in The New York Times. He had in fact left us on May 20 at his home near Hudson, New York.
He was 83, but I will always see Jack Cannon in his lean, virile, knife-edge handsome early 30s, when he was one of the young unknowns whom an unknown somebody named Joseph Papp had brought together as a Shakespearean Workshop Theater in a beautiful old wood-paneled hall on East Sixth Street, almost at the East River.
In white shirts and black slacks for the men, wholesale-house prom dresses for the women, the little group that included J.D. Cannon and Roscoe Lee Browne and Colleen Dewhurst and Papp’s then-wife Peggy Bennion showed that Shakespeare and the other Elizabethans could be handled by disciplined, determined young Americans with a vigor and clarity to rival the Brits.
Cannon was to go on to a movie and television career that stretched from 1960 to 1991, and was notable for rotating roles on such programs as “Law & Order,” “McCloud” and “Murder, She Wrote,” but the Jack Cannon in my head has a scar down the entire left side of his face as the villainous, rape-minded Deflores in Middleton and Rowley’s horrific “The Changeling.”
That’s one way I see him, and the other is with hand and hair brush upraised as Petruchio (Cannon) is about to give Kate the Shrew (Dewhurst) a whack on the buttocks, as he holds her, embattled, across his knees, on a sunny summer afternoon in the tiny East River Amphitheater at the foot of Grand Street where Joe Papp was presenting living Shakespeare to old Jews and young Puerto Ricans of the neighborhood watching on from concrete rows as tugboats chugged past tooting just beyond the stage and planes droned high overhead toward La Guardia.
Then there’s a third Jack Cannon in my head, the one who in 1964, at the Cricket Theater—press agent Max Eisen will remember this—co-starred with James Earl Jones in Athol Fugard’s “The Blood Knot,” a drama about two brothers, one black, one white.
I did a double-interview with them, and when it was near the end I asked some goofball question pushing the matter of race. The two actors jumped to their feet and sped around and around the room. “Race, race!” exclaimed one of them, or maybe both of them, and then the other, or maybe both, finished the thought with: “That’s when you run, and run, and run… ”
So long, Jack. He leaves a wife and two brothers. Alice, this is for you.
James Earl Jones is very much on Broadway just now (in “On Golden Pond”), which brings me to Sunday night’s Tony Awards—the day after that obituary—where James Earl was one of the many participating stars.
You may be as delighted as I was that Bill Irwin was the surprise winner for his dry, gutsy, fade-out, fade-in George of the revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or that John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” did as well as it certainly deserved to do, or as glad as my wife was that “The Light on the Piazza” also did very well, but to me the real high point of these 59th Tonys was the moment when the man who wrote “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—and a few other plays, over 45 years—came to the great stage of Radio City Music Hall to accept from Sally Field a special award for lifetime achievement.
Edward Albee is always a figure of dignity, even when he is angry, which on this night he distinctly was not. He thanked everybody, succinctly and graciously, ending up with his companion of 30 or more years, artist Jonathan Thomas, who had died only a couple of weeks earlier.
Those few words stood out in contrast to the two male winners of something or other who took pains to kiss one another on camera. I have some advice for male couples or female couples from here on out. Fellows, ladies, that’s already been done.
There was one other matter for gratification
. Six years ago, in 1999, a special lifetime Tony Award went to Uta Hagen, but in their infinite wisdom, the people, whoever they were, who then produced the Tony Awards, relegated the announcement of that award to the first hour of the proceedings. In short, the creator of the role of Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—one of this country’s most brilliant actresses, and a teacher of almost everybody else in theater—was deemed not important enough be praised and seen around the world on network television.
Well, onward and upward. Smile, Edward Albee. You’re on prime time.