When someone proposed that Christopher Plummer reunite with Julie Andrews in a production of “On Golden Pond,” he was adamant: Thanks, but no thanks.
He had not seen a script but he remembered the sentimental 1981 movie starring Oscar winners Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. But then Plummer realized this “On Golden Pond” would be closer to its original stage incarnation, and he had a change of mind. And heart.
“The play is absolutely wonderful – it’s cynical, biting, funny, feisty, devastatingly sad at times and always tough,” the Shakespearean-trained actor says. “Totally different from the screen version. So I said, my God, what a wonderful way to rejoin Julie. Yes, I’ll do it. And they also paid us very nicely, too.”
A reunion of “The Sound of Music” leads would be newsworthy enough, but Plummer and Julie Andrews will star in a live version of “On Golden Pond” tonight from 9 to 11 on CBS. It will originate from Stage 46 at CBS Television City in Los Angeles and promises the same sort of adrenaline, excitement and anything-can-happen crackle as last year’s “Fail Safe” and 1997’s live episode of “ER.”
“I think, as much as anything, we’re hoping that we’ll give the viewing audience the feeling that this is an evening just for them in the home,” Andrews says, with a familiar voice that may no longer hit the high notes but exudes warmth, graciousness and class. “It’s live, right now, and it’s almost a theater experience, excepting in this case, your theater is the living room.”
“On Golden Pond” is a love story about Ethel and Norman Thayer, who are returning to their summer home on Golden Pond in Maine. Their routine is disrupted and their lives changed by a visit from their divorced daughter, her boyfriend and his teen-age son who becomes the grandchild the couple never had.
Writer Ernest Thompson, who wrote the Broadway play and won an Academy Award for his screenplay, is reshaping the five-act presentation for a modern TV audience.
“It’s a rare opportunity for a writer to go back to something that he wrote 23 years ago, because in that time the world has changed, and I’ve changed, both as a man and as a writer,” Thompson says. “To have an opportunity to re-address some of the themes of the play, to make them perhaps more current and to luxuriate in having two very different actors playing these parts is like a dream for me.”
Think about how society and attitudes about aging have changed since 1978, when the play was first presented.
“A man 80 and a woman in her late 60s can have a whole different vibrancy and attitude toward life and toward aging,” the writer suggests. “And look at our stars: They’re very attractive, vibrant, sensual people, and I’ve tried to really play into that.”
Attractive and vibrant, though they may be, the stars use the same words to describe the four-week rehearsal: Long and daunting.
Midway through when they paused to chat with reporters, they were about to start working with the eight cameras that will track their actions – Andrews compared it to a “wonderful ballet” – on a set the decorator promises will dazzle with verisimilitude. A house will be supplemented with decks, porches, docks, lake in the distance and faux Maine woods.
Although “On Golden Pond” is being staged like a play – a small orchestra will be situated offstage – one element will be missing: a studio audience. This way, the actors can play to the cameras, not the people across the footlights, a problem Plummer encountered while doing a live BBC production. “It didn’t work, simply because the actors feel a responsibility to play to that audience that is closest to them,” leaving the audience at home feeling left out.
“Doing it in the studio allows me, certainly, to have a focus, just to laser beam through to the people at home and to concentrate more,” Andrews says. “It’s going to be daunting enough with eight or nine cameras dancing around – that’s hard enough to ignore.”
Also hard to ignore: The ghost of Henry Fonda and the shadows cast by Hepburn and Jane Fonda.
Plummer says he’s played Hamlet twice and he couldn’t let his Shakespearean predecessors cow him. “If we were awed by the big parts in the theater, of which I think ‘On Golden Pond’ is a modern classic and the part of Norman is classic in his own, we would never do anything at all.”
He and Andrews know “Sound of Music” will lure some viewers to the set. “Certainly that will be an ingredient, but I’m hoping that once the play begins, they will be captivated by the play itself, which is pretty riveting. And put aside comparison, because it’s not about comparison,” Andrews says. “It’s about doing a wonderful role, really.”
Now about that movie that urged us to climb every mountain, ford every stream and follow every rainbow … well, you remember the picture.
Andrews calls it a “beautifully crafted piece that appeals to people again and again and again,” with a new generation discovering it every seven years. Plummer recalls the day late in the “Sound” schedule when the cast was shooting interiors in Hollywood and Andrews tentatively said, “This smells as if it might be a success.”
Still, she says, “I don’t think either of us knew it would take off that way. … I guess when you put all those ingredients – beautiful scenery and beautiful music and children and nuns and all of that – together, the only thing that was missing was Lassie, I guess.”
As for those singalongs in which audience members dress up like the characters and croon along, Andrews says, “I have slightly mixed feelings. I’d like to be a fly on the wall and yet I don’t know. I have such happy memories of it. I just think it’s thrown it into a wonderful cult status, and I suppose if it makes people feel great and if they can voice something as they sing along, that’s terrific, too.”
Plummer, an unsentimental stage veteran who says the 1965 film brought more people into the theaters where he performed, says: “I just hope all those people wearing lederhosen are as uncomfortable as I was.”
To read this article in the Post-Gazette, click here.