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Donald Freed on the greatest stories never told

Wednesday, May 30 2001

Donald Freed is a pain in the ass. Not only does his writing not fit into any of the tidy categories that make the lives of theater critics easier, but he doesn’t even compose his manuscripts on computer, preferring to do his writing in longhand. ”I‘m now two centuries out of step,“ he says, noting that the typewriter that he long eschewed is today obsolete.

This playwright, novelist and screenwriter, who teaches at USC and Loyola Marymount, is currently absorbing the reaction to his newest play, American Iliad, a sprawling journey through 100 years of American history that uses as its focus Richard Nixon. The 37th president was the subject of Freed’s most popular work, Secret Honor, a one-man play in which a deposed Nixon drunkenly rambles on about his past and futilely searches for the fork in the road at which his career made a wrong turn. As essayed by Philip Baker Hall in its original Los Angeles Actors Theater production, and later in Robert Altman‘s film version, Secret Honor was a brilliant, malarial probe -- part stream-of-consciousness confession, part self-interrogation -- that not only examined the ruin of an ambitious politician but also looked into the diseased heart of the American Dream. Think Krapp’s Last Tape performed by Willy Loman -- or Captain Queeg.

American Iliad works on far more ambitious and fanciful levels than Secret Honor as it follows a ”90-year-old“ Nixon on a near-death reverie in which he encounters John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and J. Edgar Hoover. The play‘s improbable muse is the Chautauqua circuit, that movement of moral searchers who sought to educate and unify post--Civil War America through public dialogue and mass meetings.

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”The same skills Richard Nixon possessed could have been used to help make the American Dream come true,“ Freed says. ”He could have been one of Chautauqua’s straw-hatted assembly leaders. He could have been the Music Man! Why did he instead become the psychocop of the American nightmare? Why didn‘t he grow up to be the Quaker hero his mother wanted him to be?“

Such questions have stoked Freed’s imagination for decades. In person, he hardly resembles a fevered polemicist or obsessed seeker of historical truths. At the handsome West Los Angeles home he shares with his wife, Patty, Freed -- a sonorous Westwood Brahmin who looks much younger than his 69 years -- cuts an impressively calm figure.

The Chicago-born Freed is mostly the product of Southern Jewish gentility; in 1939 his family moved to Alexandria, Louisiana, where his stepfather became a prosperous merchant thanks to the many military camps that sprang up in Rapides Parish before World War II. It was a cush life, complete with black servants, although the young Freed always felt a little bit the outsider, a sense that led him to adopt a Southern accent. The move south afforded him the kind of direct contact with African-Americans that Chicago would not have, but the ”Southern Babbitry,“ as he calls provincial Louisiana life at that time, always had an ominous undertone.

”It ranged from a cheerful anti-Semitism to a Klan-ish ideology,“ he says, ”although I was never exposed to a nightmare version of that. And even I‘d put on minstrel shows in high school, which of course were deeply racist, but accepted.“

Alexandria was a pleasant enough backwater, a place where Huey Long’s ghost still strolled and where middle-class families opened their doors to soldiers for Sunday dinners. But peace brought profound change -- when the wartime boom soured, Freed‘s stepfather committed suicide. Although he wasn’t exposed to much theater as a kid, bit by bit, from high school to community theater, the young Freed moved into acting and directing, eventually working at Chicago‘s Goodman Theater and spending a little time in New York.

Now he was acquiring skills and ambitions; now he felt it was time to bust out of Chicago for a more potent stage laboratory, not in New York or London, but -- in Tarzana. In 1955, he’d received an invitation from an uncle to stay with him in Los Angeles, and, while earning money selling magazine subscriptions door to door, Freed landed a part in Terence Rattigan‘s The Deep Blue Sea at an out-of-the-way theater in the town built by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. Before long, he acquired control of the Valley Playhouse, where he taught acting and staged indoor and outdoor productions of plays that were perhaps better known to local residents as films: Mister Roberts, Bus Stop, The Rainmaker, etc. In 1961, he took over the Coronet Theater in West Hollywood, first directing a successful Summer and Smoke, followed by Endgame.

It’s good to remember that Freed, who is chiefly known today as a political playwright, was up until the end of the 1950s an apolitical stage director and actor, whose professional history is a significant part of Los Angeles‘ overlooked theater past. But even provincial L.A. theater was feeling the currents of the ban-the-bomb and civil rights sentiments that were roiling the waters elsewhere in the arts. Freed’s involvement in political action led him to join the Operation Bootstrap efforts to resurrect Watts following the 1965 riots, and to organize coffee klatches among segregated Los Angeles‘ whites and blacks, eventually introducing members of the Black Panther Party into Westside and Valley parlors. However, the initial spur to Freed’s activism was not racial injustice or the threat of nuclear annihilation, but something that had haunted many Jews for a generation: the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

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