”Let’s say I have intimations that I’ll never make it—
because I’m on radio.” (Shep, in a 1960 Realist magazine interview.)
Nobody worth his salt is listening to the radio at this hour of the night. I can tell you that. And I can tell you this—nobody worth his salt is doing radio at this hour of the night. (Jean Shepherd on the radio, 8/22/1964)
HOW DO YOU GET TO BROADWAY?
Shepherd had his problems with other writer’s characterizations of people in plays (and with films and books, also). He felt that most of the plays he saw were unrealistic—they did not portray people as they really were. His own view was that people mostly live rather mundane lives, but that theater displays its characters doing very unusual things, and that the plots were not true to peoples’ lives.
Shepherd also very much wanted to get into live theatrical performance, even though, at the same time, he wanted to deliver his own words rather than those of another author. As he’d put it in 1960, he was less interested in “reading other guys’ lines” than in doing his own material. His friend Pete Wood remembers that around 1961 “He talked a lot about the fact that he was going to study to become an actor.” One might wonder if another factor was that his wife was the up-and-coming actress Lois Nettleton.
Village Voice Obie Awards dinner, 1959.
Shepherd with Lois Nettleton, who had won an award.
Anne Bancroft, far right,
“Greenwich Village Sunday,” 1960-61 short documentary.
Narrated by Shepherd from script by Stewart Wilensky.
Lois portrays a visitor to the Village.
One might also imagine that his desire to be on the stage had something to do with a perception that radio was losing its driving force to television, a medium he wanted to be a part of, but which he could not break into sufficiently. (Television represented a bigger audience, more celebrity, more money.) Remember that he claimed that Johnny Carson said to him, “Look, Shepherd, forever they’re going to think of you as a radio guy. You better get out of that damn medium.” (Jean Shepherd commenting on the Alan Colmes interview show, 1998.)
In addition he sometimes felt that he was too isolated in the radio studio and thus, did not have an audience with whom he could be in immediate contact. (This is undoubtedly why he enjoyed his Limelight and other live-before-an-audience performances, which were in front of devoted fans.)
Drawing by Herb Gardner Mephistopheles
Shep as “Destry”
In the late 1950s and into the early 60s Shep engaged with live theater, including several multi-person “revues,” for which he wrote his own material. In 1958 Smalltacular, and in his revue with Shel Silverstein, Herb Gardner, and Lois Nettleton, Look, Charlie. He was especially busy in 1961, playing Mephistopheles in A Banquet for the Moon; acting in The Voice of the Turtle, Destry Rides Again, and The Tender Trap. He featured in New Faces of 1962 (again his own material). He acted in 1963 previews of Arthur Kopit’s Asylum or What the Gentlemen Are Up To Not to Mention the Ladies, which Kopit closed “for rewriting” just before opening night. No subsequent theater work by Shep has been encountered. Fred Barzyk, his main PBS director/producer, quoted Shepherd as having said: “I’m an actor. I’m a good actor.”
LOIS NETTLETON ON ACTING
A letter she wrote indicating her preference for live theater:
In notes to me regarding my book, Lois had several comments, indicating Jean’s desire to act and his troubles accomplishing the feat. Note that Jean and Lois were together during the entire period during which he pursued acting. (Remember to click on the scans to enlarge them.) In a note about my book, she comments that Jean helped her develop a comic character for an unnamed play in which she performed. Lois also mentioned that before performances, in Jean’s dressing room she assisted him in getting ready.
Lois, in parts of each of the notes that follow, refers to aspects of Jean’s acting experience. They depict a sad, yet probably very true image of Shepherd’s frustration in a field that was in conflict with his improvisational nature. He had trouble memorizing the script. I include the entire note in each case because I hope that most people will find all of her words of interest. (I describe Lois’ notes in an objective manner, but writing about them, I am thrilled to have and to hold all of her hand-written comments she wrote for my benefit!)
In an interview with Doug McIntyre, January 2000,
(Just a few months after Shep’s death)
Lois commented that Jean’s improvisation
on radio was a higher art than acting:
“…acting is not shallow, it is an art with depth and all of that, but it seems almost–almost, less profound, less important than what he was doing. I mean I think what he was doing was so–it was unique and it was profound and it was real genius!”