restricted access 20. Sly Foxes

From: Arthur Penn

The University Press of Kentucky colophon
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

210 20 Sly Foxes When Sly Fox opened on Broadway on December 14, 1976, its director was 54, its author was 48, and the play was 370. Based on Ben Jonson’s 1606 Elizabethan drama Volpone, with influence from a 1924 German adaptation by Stefan Zweig, Sly Fox is a comedy about fraud, greed, death, and deceit between friends. Jonson composed his version, it is said, in five weeks. Playwright Larry Gelbart and director Arthur Penn took considerably longer , but they emerged with an adventure as well as a hit. Set in Venice, Italy, Jonson’s original work presents Volpone, the fox, an elderly miser, whose clever servant, Mosca, the fly, is his accomplice in a scheme to cheat three of his friends out of their fortunes. Mosca sends word throughout the city that Volpone is dying and has vowed to leave his entire estate to whichever of his friends proves the most loyal and generous to him in his waning days. It would be an understatement to say that Volpone offered its premiere audiences a lesson in venality. Although it proved to be the ill-tempered Jonson’s most popular play, it paled in comparison with the more accessible folio of his contemporary William Shakespeare. Sly Fox came about as a way to squeeze television for money—not to benefit a scoundrel pretending to be dying but to help the Actors Studio, which actually was. “Some of the best things in life sometimes come at us from straight out of the blue,” muses Larry Gelbart, whom Penn called Sly Foxes 211 in 1972 with the idea of setting Volpone in California’s post–gold rush era.1 “Though we’d been close friends for years, Arthur and I had never done any professional work together. All too often, doing the latter turns out to be a surefire recipe for ending even the closest of friendships, but working together on Sly Fox made the bond between us—and our families—stronger than ever.”2 Penn’s grand plan was to make Sly Fox as a network TV special for the benefit of the Actors Studio, feeling he could entice such Studio luminaries as Al Pacino to star in it, and use newly portable video technology to shoot it on location. But first he needed a script, so Penn asked Gelbart—whose stellar credits include Caesar’s Hour, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Tootsie, City of Angels, and most of TV’s M*A*S*H—if he had ever read Volpone. “Quick as a flash,” Gelbart says, “because we had been so close for so many years, I immediately lied and said that, of course, I had.” Penn’s agent, Sam Cohn, assisted by asking international showman Lew Grade for development money. Grade said yes.3 When California-based Gelbart turned in his first draft in March of 1976, Penn held a reading in New York. As Gelbart’s miscreant , Foxwell J. Sly, Penn enlisted Art Carney, who had appeared for him in Charley’s Aunt on television and had just won the Academy Award for Harry & Tonto. Lee and Anna Strasberg were also in the reading, which was performed before an invited audience at the Actors Studio. The next day Penn phoned Gelbart in California to report that it was “indecently funny.” Energized , he took it to the networks, figuring that the combination of Gelbart, him, and the Studio would make a sale a no-brainer. And that’s what happened: the TV people had no brains. “It was okay for PBS to do it,” Penn reports sarcastically, “but the major networks wouldn’t. I was trying to impress on them that we could get these people and go out and just do it and end up with a television show as a benefit for the Actors Studio. The guy at CBS said, ‘What have you done since The Miracle Worker?’ This is after Bonnie and Clyde! He wouldn’t hear of it. Neither would NBC. Then Peggy—after we had the reading at the Studio and it was so damn funny—said, ‘You’re crazy not 212 Arthur Penn to do this on Broadway.’ So I offered it to the Studio [to produce on Broadway].” Unaccountably, they passed on their own fund-raiser. “There was a business man who was dubious about this, and jealous,” Penn says, “and, although the Studio—either then or later—backed The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, he wouldn...


pdf

Subject Headings

  • Penn, Arthur, 1922-2010.
  • Motion picture producers and directors -- United States -- Biography.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access