Frederick Neumann, Actor, Director and Interpreter of Beckett, Dies at 86
The New York Times
December 6, 2012
Frederick Neumann, an actor and director whose affinity for Samuel Beckett’s works and his friendship with the man himself helped forge the distinguished New York experimental troupe Mabou Mines, died on Nov. 27 at his home in Kingston, N.J. He was 86.
The cause was complications of diabetes, his son, David, said.
In some regards, Mr. Neumann had the motley résumé of many a working actor, with small roles in Hollywood films, guest appearances on television series and a foray or two on Broadway. But his main impact was away from the popular track — Off Broadway or Off Off, frequently in the audience-challenging realm of experimental theater.
In 1971 he joined a fledgling troupe consisting of the director JoAnne Akalaitis, the writer and director Lee Breuer, the composer Philip Glass and the actors David Warrilow and Ruth Maleczech.
Calling themselves Mabou Mines — the name came from a town in Nova Scotia where the group spent a working summer — they produced a series of works that, in the parlance of the time, might have been considered less theater than performance art or conceptual art, generally involving the Minimalist music of Mr. Glass.
It was the company’s attachment to Beckett, however, that established it as a theater troupe. By 1990, Mabou Mines had produced eight of Beckett’s works — including six not originally written for the theater that had their world premieres with the company.
Mr. Neumann had met Beckett at a museum in East Berlin in 1976, and their ensuing friendship encouraged the playwright to entrust him and the company with those nontheatrical texts.
“Fred, as an actor, could appear at the same time avuncular and congenial and warm and cuddly — and also dangerous and brutal, quite threatening,” Ms. Akalaitis said in an interview this week. “Behind all that was the mind of a truly cultivated man, interested in literature, who had a long relationship with Beckett that he treasured.”
Mr. Neumann, who appeared in most of the Beckett pieces, directed three of the adaptations. One was “Mercier and Camier,” a kind of novelistic forerunner to “Waiting for Godot.” Written in 1946 (though not published until 1970), it tells of two mismatched pals, the title characters — Mr. Neumann played Mercier — on an aimless journey “towards some unquestioned goal.”
The others were “Company,” a slim volume of fictionalized, autobiographical episodes that Mr. Neumann and his wife, Honora Fergusson, created for the stage together; and “Worstward Ho,” a dense monologue about existence that Mr. Neumann adapted for four performers, including himself as the narrator.
“The theme is, of course, Beckett’s old tune — man is born astride of a grave,” Mel Gussow wrote in his review for The New York Times, “with the difference, in Mr. Neumann’s interpretation, that the narrator is already standing in his grave. The piece ends with the sun, which appears to be rising. On the other hand, this could also be a setting sun. In keeping with the spirit of the author, the stage version of ‘Worstward Ho’ leaves the final analysis to the audience.”
Mr. Glass wrote music for the first two pieces, but Beckett drew the line at “Worstward Ho,” which had its premiere at the Classic Stage Company in New York in 1986, three years before his death.
“With all due respect to Philip,” Mr. Neumann recalled Beckett’s saying, “no music, for pity’s sake. It’s my last gasp.”
Frederick Carl Neumann was born on May 17, 1926, on Sugar Island, on the eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. His father left his mother, Freda Wooten, when the child was an infant. Fred, the oldest of her eight children, had three stepfathers — “a couple of them were scary,” Mr. Neumann’s son said — and grew up largely in Flat Rock, Mich., near Detroit.
He joined the Army Air Forces during World War II and was trained as a tail gunner, but never saw combat. During his service he attended classes at the University of Utah and was on campus when Orson Welles and Paul Robeson performed “Othello.” Mr. Neumann had a small part — “a spear carrier or something,” his son said — and from then on was hooked on the theater. After the war he lived in Paris, Rome, London and elsewhere abroad. With Mr. Breuer and Ms. Maleczech, he staged Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” in Paris.
Mr. Neumann’s film credits include “The Prince of Tides,” an adaptation of the Pat Conroy novel directed by Barbra Streisand, and “Reversal of Fortune,” about the Claus von Bulow murder case, directed by Barbet Schroeder. On television he appeared on “Law & Order” and “Spenser: For Hire.”
On Broadway he appeared in 1979 as Sir Thomas Vaughan in “Richard III,” starring Al Pacino, and in 1985 as Piet Wetjoen (“the general”), a barfly, in “The Iceman Cometh,” directed by José Quintero. His credits off Broadway include “Cymbeline” and “The Tempest” at the Public Theater, both directed by Ms. Akalaitis, and David Rabe’s “Goose and Tom-Tom,” also at the Public.
In “First Love,” by Charles Mee, at the New York Theater Workshop, he and Ms. Maleczech gave striking performances as septuagenarian lovers who enact an entire affair, from first encounter through besotted courtship to anguished heartbreak — including a remarkably persuasive scene of simulated coitus.
Ms. Fergusson, Mr. Neumann’s wife, died in July. Besides his son, David, a choreographer, Mr. Neumann is survived by several stepbrothers and sisters. Another son, Christopher, died in 1999.
In a 1979 interview, Mr. Neumann discussed the turning point of his theatrical life: “Somebody by the name of James Joyce — not the James Joyce — hauled me off on Jan. 3, 1953, to the Théâtre de Babylone,” he recalled. “It was the first performance of ‘Waiting for Godot.’ ”
Born: 5/17/1926, Sugar Island, Michigan, U.S.A.
Died: 11/27/2012, Kingston, New Jersey, U.S.A.
Frederick Neumann’s western – actor:
Walker – 1987 (Willy Marshall)