May 14, 2014
Last night on “Late Night,” Dave’s guest was an actor starring in an HBO revival of the powerful Larry Cramer play, “The Normal Heart.” The play is about the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, in the early 80’s. The actor talked and tears began to roll down my face, and I thought about my friend Randy Robbins.
I got divorced in the late 70’s, and I lost my professional way. My mother had been murdered a few years back, her brother Dee, my favorite uncle, had shot himself. I was deeply depressed. I got stage fright for the first time in my life. I no longer wanted to sing. I wanted to stay in theatre.
I began to write my first play. I couldn’t have known that the play would go to Off Broadway, in 1982. Meantime, I got a night job as a bus driver. My Evanston-based company contracted with McCormick Place, to ferry the casts of touring Broadway shows to Chicago’s Gold Coast, on the near north side.
Starting in 1979, the show “Annie” came to Chicago twice, each time a new Annie and a new dog, but the supporting cast stayed the same. Which is how Randall Robbins came into my life. Randy, who resembled the director Mike Nichols, played FDR, complete with cigarette in a holder and a wheelchair. “Annie” was his bread and butter, but we both agreed it was an awful show. We plotted to kill the little girls that belted out “the sun’ll come out tomorrow,” on the bus.
Randy had higher aspirations. Robert Redford was in town during the first “Annie” run, casting the small parts for the film, “Ordinary People.” You can see Randy, playing a family friend walking in Winnetka with Donald Sutherland’s character, alongside of Mary Tyler Moore’s. Randy got the part by ignoring the lines he was supposed to read. Hundreds of actors auditioned for the part; the odds were stacked against them; why not do something to catch Redford’s eye? So Randy wrote a monologue that treated his character as the lead, not the back story. Redford hired him on the spot.
I was on a darts team at the Irish Eyes Pub, on Lincoln Avenue. I mentioned that fact to Randy and he asked if he could come and watch. And he met my gang—you’ve met many of those folks in the Chronicles—and he got tickets to “Annie” for everybody and everybody loved him. We all went to a movie theatre and watched “Ordinary People,” with my bar friends hazing a very happy Randy, who stood and bowed and blew kisses, and movie patrons gathered and asked for Randy’s autograph, and he kept introducing me as the playwright, E. Eugene Baldwin.
Sometime in the second “Annie” run, Randy ended up at my apartment, guitar in hand, and I played my guitar, Betsy, and we drank and traded songs and he stopped in mid-song and asked to sleep with me. I had no idea he was a homosexual. We had talked about women we were attracted to. I was embarrassed. Randy immediately hugged me and said it was okay.
In 1982, my play, “Going Steady and Other Fables of the Heart” opened Off Broadway in New York. Randy Robbins came to opening night and joined me and the cast and crew at Sardi’s restaurant, for the post-play celebration. I never saw him again.
Randy became sick. He wrote me letters for a year, first in pen and then in red crayon, because he’d lost his motor functions. He had a disease which caused open sores and hallucinations. He lost a hundred pounds on an already slender frame. His doctors were stymied, at this beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and Randy’s crayon scrawls got more and more strange. He was dreaming of Satan and beasts and organ music in minor keys, and still he cracked jokes . . . until the last letter. He wrote that he had only now told his family back in Florida that he was gay. They refused to have anything to do with him.
A couple of weeks later, I got a letter from a man named Joe, in New York City. He had been Randy’s boyfriend. He had assumed that I was an ex-boyfriend; Randy had talked about his playwright friend in Chicago. Joe used the acronym, AIDS. Randall Robbins had died, and his family never relented.
In the time frame of “Annie,” “On the Twentieth Century” came to McCormick place. It was a musical based on the John Barrymore Carol Lombard 30’s screwball comedy of the same name. The stars of the stage musical were Rock Hudson and Imogene Coca. Rumors were swirling that Hudson and Jim Nabors were lovers. Crowds of gawkers gathered behind the theatre and shouted down at the traffic bay at the actors as they got out of the bus. People shouted, “Golleeee!” Jim Nabors’ famous catchphrase from “The Andy Griffith Show.” Hudson was always accompanied by a beautiful, bland blond woman. Imogene Coca was cheerful and friendly, if unsteady on her feet. Rock Hudson’s smile was wobbly at best.
Mr. Hudson invited me to see the show. I was seated next to the girlfriend. I don’t think we exchanged more then 100 words during the run. Quietly, Hudson’s manager asked me to attend every show. So I was the girlfriend’s escort; she and I saw a lot of each other, me playing Gene, her playing a girlfriend. Hudson couldn’t sing a lick; Imogene Coca was a shadow of her TV self. She would be dead in a few months.
Rock Hudson was getting sick. Unlike Randy, Hudson knew he had AIDS. Some actresses he had kissed on television shows were concerned about the exchange of bodily fluids. Hudson’s “secret” finally came out in the press. His close friend Doris Day helped him through his last days.
I have tried to re-watch “Ordinary People,” but I can’t. When Randy walks with Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore, I cry.