THE SUNSHINE BOYS 1986
In theaters everywhere there are some things that become tradition. Sometimes the entire cast is in on it, like singing a particular set of words while warming up, or before a show when the cast and crew joins hands and come together to share the hope for a great show..."Noo Noo Noodle-O's" comes to mind at 212. But some are shared just between two cast members. This was the case with what began in THE SUNSHINE BOYS.
George Ferroni and I were cast as two aging Vaudevillians, Willie and Al... long retired, who are sought out to reprise their act on a TV special and to represent their era of stage comedy. The problem is that they despise each other. After much pleading and cajoling of both by Willie's nephew played by Tom Ahnger, they agree to meet and Al goes to Willie's depressing room to rehearse. Al proceeds to do the one thing that Willie hated most, when he pokes him very hard in the chest. "The finger! You gave me the finger!" is screamed as he grabs a butcher knife and begins chasing Al who is fending him off with a chair in one of the funniest slow motion chase scenes that only two feeble old people could muster.
Only on the very last performance did I actually poke him hard, and his pained reaction was real, as was his surprise. That could have been the end of it, but the next year in ON BORROWED TIME, as Julian Northup, (Gramps) I found a moment during the last performance to once again poke him hard in the chest without changing any blocking. All I had to do was turn around and stand face to face as we argued.
It wasn't difficult to find a place to do the same portraying Don Quixote in MAN OF LA MANCHA, since George played one of his mortal enemies, and we once again had a big fight scene where I jammed my index finger into his chest as I claimed "Victory!"
By this time he knew what he would face during our last performance if we were in another show, but things got a bit trickier during ON GOLDEN POND. On the last night, it was getting close to our last moments on stage together, and I still hadn't found a place that I could manage a good jab. I had to decide if it was more important to keep the blocking in tact, or do what was needed to position myself to keep our tradition going. Tradition won out... and I got up from the table. Knowing, what was coming, George also suddenly jumped out of his chair and the chase was on. He dodged me at every turn, and I finally got him by boxing him into a corner and letting him have it. I doubt that too many knew what was going on, and once it was done, Norman Thayer Jr. was once again his sweet but grumpy self and the show went on.
Several years went by before we were on stage together. Once again we played enemies as Captain Von Trapp was confronted by a vicious Nazi Officer in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I was certain that Giacomo Leone, who played Max Detweiller, would be appalled when on the last performance, I changed the blocking so I could walk back in front of George and subtly give him a good poke and no one else could see it but Max. And as the stiff Officer, George had nowhere to turn. After I explained the need to do this traditional gesture on the last night, Giac was very understanding. I closed my explanation by saying, "You only live once, and it should be without regrets."
It never happened again... but I would gladly do it all again, if I had one more chance to keep our tradition and give George Ferroni..."The Finger!"