The Actors Home Celebrates Edwin Forrest Day and the Bard’s Birthday with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Earle Hyman
By: Ellis Nassour Photographs by Jay Brady
"All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances..
." wrote the Bard of Avon in As You Like It. The Actors Fund’s Lillian Booth Home for Actors in Englewood, NJ, was the site of Friday’s annual Edwin Forrest Day and Shakespeare birthday celebration. There you’ll find many that trod the boards in all seven ages of man. AF board chair Brian Stokes Mitchell and legendary star of stage, screen, and TV Earle Hyman, who resides at the Home, regaled partygoers with readings from the Bard’s works.
The Home, on six beautifully-landscaped acres, is funded by donations to the Actors Fund, the national human services organization that helps professionals in performing arts and entertainment in times of need, crisis, or transition. This year’s celebration was especially auspicious as AF president and CEO Joe Benincasa announced that in July groundbreaking would take place for a $22-million expansion. The fundraising campaign was jump-started by a $2-million gift from the Shubert Organization, which also provided funding for the Home entrance lobby.
Invited guests for the reception and luncheon were members of the Edwin Forrest Society, who’ve made estate gifts and gift annuities to the Actors Fund. There were vases of all manner and sizes filled with stunning arrangements of flowers for public and resident rooms donated from the dozens Tyne Daly received on her opening in It Shoulda Been You. Ms. Daly was last year’s special Edwin Forrest Day guest.
Tony and Drama Desk winner [and multiple nominee] Mitchell, who has starred on Broadway in Ragtime, Kiss Me, Kate, Man of La Mancha, and King Hedley II, confessed he’d never done Shakespeare until last summer’s Much Ado About Nothing for the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park.
"I had the most fun that I ever had," he noted. "I’ve been an actor 40 years, and, except for doing scenes, that was my first time unless you consider Kiss Me Kate, which is Cole Porter channeling the Bard. Playing a Shakespeare character allows one not only to live in Shakespeare’s time, but in his head. And what an incredible head it was."
In honor of the occasion, he performed from Hamlet: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief, the town-crier spoke, my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness."
He then quizzed the audience: "To be or not to be – that is the question"; "All the world’s a stage, and all its men and women, merely players"; "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?" The correct answers came quickly: Hamlet, As You Like it, and Romeo and Juliet.
Then,"Ladies and gentlemen!, let me introduce a true Shakespearean, Earle Hyman," a 1980 Tony nominee [Albee’s short-lived Lady from Dubuque], who recited from Othello, a role he’d made famous in numerous productions.
Mr. Hyman, who turns 90 in October, made his debut in 1944 in Philip Yordan’s Anna Lucasta [which ran for 957 performances] opposite Hilda Simms in the title role and such notables as Frederick O’Neil, Canada Lee, and Rosetta LeNoire. A career-long member of the Actors Studio who’s probably best-known today for his Emmy-nominated role as Cliff Huxtable’s no-nonsense jazz musician father on the long-running Cosby Show, he was a charter member of Stratford’s American Shakespeare Theatre. In programs sponsored during the early years of the American Theatre Wing, he studied under the legendary Eva Le Gallienne. He was the first black actor to play all four of the Shakespeare giants, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear.
Other stage roles included starring opposite Andy Griffith in No Time for Sergeants (1959) and in the London production of A Raisin in the Sun (1961). He made second home in Norway, where he also had a stellar career. "In recognition of outstanding services rendered in connection with the spreading of information about Norway abroad," Mr. Hyman was awarded that nation’s St. Olav’s Medal by King Olav V.
Among special guests at the Actor’s Home Edwin Forrest Day was longtime AF supporter Joyce Randolph, a spry 90 and well-remembered for her role as Trixie on the classic TV sit-com The Honeymooners, who said, "I consider myself lucky to still be well enough to be on my own, but I consider this my second home."
Everyone present continued to honor a stipulation of the behest of 19th Century Shakespearean actor Forrest, who left the bulk of his estate to fund a retirement home for thespians in Philadelphia in 1872: sing "Happy Birthday" to Shakespeare. And, led by Mitchell, the large contingent burst into song. Following lunch, Mr. Hyman made the first cut in a cake saluting Shakespeare’s 451th birthday.
The first AF Actors Home opened on Staten Island in 1902 and was eventually relocated to Englewood on property donated by heiress Henrietta "Hetty" Howland Green, an astute Gilded Age businesswoman who parlayed the inheritance left by her banker husband into an astonishing fortune to become known as "the richest woman in America."
In 1975, the Home merged with L.I.’s Percy Williams Home. The Assisted Living Care Facility is named in Mr. Williams’ honor. In 1980, the Philadelphia home merged with the AF’s Englewood Home, which has continued to grow and expand services. Miss Booth, a philanthropist, donated $2-million to have the Home named in her honor. In 1993, a nursing home wing was named for Broadway, film, and TV star Natalie Schafer [think Lovely Howell on Gilligan’s Island], who bequeathed in excess of $1.5 million. Additional donations, such as that of actress Frances Gaar, a former AF trustee, executive secretary of AGVA, and champion swimmer, resulted in the complex’s Star Walk and Gaar-den of Aquatic Delights, which includes a waterfall.
On May 11, Actors Fund’s Medals of Honor will be presented at a gala cocktails and dinner event at the Marriott Marquis to Michael Bloomberg, "for his longstanding support of the arts as an individual, a corporate leader, and Mayor of New York City" and to Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman. Tickets are a tax-deductible $1,500 – Patron; $2,500 – Benefactor; $5,000 – Leadership. Tables of 10 begin at $15,000. To purchase online, go to www.actorsfund.org.
To make an estate gift or make a tax deductible contribution to the Home Campaign for the expansion of the Lillian Booth Actors Home, remit to The Actors Fund, Attention: Jay Haddad, 729 Seventh Avenue, 10th floor, New York, NY 10019.