Jim Brochu: Quite a Character Man
“I can’t tell you how many times I tried to make David Burns laugh.”
So says Jim Brochu, who knew Burns for the last 10 years of his life -- until the actor suddenly died during the Philadelphia tryout of 70, Girls, 70.
Brochu has quite a few Burns stories in Character Man. It’s the new one-man show the Drama Desk-winner for Zero Hour has written and will perform. His one-night only preview debuts on Monday, Oct. 1 at the Triad.
“Davey was one of those guys who never was the star of the show,” says Brochu. “All of them were there to support the stars. Sometimes, however, they managed to get some good songs, a few of which I’ll do. What’s more, I’ll show a lot of videos I’ve collected through the years.”
It all started in 1961 during Burns’ run in Do Re Mi. Brochu’s father Peter knew the actor and introduced the two. “From the outset, I found that it was impossible to make Davey laugh,” says Brochu. “If I said something that I thought was hysterically funny, Davey would always say, ‘Oh, that’s funny. Yes. That’s funny. That’s the type of thing that would make people laugh.’ But he’d never actually laugh himself.”
Brochu kept trying. “And I did succeed,” he says, “when I tried explaining to him the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth. Oh, how he roared.”
Burns, however, wasn’t anti-Catholic enough to refuse Brochu’s plea to come to his school -- St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights -- to speak to the students. “He called the program The Broadway Prison to stress how doing a long-run could be hard.”
The actor knew from his character-man marathons in three long-run Tony-winners: as Mayor Shinn in The Music Man, Senex in A Funny Thing Happened and Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! Burns won Tonys for the first two – but Shinn was the more remarkable achievement; the character doesn’t have a single song, so Burns had to make an impression through his dialogue.
And while Burns received a posthumous Emmy for his portrayal of Solomon in The Price, he never had particularly great roles in films. “As a result, a lot of people don’t know who he was,” says Brochu. “And last year, when I was doing The Sound of Music in Pittsburgh, I started telling the kids in the cast all about him and all the other character men I was lucky enough to meet. It reminded me of how I used to listen to people talk about the Lunts when I was young, only now I was telling the stories. I was the newest link in the chain.”
Brochu certainly has more credentials than Mayor Shinn ever got from Harold Hill. He displays many letters and postcards from Burns. The early ones say “Dear Pete and Jim,” but the later ones say “Dear Jim and Pete” and the last ones say “Dear Jim.”
Many carry comments about late ‘60s show business. “Too bad about I’m Solomon and Hyman Kaplan,” Burns wrote in 1968 about two recent musicals that had had short runs; needless to say, he didn’t bother to pepper the latter title with asterisks.
One of Burns’ predictions, however, was a tad off the mark: “I think that Streisand and Matthau will be great,” he wrote, although he might have simply chosen to be magnanimous about Matthau taking his role of Vandergelder.
Burns got Brochu his first theater job: selling orange drink at the then-Alvin where Funny Thing was playing. “Because I was a young teenager, my father was furious that I took a job that wouldn’t get me out until 11 o’clock. I refused to quit, and he was so worried about me that he had his friend pick me up every night. The guy ran a limousine service, so here was the $18-a-week orange-drink boy getting into a limousine that was parked between the limos that the stars had waiting them.”
Had it not been for Burns, Brochu wouldn’t have been able to celebrate two other performers he references in Character Man. “Davey introduced me to both Jack Gilford and Lou Jacobi,” he says.
The former played Hysterium in that original Funny Thing. “Jack spent much of the run black-and-blue,” Brochu says. “Mostel would hit him so hard during the show, and when he got laughs from doing it, he would hit him harder. When he complained, Zero reminded him that he wouldn’t have had the job if he hadn’t recommended him for it.”
You may know Lou Jacobi from his playing the bartender in the Irma La Douce movie or the secret transvestite in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask. “Don’t forget his role in Fade Out – Fade In,” says Brochu, citing the 1964 musical in which Jacobi played a violin-playing movie mogul. “And Lou could really play the violin,” he says. “I heard him many times at his apartment at 240 Central Park South.
“And I’ll never forget Lou and Davey playing garment workers in the Milliken Breakfast Show,” he says, citing the annual lavish industrial that was produced from 1956 through 1980 by the famed fabric company. “If it weren’t for that show,” says Brochu, “Davey would have never owned a decent suit.”
Burns also inspired Brochu to become a performer. His first professional acting role was in a 1970 off-Broadway musical revue called Unfair to Goliath that told of Israeli life. “The critic in the Post said ‘If they ever do The Zero Mostel Story, he’s my choice for the part.’” Brochu made good on the request almost 40 years later.
Now he’s following up that success with Character Man. “People still remember Gwen Verdon, but not many remember George Wallace,” he says, citing Verdon’s co-star in New Girl in Town. “But I still remember the character men who changed my life. I think about them constantly and miss them just as much. I simply do not want them to be forgotten.”
— Peter Filichia