RIP Edward Herrmann (1943-2014): A John Cheever Memory

RIP Edward Herrmann (1943-2014): A John Cheever Memory

nullEdward Herrmann’s acting talent will always be emblazoned in my memory for one performance he gave, in a television adaptation of the John Cheever story "The Sorrows of Gin" in 1979. He starred with Sigourney Weaver, (who would turn heads, that same year, for her groundbreaking part in Alien) and the adaptation was done, interestingly enough, by Wendy Wasserstein, in the days when she was only just beginning to get acclaim as a playwright. The story describes a husband and wife who, unthinkingly, fail as parents through their boozing, and partying, and self-absorbed decadence; we receive the narrative through the eyes of their child, who pours her father’s gin down the sink and then tries to run away from home. The failure is bigger than that; these two individuals fail each other as members of a relationship, but rather than allowing them to redeem themselves, Cheever leaves them hanging, as he so often does, in their despair. The teleplay was one of three in a series called "3 By Cheever," which, because I was a rapt Cheever fan in 1979, I watched with complete attention; the other two equally melancholy stories in the series were "O Youth and Beauty!" and "The 5:48." I can’t say why, as a youth at a single-digit age, I found these dramas so fascinating; what I can say, though, is that even at that young age, I could recognize the skill and intelligence Herrmann brought to his sad, sad part. It was mainly in his face, both slack and taut, perfect for showing a patrician lifestyle in the early stages of decay. As he and Weaver spoke the poetically charged lines from Cheever’s story, you could tell instantly that they understood the words they were speaking, grasped the message they carried, which is half the battle for an actor. As I think about that trio of dramas (Herrmann was in "O Youth and Beauty!" as well, but did not make as strong an impression on me in that part), I’m given a little bit of pause. We claim to live, over and over, in a "golden age" of the idiot box, and yet would we be in the midst of this age if programs like this had not come first, as models? Well-produced, well-acted, with attention to quality, not calling too much attention to themselves, responsible renderings of literature by a true American master: there is little in today’s programming offerings to match this performance level, and there are few actors working at any time who could have served as agents of the subtlety in "3 by Cheever" as well as Herrmann. He’s had justified recognition for his work in Gilmore Girls, in Reds, in The Lost Boys and many other roles, at other times, but when I heard of his death, this was the first performance I thought of. For your viewing pleasure, below, is a clip from "The Sorrows of Gin."


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