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Wanamaker [formerly Watenmaker], Samuel [Sam]free

(1919–1993)
  • Charles Marowitz

Samuel Wanamaker (1919–1993)

by Robin Mayes, 1993

Wanamaker [formerly Watenmaker], Samuel [Sam] (1919–1993), actor and director, was born Samuel Watenmaker on 14 June 1919 in Chicago, USA, the second son of Morris Watenmaker, later Wanamaker, and his wife, Molly, née Bobele. His parents were first generation Russian-Jewish immigrants. It is quite possible that his stage début as a teenager in a plywood and paper replica of the Globe at the Chicago World Fair in 1934 was the cathartic experience which inspired his lifelong devotion to the Bard and brought into being the Shakespeare Globe Theatre on London's South Bank.

Like many young actors in the 1930s, Wanamaker honed his talents in summer stock (1936–9) and was fortunate to be accepted into the celebrated Goodman Theatre School in Chicago. There he was first introduced to the tenets of Stanislavsky, acquiring the realistic acting skills which stood him in good stead throughout his career. He also studied at Drake University, Iowa. In 1940 he married Charlotte Holland. They had three daughters, one of whom, Zoë, inherited the unmistakable Wanamaker ‘chutzpah’ and became a leading actress in England.

Wanamaker's Broadway début was as Lester Freed in the play Cafe Crown (1941), which was also Elia Kazan's first Broadway production. That was followed in 1942 with an appearance in Counter-Attack. In 1943 he joined the war effort, serving in the Pacific with the US marine battalions which captured Iwo Jima in the spring of 1945. After demobilization, his career sprang immediately back into gear. In rapid succession he appeared in This, Too, Shall Pass at the Belasco (1946), Joan of Lorraine opposite Ingrid Bergman at the Alvin (1946), and Goodbye My Fancy at the Morosco (1948), which he also directed. He also appeared in Give Us This Day (1949), an independent film (shot in England) which, at the time, was considered to be remorselessly left-wing, if not explicitly communist.

By this time the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was in full swing and the McCarthy era was about to trample upon many of the socially conscious, left-wing zealots in the entertainment industry. Although Wanamaker never made an appearance before the HUAC, he was radical by temperament and always politically outspoken, and was scheduled to be subpoenaed shortly before flying to England to appear in Clifford Odets's The Country Girl (which in its London incarnation was entitled Winter Journey) in 1952. Michael Redgrave and Googie Withers were also in the cast and despite the fact that both Wanamaker and Redgrave espoused the Stanislavsky system there were sizzling tensions between them which soon became hot gossip in the West End. Fully aware of the ravages the blacklist was wreaking in the United States, Wanamaker opted to remain in England and within five years had established himself both as a formidable American actor and a gifted stage director, mounting plays such as The Shrike (1953), The Big Knife (1954), The Rainmaker (1956), and A Hatful of Rain (1957), all highly charged American dramas which exemplified the ‘method’ style of acting which had recently gained prominence in both America and the UK. Wanamaker's presence in England provided a dynamic model of the gritty, hard-hitting acting style which was proving triumphant in both New York and Hollywood with method-trained actors such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Rod Steiger, Julie Harris, and Kim Stanley.

Nevertheless, Wanamaker's stage productions tended to be tame revivals of American commercial successes. When he took over the New Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool, and presumably could dictate his own repertory, his seasons included predictable items such as Tea and Sympathy (1957), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1957), The Rose Tattoo (1958), Finian's Rainbow (1958), and Bus Stop (1958). But in 1956 he staged a rollicking production of Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera at the Royal Court Theatre. It was as if, having been chastened by the personal calamities perpetrated by McCarthyism in his own country, Wanamaker was determined to demonstrate a guarded catholicism in his adopted country.

Wanamaker's film career, Give Us This Day apart, bore virtually no relation to either his personal tastes or his political convictions. It included such uncharacteristic items as Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1964), Private Benjamin (1980), The Competition (1980), Irreconcilable Differences (1983), Raw Deal (1985), and Superman IV (1986). His stage work, on the other hand, was truly illustrious, even when the play itself lacked substance. His most notable stage performance may well have been in 1959 when he played Iago to Paul Robeson's Othello at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford. Although his strident, dentalized diction was considered very un-Shakespearian by the critics, the performance had a savage, Chicago-gangsterish quality which was startlingly unorthodox for the period. A brief ten years later it might well have been lauded for being very ‘mod’ and innovative.

Once the more immediate dangers of the blacklist had subsided, Wanamaker was back in the United States involving himself both in perishable films and serial television (including Hawaii 5–0 and Columbo) and appeared to be little more than a jobbing actor. But, paradoxically, during this period he gained new distinction as an opera director, mounting Michael Tippett's King Priam at the Coventry Theatre and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (1962, 1967, and 1972), followed by a spectacular La forza del destino (1962) at Covent Garden, and Prokofiev's War and Peace, which in 1973 opened in the new Sydney Opera House to great acclaim.

Whatever his qualities as an actor and a director (and they were considerable), Wanamaker's most durable and outstanding achievement was the creation of the Globe Playhouse Trust (later the Shakespeare Globe Trust) in 1971, which, after some twenty-five years, succeeded in replicating the Globe Theatre in Southwark. Actively opposed by the local council, who wished to develop the land for low-income housing, and disparaged by members of his own profession who viewed the American bardolator as 'an upstart crow' (very much as Robert Greene had Shakespeare himself), Wanamaker, despite two decades of crippling setbacks and petty antagonisms, persevered with architects, scholars, artists, and backers who shared his vision. These eventually included the duke of Edinburgh and a bevy of distinguished supporters such as Sir John Gielgud, Dame Judi Dench, and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Opened for ‘Workshop’ and ‘Prologue’ seasons in 1995 and 1996, and finally formally opened in 1997 by the queen, ‘Wanamaker's Folly’ quickly established itself as one of London's most irresistible attractions. It is an irony worthy of Shakespeare's own tragedies that Wanamaker died on 18 December 1993, at his home, 7 Bentinck Close, Prince Albert Road, Westminster, of prostate cancer, shortly before he could see his dream fulfilled. He was survived by his wife and three daughters. A memorial service was held at Southwark Cathedral on 2 March 1994.

In 1952, when he first arrived in London as a jobbing actor, Wanamaker sought out the site of Shakespeare's Globe, expecting to see it grandiloquently memorialized. Instead, he found only a dirty plaque rammed into the wall of a Courage brewery bottling plant on a back street in Southwark. It will remain one of history's abiding ironies that the most visible tribute to England's greatest poet and playwright was created, not by a magnanimous British philanthropist, but by a Jewish player from a lowly ghetto in Chicago. He was appointed honorary CBE in 1993.

Sources

  • The Times (20 Dec 1993)
  • The Times (3 March 1994)
  • The Independent (20 Dec 1993)
  • WWW, 1991–5
  • Who's who in the theatre
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004)
  • d. cert.

Likenesses

  • G. Lewis, photograph, 1991, repro. in The Independent
  • R. Mayes, photograph, 1993, News International Syndication, London [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in The Times (20 Dec 1993)
(1920–)