Peter Mark Richman: Actor, painter, writer explores love

December 18, 2013

Peter Mark Richman was instantly recognizable when he opened the door of his Woodland Hills home for an interview on a recent sunny morning: As one of the most successful character actors in Hollywood over the past six decades, his face has been part and parcel of the popular culture for such roles as Chrissy’s dad on “Three’s Company” and Blake Carrington’s attorney Andrew Laird on “Dynasty.” Not to mention his turns in more than 500 other films and television series, from TV’s “Mission: Impossible” and “Beverly Hills, 90210” to “Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear” on the silver screen.

The cordial Richman is also a prolific painter, and the walls of his spacious living room are adorned with his figurative expressionist portraits, a number of them spotlighting his five children. Richman’s paintings have appeared in the 17 one-man shows he has performed over the years, as well as two museum exhibitions, including one at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.

But now, at 86, the actor and painter — who is also a registered pharmacist — has embraced his latest and most unexpected role ever: that of the playwright of the hit comedy “A Medal for Murray,” a production that has run for the past six months not in the United States but in Israel. And he doesn’t speak a word of Hebrew.

Even so, a translated version of “Murray” has been playing to packed houses since its July 27 premiere at Tel Aviv’s esteemed Beit Lessin Theatre, where it will run for at least another year before embarking upon a national tour.

Starring Miriam Zohar, a grand dame of the Israeli stage, the play revolves around Madeline Feldman (Zohar), a bitter, depressed widow who is essentially waiting to die in her New Jersey retirement home — until she meets Manny, an upbeat fellow resident with whom she begins a fairy tale kind of romance. Complications ensue when the relationship draws the contempt of Madeline’s son, Murray, who believes that elderly people should live staid lives in old-age homes. Meanwhile, Murray is also dealing with his own frustrations as a wannabe stand-up comic stuck in a TV weatherman’s job, and as a middle-aged man who is unable to commit to marriage with his longtime girlfriend.

Reviews of the play have been glowing: Ha’aretz dubbed it a “cultural event,” another critic called it a “theatrical gem,” and yet another reviewer remarked that the production “convinces us that life is sweet and happiness is within reach.”

Perhaps the play offers viewers, who are enmeshed in the daily struggles of the Israeli-Arab conflict, a much-needed dose of optimism: “It’s a universal piece about elderly people falling in love,” Richman said. “At the beginning of the play, Madeline comes off as infirm, lying in bed and kvetching. But by the end of the play when she’s all fapitzed — dressed up with a new hairdo, new shoes and svelte — the audience goes bananas. There’s applause and laughter for five minutes. I witnessed it when we went to Israel for the opening weekend last July.

“And even though I don’t speak Hebrew, as I sat in the theater, I could tell the actors hit every laugh line, plus,” he added.

Richman has long been a writer as well as an actor. Back when he was performing in live television in the late 1950s, he said, “I was reading over a script with Paddy Chayefsky, and I said, ‘Paddy, this line isn’t good for me.’ He asked me what I would say, and when I told him, he said, ‘That’s good, kid; let’s keep it.’ So I found that I had a facility for dialogue, and I started writing stories and plays.”

In the mid-1990s, Richman’s one-man show, “4 Faces,” played to good reviews at Chapman University’s Waltmar Theatre in Orange as well as at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles: Richman earned a Drama-Logue Award for his portrayal of four characters grappling with their relationship with God, including a former S.S. officer and a concentration camp survivor.

He began writing “A Medal for Murray” as a one-act play a number of years ago and was encouraged by his friend Jack Klugman to expand it into a full-length play. “I’ve always had an affinity for older people,” he said of his inspiration for the piece. And he’s spoken with residents of the retirement home operated by the Motion Picture & Television Fund, where Richman has served on the board for more than three decades. “My writing method is I sit down and talk to people, and then the creative process sets in,” he explained.

The author said he identifies with all of “Murray’s” characters, but as an actor he most relates to Murray, the frustrated artist: While Richman was a professional radio actor from the age of 16, pressure from his family led him to earn a pharmaceutical degree in 1951.

But the following year, he quit a well-paying job managing a pharmacy to accept a summer-stock job that paid just $35 per week, even though his family at the time “thought I was meshuggener,” he said. Richman went on to be accepted to the famed Actors Studio in New York, where his colleagues included Maureen Stapleton and James Dean.

It was at the Actors Studio West, in West Hollywood, a couple of years ago, that Richman chanced to perform a scene from “A Medal for Murray” with Eileen Ryan (Sean Penn’s mother); afterward, he was approached by Efrat Lavie, a well-known Israeli actress who was visiting Los Angeles and who wanted to take the play back to Israel for a possible production.

After three months of negotiations, the Beit Lessin Theatre bought the rights to the play and translated it directly into Hebrew, without making any specific adaptations in the dialogue for Israeli audiences. 

 “I’ve been an actor for 60 years, I’ve had ups and downs and maybes, so I’m very grateful for all of this,” Richman said.

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