James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams on 'Golden Pond'

The 2005 Tony Awards will air Sunday. James Earl Jones has been nominated for best actor for his role in the Broadway play On Golden Pond. His leading lady is acting veteran Leslie Uggams. The two portray an elderly couple who visit their summer home in Maine and deal with a number of family issues. Ed Gordon visits with Jones and Uggam at Corte Theater on Broadway.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The 2005 Tony Awards will be televised this Sunday, and a lot of attention will be paid to James Earl Jones. He's been nominated in the best-actor category for his role in the Broadway production of "On Golden Pond."

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. JAMES EARL JONES (Actor): For the person who wins an award, it's just a trophy. That thing they give you...

Unidentified Man: Right.

Mr. JONES: ...`It goes to so-and-so,' and you put it on your shelf--it's just a trophy.

GORDON: All modesty aside, critics are gushing over Mr. Jones and co-star Leslie Uggams for their portrayals of Norman, a retired college professor, and his wife, Ethel Thayer. And the attention isn't hurting ticket sales for Broadway's Cort Theater, where "On Golden Pond" is being staged. Other actors in the troupe include Linda Powell, who is the daughter that never felt loved, and child actor Alexander Mitchell, who eventually wins the heart of the stodgy Norman. The story line tackles the complexities of human and family relationships and takes place at the couple's summer home in Maine.

(Soundbite of "On Golden Pond")

ALEXANDER MITCHELL: (As Billy Ray) How ya doin'?

Mr. JONES: (As Norman Thayer) You seem awfully young to be a dentist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MITCHELL: I'm a midget.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: Oh, really?

Ms. LINDA POWELL: (As Chelsea Thayer Wayne) And this is Billy Ray Jr.

Mr. JONES: I'm Norman Thayer Jr.

Ms. POWELL: His dad is out trying to soothe the car.

MITCHELL: I hear you turned 80.

Mr. JONES: Is that what you heard?

MITCHELL: Yeah. That's really old!

Mr. JONES: Oh! You should meet my father.

MITCHELL: Your father's still alive?

Mr. JONES: No, but you should meet him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: I talked with James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams in a dressing room at the Cort Theater about performing in the popular and what I said was a humorous play. Jones questioned my characterization of the play as more comedic than the film classic that starred Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn.

Mr. JONES: I don't want to mislead anybody, and I don't want to be incorrect, either. It's not a funnier play. It's that our director says, `If you get a laugh, don't settle for the laugh; look under it, and you might find some tragedy and you might find some sadness and pain.' But he asked us to dig in where there's a laugh and see why that happens. And usually, it's not humor...

GORDON: Hmm-mm.

Mr. JONES: ...nothing funny. I mean, when old people see this play, they don't think it's very funny, you know, to be laughed at, you know? Because a lot of the jokes are about aging. I call them jokes, but the comments are about aging. And just the ironies, I think--and people laugh at irony, especially American people, and they also laugh at recognition, you know, and they say, `Ah, I have an uncle like that' or `a dad like that, who says things like that or reacts that way.' And that makes us laugh.

GORDON: How much has this play forced you to be reflective of your own life?

Mr. JONES: Of my own age?

GORDON: No, just your life in general, whether it be your relationship with your parents or the fact that we all are aging. Do you reflect at all?

Mr. JONES: I think there's something common for all of us in this play, but I don't have any direct examples, in the sense of my father and myself, or myself and my son. I can't say there's a parallel between the relationships I know.

GORDON: What about for you? Has it given you any pause to think about the process of life?

Ms. LESLIE UGGAMS (Actress): I'm in denial.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. UGGAMS: I'm Peter Pan. (Laughs) I never want to grow up, you know? That's how I feel about it. I mean, it's a totally foreign subject for me when I think about it. But the thing about the play, I think, is the relationship between Ethel and Norman, and I think that's one of the things that makes it so humorous, is the fact that the outrageous things that come out of his mouth, Ethel comes right back at him...

Mr. JONES: Yeah.

Ms. UGGAMS: ...and gives it right back to him.

(Soundbite of "On Golden Pond")

Ms. UGGAMS: Norman, there's something I want us to do for Chelsea. Let her leave Billy with us for a month.

Mr. JONES: Which Billy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. UGGAMS: The little one. Billy. And give Chelsea some happiness. Yes?

Mr. JONES: All right.

Ms. UGGAMS: You really are the sweetest man in the whole world, and I'm the only one who knows.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: Let me ask you, Ms. Uggams--I'm curious how you see the idea that blacks have taken over roles that were, quote, unquote, "written by whites." It seems to me so much more is written about it than should be. A good role, I would suspect, should be taken by a good actor.

Ms. UGGAMS: Well, also, I think the media makes a thing out of it. The audience doesn't. The audience accepts it. But I find this play is a very universal play, because I don't care what color you are, what nationality you are, you're going to go through this in your life. And it's been translated even into Japanese, so it tells you that this play works, no matter what.

GORDON: As you look at the rave reviews, do you know that you're in something special right now?

Mr. JONES: Well, I'll tell you, I don't read reviews. I can't, because they make me too self-conscious. It's not that I don't respect them; I think critics are a part of the whole process, part of the art of the theater. I can read them after the production's over, but I don't dare read them now. But I understand they accept the production, and that is wonderful. But I knew it before. I knew it because I just love to come to work every day and work with these five other actors, you know?

GORDON: Let me ask you, Ms. Uggams: Are you still, today, after all these years in show business, tickled by the fact that not only--I suspect maybe you've peeked at a review, since Mr. Jones hasn't watched any--or read any?

Ms. UGGAMS: No, I don't read, them, either. I'm like him.

GORDON: You don't read them, either.

Ms. UGGAMS: I don't read them, either.

GORDON: But you can't shy away from the nominations, though. You've received, Mr. Jones, a Tony nomination. You've received a number of nominations. Is it still gratifying for you?

Ms. UGGAMS: I think so. I mean, you know, it says that `We thought you did wonderful, wonderful work.'

GORDON: And what of it for you?

Mr. JONES: Well, it's similar to the review problem. Awards are wonderful, especially for the producer, because it helps to sell tickets, right?

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: It represents something that your peers have agreed on, though. But I'm afraid it's a little--I live in the country, and it's a little bit like the deer caught in the headlights of a car. It is sure exciting, but it's damn distracting, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: And you don't need it. I mean, that's not what you came to the field for.

GORDON: Let me ask you, Ms. Uggams--you had to step in.

Ms. UGGAMS: Yes.

GORDON: Diahann Carroll was originally in this role, and I am told that you had five days to prepare. Is that true?

Ms. UGGAMS: That's true, very true.

GORDON: Was there any hesitation, any trepidation, in joining something that is indelibly marked, frankly, on so many people in terms of the portrayal of these two people, i.e., Hepburn, Fonda?

Ms. UGGAMS: Not on my part. First of all, because of the short time, the last thing on my mind was Katharine Hepburn. I was just trying to learn the lines and make sure I didn't, you know, embarrass James on the stage. So I never really thought about it, because I knew also that it was going to be our interpretation. I didn't even see the movie. I had seen it years ago, then I saw it later on, and, of course, you know, when you see good people, if there's something good, take it and work it.

GORDON: What about for you?

Mr. JONES: Well, I--oh, boy. That's a wonderful question. I am aware of Henry Fonda very, very strongly. I got to meet him. My wife worked with him the last thing he did onstage, and I got to meet him during that time. And I admire him. I mean, he's the man I would stay up all night to watch in either "Darling Clementine" or "Grapes of Wrath," you know? I will stay up all night to see those movies if they're on TV. And I must say, I like to steal things, and if Henry had something to offer me, I'm going to be happily, you know, the thief.

(Soundbite of "On Golden Pond" stage and movie versions)

Mr. JONES: Listen, this is Norman Thayer Jr., professor emeritus, University of Pennsylvania...

Mr. HENRY FONDA: (As Norman Thayer) Listen, this is Norman Thayer Jr. over on Golden Pond.

Mr. JONES: Golden Pond!

Mr. FONDA: I have something I want you to do. Call me up. Can you do that?

Mr. JONES: Call me up. Can you do that?

Mr. FONDA: Yeah. I want to check my phone, see if it still rings.

Mr. JONES: I want to check my phone, make sure it rings. Hasn't rung all winter and, you know, it may have lost its...

Mr. FONDA: Hasn't rung all winter. It may have lost its whatsie.

Mr. JONES: ...whatsie.

Mr. FONDA: You got my number?

Mr. JONES: Thank you, dear. Oh! Do you have my number? I should think you would. I haven't a clue. It's got a 9 in it, that's all I know. Yes, I suppose there are a lot of numbers with 9. Well, it's in the book. You must have a book. Norman Thayer Jr. in the state of Maine.

(Speaking) When we started this production, it was all by accident, in a way, and good accidents are serendipity, they call it. But we started very gently. It was to be a stage reading, at first, then it grew into something else, a production with sets and so on. Our production was to go a whole 'nother direction; not just black. Leslie has one line, one word she says in this play that makes me think of the South: Roosevelt (pronounced ROOzevelt), you know? Nobody complains about that pronunciation, though...

GORDON: Right.

Mr. JONES: ...FDR's name. But that's the only thing to suggest any sort of ethnic, you know? 'Cause otherwise we try to talk like folks, you know, like Americans. My character is a college professor of English, and I think he would have affected his whole family by his love of English, his appreciation and respect for the language. So there's nothing going on onstage that says we know we're playing black. We're playing Americans, very obviously black.

GORDON: Well, I will say again, thank you so much for your time, and it is a remarkable interaction between the two of you, and I think that anyone who takes the time and takes a couple of hours to see it will thoroughly enjoy themselves. I thank you both.

Mr. JONES: Thank you.

Ms. UGGAMS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of "On Golden Pond")

Ms. UGGAMS and Ms. POWELL: (Singing in unison) We are dancing here but we won't be long. There will soon be a tear where they're not...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. UGGAMS and Ms. POWELL: (Singing in unison) But we'll remember our years on Golden Pond.

GORDON: James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams are starring in "On Golden Pond." The production is currently under way at New York's Cort Theater. The national tour kicks off in 2006.

This is NPR News.

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