The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) suffered a personal loss a couple weeks ago when Gerald Freedman, emeritus dean of the School of Drama, died at age 92. He'd served as dean for over two decades, from 1991-2012, and when I used to cover theater for the Winston-Salem Journal, I had the pleasure of spending time in his company, which was esteemed indeed. He was smart, funny, and emphatic when he needed to be. He was both fiercely devoted to, and protective of the School of Drama.
In many ways, he was the School of Drama. There were, of course, other faculty members, but Freedman was the face and the force behind the school. There was never any doubt who was in charge, although he certainly gave credit and praise to those around him, including the students.
Before he became dean of the School of Drama in 1991, Freedman was something of a superstar administrator/teacher, having been the leading artistic director of Joseph Papp's legendary New York Shakespeare Festival (1960-'67) then its artistic director (1967-'71), co-artistic director of John Houseman's The Acting Company (1974-'77), the artistic director of the Great Lakes Theater Festival (1985-'97) in Cleveland, as well as a faculty member at the Yale School of Drama and the Juilliard School.
He'd been something of a superstar director, too, having directed the original off-Broadway production of the classic counter-culture rock musical Hair at Papp's Public Theatre in 1967. He directed the 1964 and 1980 revivals of West Side Story, the 1975 and '76 productions of The Robber Bridegroom (both of which earned him Drama Desk nominations), and the 1995 production of Richard Sheridan's classic 18th-century farce The School for Scandal, with Tony Randall.
I always enjoyed interviewing him, because once we'd finished discussing the issue at hand – what play he was directing – I'd ask him about the people he'd worked with in the past, a veritable Who's Who of stage and screen that included such luminaries as Hal Holbrook, Julie Harris, Charles Durning, James Earl Jones, Stacy Keach, Powers Boothe, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Mandy Patinkin, Carroll O'Connor, Sam Waterston, Powers Boothe, and William Daniels and Bonnie Bartlett (with whom he roomed when all three were just beginning their careers) – to name but a few.
When Piper Laurie attended the RiverRun International Film Festival in 2018, she made a point of visiting Freedman, as did Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss last year, Benjamin having worked as an assistant director on Freedman's 1961 Broadway debut, The Gay Life, a musical romp that earned four Tony Award nominations, winning for Best Costume Design. (The choreographer, incidentally, was Herbert Ross.)
I remember Freedman's enthusiasm at having been the first American invited to direct at the world-famous Globe Theatre (Shakespeare's Globe) in London, which had been a passion of American actor/director Sam Wanamaker since the early 1970s. After being blacklisted in the 1950s, Wanamaker settled in London and was able to resume, and expand, his career. After years of fund-raising and constant hurdles, the Globe was finally completed in 1997, four years after Wanamaker's death.
Freedman wryly noted that the Globe Theatre was “the only good thing to come out of the Hollywood Blacklist.”
I also remember when we found each other seated next to each other at his latest UNCSA production. We looked at each other and laughed. Critic and director, sitting side-by-side on opening night? No way. I moved back a row.
In early 2011, Freedman suffered a major stroke, yet despite it ending his tenure as dean it was entirely in keeping with his resilience and his character that he was able to address graduates at the commencement ceremony only three months later. Even after his retirement, he taught classes for another full year.
In 2012, the largest theater on the UNCSA campus was named in his honor (The Gerald Freedman Theatre). “The reputation of the School of Drama and the quality of talent we produce yearly is what I am most proud of in my 60-plus years in the theater,” he said at the time. “I live in the work of my students.”
One of those students, Isaac Klein, who graduated the School of Drama's directing program in 2006, spent over five years creating his first book, The School of Doing: Lessons from Theater Master Gerald Freedman (Flying Dodo LLC), with half of the profits going directly to UNCSA's Gerald Freedman Excellence Endowed Fund.
“Gerald was the greatest teacher I've ever had,” Klein said at the time, “but he is more than my teacher. Gerald is more than my mentor. Gerald is the person whose wisdom I hear most often in my head, and hold most closely in my heart.”
Anyone who knew him know that Freedman did not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. He had a healthy ego, but wasn't particularly egotistical. He could be self-deprecating and he could be charming, but he had a temper.
Only once did I observe it first-hand. It was not directed at a student, nor (fortunately) at me. The specific details are unimportant, but the person in question, who likely had no idea who Freedman was or his position, had basically given him the brush-off. I thought, “You've just made a mistake, and I'm going to watch what happens.”
And I did. And I'll bet the person remembers it, too.