Joseph Papp

Joseph Papp, shown in 1985, had a hand in "That Championship Season" and other landmark plays. (Associated Press)

The New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater has been the most significant not-for-profit theater group in this country since it was founded by Joe Papp more than 50 years ago. During his lifetime (he died in 1991), Papp made theater in America both accessible and essential.

From the late '60s to the mid-'80s, he produced landmark plays such as "Hair," "A Chorus Line," "That Championship Season," "The Normal Heart" and "Short Eyes," plays that transcended their moment in time. Papp also was essential in starting the careers of actors such as George C. Scott, Meryl Streep, Raul Julia, Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones and Martin Sheen.

A story like this, filled with lively, articulate, not to say theatrical people, turned out to be especially suited to the oral history format, and over 18 months in the late 1980s, I interviewed close to 160 people, many for hours at a time, to produce a book called "Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told."

Working with Papp on a project of this scope was enormously exciting, but from time to time I feared that, as had been the case with others he'd worked closely with, a rift would develop between us. Once he read the manuscript, that is what happened, more than two decades ago: He refused to let the book to be published.

Finally, years after the fact, I wrote a letter to Gail Merrifield Papp, Joe's widow and collaborator. This project, I said, was too important to die. Was there not some way we could bring it back to life? Gail thought there was, and we began to talk.

As I worked on another draft, I increasingly felt the powerful responsibility I had to the people who'd talked to me at such length, people who had been painfully honest about the most significant events of their lives and counted on me to relay their last testament to the world. Roughly 40 of the voices in this book, to be published this week by Doubleday, have died since I did the interviewing. No one else will be hearing the stories from their lips, and to read this book is to reenter a moment in history ripe for rediscovery and amazement.

Joe Papp was best known as an adventurous producer of new work and his particular gifts are on display in the story of "That Championship Season," a Pulitzer-winning play about the troubled reunion of a former high school coach and the now-middle-age players he led to a basketball title. Joe first provided the necessary backing for tyro playwright Jason Miller (an actor best known as the young priest in "The Exorcist") and then held the production together when a fractious relationship among the actors began to mirror what happens in the play.

::

Jason Miller: I was an actor but I had written a play called "Nobody Hears a Broken Drum," which was about the Irish miners' revolt in Pennsylvania against the oppressiveness of the basically English mine owners. It was done off-Broadway, where [theater critic] Clive Barnes objected to its anti-English tone.

It was not a success, and I went to Fort Worth, Texas, to do a stint in "The Odd Couple" in summer theater. I had all my afternoons off, and I mean, in Fort Worth in 1969, what are you gonna do? So I sat there for four or five hours a day, I was there for eight weeks, and I finished "Championship Season."

My first play had 20 characters, which even then was kind of prohibitive. I wanted something of mine done, I realized that I couldn't do the Sistine Chapel, and I decided to bring the scope down a bit. The new play ended up with one room and five men.

Papp: Jason Miller -- everyone called him Jack -- was in a play we were producing called "Subject to Fits," written by Robert Montgomery and directed by A.J. Antoon, and, boy, I thought he was a good actor.

Jason was thin, his face always kind of gaunt and there was a certain intensity to him, but he had an ingenuous smile that was very, very nice. He'd never strike you as an intellectual, there was not an ounce of affectation in him. He never changed, never turned bourgeois. He let it be known that he was a writer as well as an actor, and I finally said, "Why don't you send me the play?"

He brought it in, I read it, and I felt, "It's interesting, there's some nice things in it, but, boy, this play has a lot of problems." It would have meant really redoing it.

Jason had earlier submitted the play to some producers who were interested in doing it as a Broadway show. About a week after I'd read it he said they wanted to go ahead and I said, "Terrific." Someone else wants to do it, my God, what a load off my mind.

Six months went by, and he came around to the office.

"They dropped the option."

"Why?"

"They worked on it, they made some changes in it, they didn't like the changes they made, so they didn't like the play."