‘American Playhouse’ Reaps Broadway Bounty

Times Staff Writer

David M. Davis, president of public television’s “American Playhouse” production company, was beaming Tuesday. The reason: Two Tony nominations for Broadway’s “A Walk in the Woods.”

What did that have to do with public TV? Simple. It’s the first stage venture by PBS’ “American Playhouse,” which co-produced the play with the Yale Repertory Theater and veteran stage producer Lucille Lortel. And “A Walk in the Woods,” about the relationship between American and Soviet arms negotiators in 1983, eventually will wind up on the Public Broadcasting Service on “American Playhouse,” now in its seventh season.

The Lee Blessing play was nominated in the best-play category, and Robert Prosky, who co-stars with Sam Waterston, was among the four nominees for best actor honors. The Tony Awards will be handed out June 5 in ceremonies that CBS will televise.

“We’re very happy,” Davis said of Monday’s nominations. He described “A Walk in the Woods” as part of “a new initiative on our part to give something back to the theater instead of taking existing plays.”


The “American Playhouse” production company he heads here is jointly owned by public-TV stations KCET (Channel 28) in Los Angeles, WNET in New York, WGBH in Boston and the South Carolina Educational Television network.

Formed to bring quality dramas and musicals to public TV, “American Playhouse” does 18 productions a year--many of them, like “A Walk in the Woods,” unusual joint ventures intended to stretch the series’ annual budget of about $20 million.

About six “American Playhouse” ventures a year are released first as theatrical films, and then sometimes on home video, before airing on PBS. That procedure is being used on the new, acclaimed and very-low-budget ($1.3 million) “Stand and Deliver.” The film was co-financed by “American Playhouse,” as was “In a Shallow Grave,” based on a James Purdy novel about a horribly disfigured World War II veteran.

“American Playhouse” also has had co-production deals with pay-cable channels such as Showtime for one program a season. These have included Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George” and a musical version of Studs Terkel’s “Working.”


But that arrangement--under which the productions aired first on cable, then on PBS--is ending with a co-production with the Disney Channel of “Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss,” a comedy by Jean Shepherd, the satirist and observer of Americana.

“The (PBS) stations were collectively getting worried about maintaining a unique role,” Davis explained.

In other words, the stations were uneasy about airing programs that had premiered on pay cable, where they got both publicity and reviews that in many cases were not repeated when the programs got to public TV.

“That’s one of the things that triggered us to go into plays, (to) go in sort of up-front to get the (film and TV) rights and so on,” Davis said.


“Playhouse” hopes to co-produce two stage productions a year, although “not necessarily for Broadway,” he said. “It could be for off-Broadway or elsewhere, not necessarily even New York.

“This (“A Walk in the Woods”) was the first opportunity that came along. We knew the play because it had been tried out at Yale Repertory initially.” (It then played at the La Jolla Playhouse before coming to Broadway this year.)

“We will be commissioning some new plays, which will go on either in regional theaters or off-Broadway. And out of those, if we do 10, maybe we’ll get two or three that are really good enough to go forward with” as productions destined for ‘American Playhouse.’ ”

The Tony nominations for his company’s first effort as a stage producer were particularly pleasing, he said, because Frank Rich, critic of the influential New York Times, had knocked “Walk in the Woods.” Such pans by that paper often mean doom for plays.


“It’s been an uphill fight to keep it open,” said Davis, who on weekends relaxes by playing trumpet in an 18-piece band.

“Everybody else loved ‘A Walk in the Woods’ and all the reviews were terrific. So we just collectively decided to hang in there until at least the Tony nominations. . . .”

The play hasn’t repaid its investors. But Davis said it is starting to break even at the box office and, with the Tony nomination publicity, it will be able to keep going at least until the Tony Awards show.

Regardless of whether the play wins any Tonys, Davis said, “we, of course, are in a win-win situation. We get a TV show out of it. So one way or another, it’ll be terrific.”