In December 1991 Daniel Gerroll got a phone call from Broadway producer Jack McQuiggan asking him whether he would consider co-directing a new play by Simon Gray called The Holy Terror. It was in fact a radically altered version of Gray’s 1987 play Melon, which Simon had rewritten over the previous two years. It was no surprise to Gerroll that he be asked to direct a new play; one of the stars of the hit British film Chariots of Fire, he was already an award winning actor on Broadway and the West End, and had been directing on and off in the New York theatre scene since arriving in America in the late seventies. However, he hadn’t expected the suggestion that he co-direct with Gray, who he knew to be an experienced director and fiercely protective of his own work.
Simon, predictably, had other ideas – he wanted to direct the play himself. McQuiggan arranged for the two of them to meet at the Algonquin Hotel, New York, in early January. Gerroll vividly recalls the evening which followed. ‘I had just come back from Christmas with my parents-in-law in Arizona. They were ‘old world’ in their habits: cocktails at five, plastered by dinner time, scotch before bed and all the rest. By the time I left I never wanted to drink again! When I met Simon in the lobby he offered me a drink. I told him I had decided to go on the wagon for a while. “For God’s sake, why?” he asked, appalled! Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work out that way by the end of the night.’
As it turned out, the directors elect hit it off that evening, and Simon ultimately prevailed: he persuaded Gerroll to join him for the production, though not as co-director. As Gerroll tells it, ‘after several hours of laughter-strewn conversation, he eventually confided to me that what he really wanted for the duration of the production was a drinking buddy. I’d already been in the business for twenty years, and I explained that I didn’t do assistant work anymore but that I would consider playing the main part.’ Eventually, after a venue had been arranged in Tucson, Arizona, and despite being ten years younger than the script described the character, Gerroll was offered the part of Melon in the play.
Born in Baker Street, Gerroll was studying law at Nottingham University when he decided to become an actor (‘I knew after the first week that the law and I weren’t meant for one another’, he says). He trained at Central and spent three ‘extremely enjoyable’ years in rep before an early success as a teddy boy in Mary O’Mally’s 1976 play Once a Catholic at the Royal Court brought with it a trip to the West End. This would lead ultimately to a Broadway production of the play which, crucially, enabled him to qualify for American Equity membership. A distinguished career in New York followed in which his versatility and natural affinity with British Playwrights lead to a string of appearances in plays such as The Caretaker, David Hare’s Knuckles, and Ayckbourn’s House and Garden. Gerroll cites his unusual upbringing as another contributing factor. ‘My father was a Jewish boy from Bethnal Green who worked in the rag trade, that’s what I grew up with, but after that I was sent up north to (Scottish private school) Gordonstoun at thirteen – it was a real mix and it helped my development as an actor’.
Tall, handsome and naturally athletic, Gerroll was a natural choice for the role of British middle distance runner Henry Stallard in Chariots (‘I knew it was a hit the moment I read the script’), the role in which he gained wider attention. He is bashful about his continued success, commenting only that he has always put his family (he has two sons and a daughter by the actress Patricia Kalember) before his career. He is currently appearing as Matthew Dover in Frank McGuiness’s Greta Garbo Came to Donegal in which (as has happened so many times in his migratory career) he plays an Englishman surrounded by foreigners.
The first production of The Holy Terror turned out to be a wonderful trip. ‘Arizona was fabulous. Patricia and Victoria joined us for the production and we had the most memorable time, making frequent trips out to the desert. The play was a joy to perform, despite being interrupted on one occasion by the Formula One Grand Prix taking place in the streets outside the theatre!’
Gerroll had an affinity with Simon’s work, having replaced Kris Tabori as Stuart in an award-winning production of The Common Pursuit at the Promenade Theatre in 1986, but The Holy Terror made an even deeper impression on him. ‘Simon Callow (who played Melon at The Duke of York’s Theatre in 2004) and I are convinced it is a play whose time will come. It has something of a masterwork about it. In it you see a man descend from enormous success all the way into madness. He moves so quickly from toying with the other characters to being at their mercy. And the soliloquies to the audience are like stand-up – gold dust for an actor. I’ve always thought that it could be Simon’s Lear. Although Simon didn’t have a very high opinion of Lear, of course!’
In October 1992, two years and several revisions later, The Holy Terror opened at the Promenade Theatre, New York. Gerroll, who had in the meantime starred as Lenny in an Off Broadway production of The Homecoming once again played the part of Melon. It was a difficult rehearsal process. Simon was unwell from the beginning and his direction became increasingly erratic. The episode was described with characteristic candour by the playwright himself in an Author’s Note he wrote for The Holy Terror:
‘(We) opened at the Promenade Theatre in New York, in a production that you would have described as eccentric if you hadn’t known that the director drank quite a bit before each day’s rehearsals and quite a bit after them, and more than quite a bit during them, while never losing the conviction, however many times he stumbled down the aisle and tumbled over the seats, often with a lighted cigarette in his mouth and another, also lighted, in the hand that wasn’t holding the champagne bottle, that he was in full command of his faculties, and that his genius for cutting through to the centre of things had never burned more fiercely – so, when he had trouble moving the actors around the furniture, he cut the furniture; and thus, when he had trouble deciding between different lighting effects, he cut the lighting… The producer, who was devoted to the play, made periodic attempts to fire him but was thwarted by his agent, who pointed out that as the director had playwright approval, and as the playwright and director were one and the same, it would be a question of asking him to fire himself, which he was unlikely to do, as he got on so well together.’
The production ran for a month after uncompromising reviews. I read Simon’s description back to Gerroll who, some twenty years after the production, still felt a keen sense of sadness about the experience. ‘The play had everything, and it was heartbreaking for myself and the rest of the cast to see things turn out as they did.’
The actor and the playwright were only occasionally in touch over the next nine years. In the intervening period Gray underwent a successful recovery from alcoholism and continued to write prolifically, while Gerroll moved to California where he and his wife forged successful careers in television. However, the two were to reconnect in touching circumstances in the Summer of 2000. ‘In March I got a call from the actor Roger Rees’, recalls Gerroll. ‘He asked me if I wanted to be involved in a production of the recently produced play The Late Middle Classes, which had famously circled-but-never-quite-arrived in London the year before. Roger would direct the play at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. Having said that I would love to be involved, Roger asked me if I knew anyone who could play the part of thirteen year-old Holly, which requires a child actor to play the piano to a high standard. I told him that I didn’t know any thirteen year-olds who could do the part that my own son, Ben, played the piano very well.’
He volunteered Ben, 11, as a possibility for the part. ‘All of my children are musical but the others wouldn’t mind me saying that at that age he was genuinely gifted, playing everything from Bartok to Mozart.’ A couple of weeks later Ben was offered the part, and the scene was set for an unlikely Gerroll duo, with Daniel taking the part of Ben’s on-stage father and adult self.
That short run in the Massachusetts Summer was a magical experience for father and son. ‘I have never had such a satisfying experience in the theatre’, recalls Gerroll with a glint in his blue eyes. ‘Ben was brilliant. He brought the house down every time he played. And of course, The Late Middle Classes is just a wonderful, wonderful play. It was so perfect I almost wanted to retire.’
The cast knew that Gray would be flying in from England in time for the run through. It was the first time Gerroll had seen the playwright since The Holy Terror. ‘We were all incredibly nervous during the show. Afterwards he walked up to me, gave me a big embrace and said, straight out of his mouth, ‘I’ve been sober for seven years’. During the run I felt that he had changed a lot since I had last seen him – he was no longer a party animal. He wasn’t directing the show, of course, but he was incredibly kind to Ben. One night he even arrived after the show with sandwiches for him. He said he wanted to make sure he didn’t go hungry.’
For Gerroll, who would keep contact with Gray until his death in 2008, it was a fitting end to their professional relationship. ‘Simon left an indelible mark on me as an actor and as a person. I learnt an enormous amount from him and I believe that his plays will be performed as long as there are actors around to speak the lines.’