A stage adaptation of the gripping 1961 drama “Judgment at Nuremberg” opens at the Santa Monica playhouse this month featuring Katharine Ross and Drake Hogestyn, among other notables.
Originally written for the screen by Abby Mann, the 1961 film was among the first made about the Holocaust. It garnered Mann an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The story focuses on a military tribunal in which four Nazi judges are tried for crimes against humanity. At end of World War II, the public wanted to bring the members of the Third Reich to trial, and punish them for the atrocities committed. Hitler and Goebbles had committed suicide, but many of the living members of the Nazi regime stood trial at Nuremberg. “Judgment at Nuremberg” takes place three years after the majority of members of the Third Reich have already been tried, and the play raises questions of morality and ethics that are still relevant today.
Katharine Ross, who plays Frau Bertholt, is one of America’s national treasures, having acted in two of the most famous films ever made – “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Graduate.” The latter film helped Simon and Garfunkel’s song “Mrs. Robinson” reach top listing on Billboard. These two seminal movies occupy a spot on the AFI’s 100 Best American Movies. In the play, Miss Ross plays Frau Bertholt, originally played in the film version by Marlene Dietrich.
Drake Hogestyn, known to many followers of “Days of Our Lives” as John Black, whom he played from 1986-2009, is co-starring as Dr. Ernst Janning, played on screen by Burt Lancaster.
Producer, director, and writer Diane Namm is founder of West of Broadway, a non-profit theatre company dedicated to promoting literacy, providing affordable interactive theatre, and promoting social and civic responsibility through the theatre experience.
The following interview, edited for print purposes, took place at the most accommodating Fraiche restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard, which opened its doors early for us and provided a quiet back room.
What is the genesis of this project?
Namm: West of Broadway does two types of productions, including courtroom dramas. A few years ago, my daughter told me that the Holocaust is no longer taught in high schools and in college; you have to seek out a course that covers that subject. There’s a whole generation not being exposed to this most significant historical event. So, I approached Abby Mann’s widow and asked if I could have the rights and she said yes.
Miss Ross, you’ve been living a private life for a while. What made you want to do this play?
Ross: Well, I’m an actor first of all, even if I don’t do it very often any more. It’s very satisfying to do something in front of a live audience in which you get to do it from beginning to end, no matter what happens. So creatively, and personally, it appealed to me. The other thing is that I love the concept that Diane has, which is education through theatre, because I like doing stuff that hopefully leaves the audience enlightened in some way.
You’ve been primarily a television actor. What appealed to you about doing this play and is developing your character different from doing daytime television?
Hogestyn: First of all, I’m doing this play because I heard that Katharine Ross was going to be in it. Daytime television is a lot different from stage. You know your character better than anyone, even better than the writers who would observe what I do and then write for him. Each storyline is different with a different interpretation.
I’ve done a lot of research on “Judgment at Nuremberg” and there were some tremendous performances by Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Werner Klemperer, and William Shatner. All the characters have been fully developed with very succinct points of view and a strong focus on what they want.
How are you going about creating your character?
Hogestyn: I don’t have to do a lot of homework as everything I need is written in the play. It’s just a matter of listening to the other people present their cases during rehearsals and how it relates to you, which can cause subtle shifts in your behavior. You could probably do this for a year and keep changing all the time. You need to have a very strong focus on what validated your character to make the decisions he made, whether right or wrong, and because this play is so well written, every question is presented to me, with all the layers and colors.
Do you give a lot of character direction?
Namm: I don’t have a blanket approach to directing and pretty much accommodate the process I see taking place for the individual actors.
My direction is basically two fold: behavioral and psychological. When there’s a need to discuss motivation or intention for a specific scene or relationship, we have a lot of conversations about the characters, their background, and what could be used personally in both the development of the character and the interaction with the other actors.
Is there a residue after rehearsing some of the intensely emotional scenes?
Ross: You’re always thinking about it and it can be exhausting, but after rehearsals, you’re wired and tired and it takes a while to calm down.
Hogestyn: I’m staying up until 12:30 a.m. and my wife wants to know what I’m doing. I tell her I can’t go to sleep. As a matter of fact she’s away and I found a couple of things last night because I can talk out loud in the house since it’s just the dogs and me. It’s great making new discoveries.
Looking back at your fabulous career, what was the most emotionally demanding character you’ve played?
Ross: That’s a hard question. The very first movie I did was “Shenandoah” and Jimmy Stewart was the star. It was a big cast and we were sent on a press junket culminating in the premiere of this movie in Houston, Texas. We went from table to table and talked to the different reporters. I happened to sit at a table with Stewart and someone asked him about a particular scene and how he did it and he said, “I just did it.” So to answer your question, I just do it.
You played baseball for the New York Yankees and had an injury in 1978 that ended your career. How did you segue into acting?
Hogestyn: The actor Rod Cameron had a son who was a pitcher for Seattle and was brought into the Club House. He told us that Columbia Pictures was having a national talent search and was going to interview 250 people in New York, Chicago, and L.A., and were going to choose 30 applicants, bring them out to L.A., and put them in a workshop. All 25 guys on the team wrote a 150-word essay on why we ought to get out of the Yankees and become movie stars. I started getting phone calls and a talent scout named Joshua Shelley came to one of my games. I spit tobacco his way and after the game he said, “Come on, I’m taking you out to L.A. and putting you in a workshop because I need one person who’s never acted before.” I went out to L.A., got a contract, went back to the Yankees and they said, “See you in the movies.” I figured I’d spend a couple of months in California and then go back and play baseball. That was in 1978 and I’m still here.
You’ve made two of the most seminal films in American cinema, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Graduate.” How did the casting come about?
Ross: I was under contract to Universal and was sort of young and arrogant and refused to do a test for a project that I was not going to be involved in. So, they put me on suspension and when Nichols was testing people for the role of Elaine in “The Graduate” I couldn’t test. At the same time, I was doing a movie with Simone Signoret and Jimmy Caan called “Games.” She was a good friend of Nichols and I think she put a word in for me. One of an actor’s fears is that your current project could be your last project so I wanted to have the initial meeting with Nichols while I was still working and met with him on my lunch hour. Eventually, I did two screen tests – one with Dustin Hoffman and one with Charles Grodin – and got the role.
Is thre a director or actor with whom you’ve always wanted to work?
Ross: Oh my goodness. Probably most of them are dead now. I would have loved to have worked with Robert Altman and would love to work with Mike Nichols again. Actually, I’d like to work with anybody (laughs).
Hogestyn: I liked Sean Connery. When I was in the fifth grade we went to Houston to see “How The West Was Won” and I remember having a crush on Debbie Reynolds.
When you were growing up, did acting play a role in your life?
Ross: I have a stepsister and we liked play-acting. We would write plays, drag chairs onto the patio, and then perform for the family. I’m not sure they had a beginning, middle, and end, but we had fun. When I was quite young, my parents took me to the theatre and ballet and I must have shown an interest because my mother asked me if I would like to try out for something. I shrunk back saying ‘no’ because you see I was very shy.
In “Judgment At Nuremberg” there are some pretty emotional scenes. Are you noticing changes in your own behavior as you begin to transition into the character?
Hogestyn: Absolutely. But I have to be fair here. The part I’m playing of Dr. Ernst Janning, who was in the Ministry of Justice, is mostly reactionary for 99 percent of the play until the end, when he finally admits his guilt. The way I’m playing it is he opened the floodgates by sanctioning the first illegal activity from the court that allowed all the horror that was to follow.
Namm: The role of Janning is interesting in that in the beginning he is convinced that this tribunal has no authority to judge what went on during the Nazi regime. It ultimately asks the question do you follow orders because they come from the government, or do you say ‘no’ when you recognize that an immoral request is being made.
Ross: Given the political unrest in the Middle East, the play is particularly timely and you hope that people come away saying, “Oh my God, it’s not that different now.”
Why did you choose the Santa Monica Playhouse?
Namm: The main space is so intimate that people will feel as though they are part of this tribunal hearing.
Judgment At Nuremberg opens this weekend at the Santa Monica Playhouse, located at 1211 Fourth Street. Opening night is March 12 and performances run through April 3. For tickets, call 424.434.9962.