In the 2011 documentary Making the Boys, Mart Crowley recalls leaving his Mississippi hometown with the dream of writing a hit play. Realizing that Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill had already covered “all his material,” Crowley wondered, “What the hell do I do?” So the openly gay playwright decided to write about contemporary gay life, a subject Broadway hadn’t really explored. Crowley had long observed that omission from the New York theater scene. “We were very much a part of the culture,” he said. “We made the fucking culture.” His groundbreaking play The Boys in the Band, about a group of gay men at a birthday party, opened on April 14, 1968, and was an instant sensation.
Suffering from opening-night jitters, Crowley asked the director, Robert Moore, if he thought straight audiences would find the play funny. Moore replied, “Mart, they’ve been laughing at fags since Aristophanes. They’re not gonna stop tonight.” Casting The Boys in the Band, however, was difficult. According to Crowley, “No agent had the guts to let their client be in it.” Loyal to his risk-taking cast, Crowley later rejected every offer—many of them lucrative—to film Boys that demanded he replace the original stage actors with movie stars. He insisted, “It’s this cast or no movie.” Laurence Luckinbill, one of only three surviving Boys, has wistfully noted, “We became a band of brothers.” The roundup below (in alphabetical order) gives an update on these brothers’ later careers—which unfortunately didn’t benefit much from the film version. Released in 1970 and directed by William Friedkin (who next helmed The French Connection and The Exorcist), the Boys in the Band movie was considered retrograde after 1968’s Stonewall riots; gay activists picketed theaters to protest its perceived negative stereotypes.
In 1996, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley proclaimed it “okay” to like Boys again, following a popular revival of the play. But I have always liked The Boys in the Band. Yes, it is mean and nasty and painfully sad, but it is also hysterically funny, just like life. As Harold, the guest of honor, sardonically reminds us, “Life’s a goddamn laugh riot.”
Frederick Combs (Donald): Combs continued his acting career after Boys and later became a playwright, director and teacher, founding the L.A./Actor’s Lab school. He died of AIDS in 1992, at the age of 57. His New York Times obituary described his Boys character as the “all-American man-about-analysis who can’t figure out why he prefers boys to girls and books to both.”
Best Line: “Are you calling me a screaming queen or a tired fairy?”
Leonard Frey (Harold): Birthday Boy Frey was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for playing Motel in 1971’s Fiddler on the Roof and for a 1975 best actor Tony for Peter Nichols’s medical tragicomedy The National Health. Also in 1975 Frey appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as the only student in Ted Baxter’s Famous Broadcasters’ School. Frey passed away in 1988 from an AIDS-related illness, at the age of 49.
Best Line: “What I am, Michael, is a 32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy—and if it takes me a while to pull myself together and if I smoke a little grass before I can get up the nerve to show this face to the world, it’s nobody’s goddamn business but my own. And how are you this evening?”
Cliff Gorman (Emory): Gorman won a best actor Tony in 1972 for his signature role of Lenny Bruce in Julian Barry’s play Lenny. He received a second Tony nomination for Neil Simon’s Chapter Two in 1978. His film credits include An Unmarried Woman and All That Jazz. Gorman was so associated with his flamboyant Boys character that fans who encountered him with his wife would ask, “What are you trying to prove?” Gorman died of leukemia in 2002.
Best Line: “Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?”
Reuben Greene (Bernard): Greene once told Windy City Times, “I’m not a gay person. I don’t know if I would do another gay film or play.” Greene also didn’t participate in the documentary Making the Boys. According to its director, Crayton Robey, “We’re still looking for him. We hope he is still with us on the planet. His residual checks are waiting for him at SAG!” Greene is believed to be living quietly in Queens, but his exact whereabouts are a mystery.
Best Line: “You’ll never learn to stay out the baths, will you? The last time ‘Emily’ was taking the vapors, this big hairy number strolled in. Emory said, ‘I’m just resting,’ and the big hairy number said, ‘I’m just arresting!’ It was the vice!”
Robert La Tourneaux (the Cowboy): Post-Boys, La Tourneaux found himself typecast as a gay hustler, an image he said he “couldn’t shake.” After a stint working in a gay male porn theater, the actor turned to hustling. Arrested for prostitution and imprisoned at Riker’s Island, he attempted suicide. La Tourneaux contracted AIDS and was cared for by his Boys costar Cliff Gorman and his wife. The 46-year-old actor died in the arms of a nurse who had watched The Boys in the Band the night before.
Best Line: “Well…I’m not like the average hustler you’d meet. I try to show a little affection—it keeps me from feeling like such a whore.”
Laurence Luckinbill (Hank): Luckinbill’s character is bisexual “with a decided preference.” At 80, the star is married to actress Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He has written and starred in the one-man bioplays Hemingway, Teddy Tonight! and Clarence Darrow Tonight! He has said that for every person who tells him he doesn’t like Boys, many more tell him they do.
Best Line: “Yes, Alan. Larry is my lover.”
Kenneth Nelson (Michael): Gay, Catholic, a recovering alcoholic—Nelson’s character, Michael, the host of the birthday party, is playwright Crowley’s personal surrogate. Michael’s oft-quoted line “If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much” came to haunt the play’s reputation. Before Boys, Nelson had originated the starring role of Matt in The Fantasticks off-Broadway. After Boys, he moved to London, where he appeared in West End productions of Showboat, Annie and 42nd Street. Nelson died of AIDS in 1993 at the age of 63.
Best Line: “Well, one thing you can say for masturbation…you certainly don’t have to look your best.”
Keith Prentice (Larry): Prentice appeared in the ensemble of the original 1959 production of The Sound of Music. After Boys, he was cast as Morgan Collins on the Gothic TV soap opera Dark Shadows, and William Friedkin gave Prentice a small role in his controversial 1980 gay drama Cruising. Prentice eventually moved back home to Ohio, where he founded Theatre Under the Stars. For years after the actor’s 1992 death from AIDS-related cancer, his rugged face appeared on the label of Taster’s Choice instant coffee.
Best Line: “I’m old-fashioned—I like ’em all, but I like ’em one at a time!”
Peter White (Alan): White’s mentor, the classic movie star Myrna Loy, encouraged him to take a role in Boys. “Peter, if you are going to be an actor, you are going to have to take some risks in your life,” she said. The token straight (or is he?) character of Alan is the play’s dramatic catalyst. Before attacking Emory physically, Alan lets him have it verbally: “Faggot, fairy, pansy…queer, cocksucker! I’ll kill you, you goddamn little mincing swish!” White later played the role of Linc Tyler on All My Children for nearly 30 years.
Best Line: “I couldn’t care less what people do—as long as they don’t do it in public—or—or try to force their ways on the whole damned world.”
Photo courtesy of Everett