Cher had been careful to chew two of the quarter-size vitamin pills before swallowing them, she says, but they tasted so bitter that she decided to down the third one whole. It jammed, horizontally, in her windpipe, “I couldn’t breathe,” Cher says. The low, throaty voice is familiar, but the wide-eyed gravity, like that of a twelve-year-old telling a ghost story at a slumber party, is not. “I tried eating a little piece of bread and taking a sip of water, but nothing happened. I started walking toward Bob. I remember getting dizzy and dropping the glass of water from one hand and the bread from the other. I looked at him and said (she imitates a rasping whisper), ‘Help me.’ ” Altman wrapped his big arms around her middle, performed the Heimlich maneuver, and the bit of bread popped out of her mouth; the vitamin remained stuck but turned on its end, allowing her to breathe. In an hour’s time, the pill had dissolved in her throat. “It was,” says Cher, “the scariest thing that has ever happened to me.” 

Next, perhaps, to her current undertaking, a starring role in Come Back to the Five & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, scheduled to start previews on Broadway on February 8. The incident is an almost too ready metaphor for the entire project, a scary venture for everyone, and all of it in the hands of film director Robert Altman, whose theatrical experience consists of an evening of one-act plays, produced last summer in Los Angeles and last fall in the Off Broadway theater at St. Clement’s Church.

The three stars—Sandy Dennis, Karen Black, and Cher—had never met, let alone worked with one another. Black, 39, left the theater thirteen years ago to make movies, among them Altman’s Nashville; Cher’s only stage work has been her baroque nightclub act. And, along with nine other actresses (including Maria Heflin, Sudie Bond, and Kathy Bates) and one actor in supporting roles, they are attempting a serious play—as anomalous on Broadway these days as a minister at an orgy. The Martin Beck, where the show will run, has 1,300 seats, making it one of the biggest Broadway houses; to fill it, Jimmy Dean—budgeted at $850,000—will have to be a resounding hit.

None of which seems to be making the 56-year-old director visibly jittery. For the past four weeks, Altman has been sitting in the audience at the St. Clement’s theater, where he has chosen to run rehearsals. Square-toed boots planted far apart on the floor, arms crossed over his barrel chest, he looks unflappable. His round face is impassive, attentive. From time to time, he interrupts the acton to suggest a bit of blocking or piece of business, speaking in his flat, twangy voice, a leftover from his Kansas City youth—“Don’t forget to take the flyswatter with you when you cross.” Mostly he is watchful, still. His calm and sheer bulk lend him a kind of burly authority: he looks impressive, trustworthy, as if he’d been directing theater his entire life. Only occasionally does he reveal himself as a fledgling. “Is everybody ready?” he asks before the actresses run a scene. “Standing by? Action.” 

It is testimony to Altman’s enduring charisma, power, and reputation that everyone in this production has decided to gamble on a neophyte. It is altogether Altman’s project: He has cast the show, has conceived its ingenious set, and is directing it in his own idiosyncratic way. “I don’t want my name up there,” he protests to someone on the production staff who is under the impression that Altman’s name will be listed on the marquee along with the actresses’, above the title of the play. “I’m not starring in this.” But he has engineered this event; none of it would be taking place if his name weren’t attached to it. He is starring in it as much as anyone. 

Altman decided to take a “sabbatical” from filmmaking last year to direct 2 by South, two one-act plays by a young writer named Frank South. There wasn’t much keeping him from taking his sabbatical: He had sold Lion’s Gate, his Los Angeles production company, and after recent films like Quintet, A Perfect Couple, and A Wedding flopped critically and commercially, he was not welcome in Hollywood. The plays were warmly reviewed; the New York critics in particular seemed eager to support his foray into the theater. Walter Kerr called the production “crisp, uncluttered, firm,” perhaps the first time such adjectives had been used to describe an Altman work. But 2 by South was a modest effort—the plays were short and simply structured, the casts tiny (there were two actors in each). A big Broadway play is another matter.

Robert Altman and Broadway make a peculiar couple; in another way, the alliance makes strange sense. Altman’s films have everything to do with juxtapositions, incongruities. A nebbishy Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. Funny gore in M*A*S*H. A Popeye who hates spinach. “Art is the exceptions, not the rules,” he says. Altman and Broadway. Altman and Cher. Karen Black and Sandy Dennis. Sandy Dennis and Cher. The oddness of it all is pure Altman.

The director is almost perversely offhand about his turn to theater (“It’s a big awful no deal; there’s no director who hasn’t done both”), about why he has chosen to stage the play on Broadway, about why he has cast the show as he has. “This play has already been done in smaller situations—in Atlanta, in Ohio, at the Hudson Guild. You either take a shot at something like this or you don’t. Also, the production and the cast for this are too expensive to make it pay [Off Broadway].” He picked his leading ladies because he thought “just those names sound interesting together—it’s an interesting combination. I don’t pick one actress for one part and another for another part, I chose them all together. This is not the Cher show.” 

In many ways, Jimmy Dean, written by Ed Graczyk, a 40-year-old director of a Columbus, Ohio, theater, whose two previous plays have been performed only in regional theaters, seems a natural for Altman. Almost all of his nineteen films share its concerns: Jimmy Dean has a desolate American landscape and plenty of victims, hints of violence, and attempts to root out the rot in various American dreams. As written, however, it’s not abstract or avant-garde but a fairly straightforward, accessible piece of romantic realism. Even Graczyk, who places it “in the Inge-Williams vein,” says it’s commercial. 

Jimmy Dean takes place inside a rundown Woolworth’s department store barely scraping by in a poky West Texas town called McCarthy. Almost everyone has cleared out, driven away by a long drought and the lure of livelier places. The play, shifting between 1975 and 1955, follows a reunion of the Disciples, a local James Dean fan club; flashbacks show the Disciples frenzied over Dean’s arrival in a nearby town to shoot the film Giant. 

Sandy Dennis is Mona, a high-strung asthmatic who has spent the past twenty years clerking in the dime store. Former president of the Disciples, Mona still carries an obsessive torch for her idol. Cher is Sissy, former Disciple, Mona’s best friend, and a cocktail waitress in the local truck stop. Sissy is wisecrack-slinging, libidinous, and boasts the biggest bosoms in McCarthy. (Cher will wear a foam-rubber pair.) Sissy is coarse—“If you’ve got ’em, ’nounce ’em,” she says—but softhearted. Only three Disciples appear for the reunion, one of whom is a mystery guest named Joanne, played by Karen Black. 

Joanne, it is revealed, is an old acquaintance who is now disguised by a remarkable transformation (Altman wants to keep the exact nature of the change under wraps until previews). She has returned to settle several old scores, whose origins unfold in the flashbacks woven through the play. By the end of the stormy evening, Joanne has exposed the secrets and self-deceptions with which her friends have been living.

Altman says he liked the “surprises” in the play—several of the characters fool the audience and themselves—as well as its treatment of Mona’s Dean fixation. “I’ve seen it all the time working on films. You go on location to some little town and you change people’s lives forever—an actor knocks up a local woman, someone meets someone and gets married and stays there.” More important, the film appealed to the director’s gloomy view of star worship. “I never liked Dean that much—hated Rebel Without a Cause and I didn’t like Giant. In 1957, Altman did a documentary about Dean’s life “to undo this God thing, to find out the truth. I don’t like the idea of superstars—they’re an excuse for the masses not to think about their own problems.”

Altman made several sweeping changes in Jimmy Dean before rehearsals even began, discarding what he fell were “very mechanical” devices. First, he decided not to use younger actresses to portray the characters as their teenage selves, as directed in the script. Now the actresses traverse eras so often they won’t be making any makeup or costume changes. But Altman hasn’t done away with doubles altogether. Sometimes doubles are used in fleeting glimpses. And in previous productions of the play, past scenes were performed in bluish light: present scenes were played on the same set, but under full lights. Altman has abandoned that concept as “too graphic—it denies the real theatricality.” He has conceived an intriguing set (executed by David Gropman, the 29-year-old who designed Mass Appeal for Broadway) to solve the problem. The stage is divided into mirror-image halves, the upstage area slightly tilted. Each half contains the realistic interior of the dime store—there’s a luncheonette counter at the center of the raked stage; the rest of the space is display racks, a magazine stand, and a couple of eating tables. Past scenes take place in the upstage area; present scenes are played downstage on the first set. The two sets share the luncheonette counter—the actresses sometimes can take as little as a step to cross from past to present. 

It’s a busy, complicated set, but Altman says it has “a sense of infinity about it that you can’t get in film.” He is proud of his design. “It’s split-screen, double images. It allows you to show stream of consciousness and coincidence. It’s fluid.” At one early rehearsal he tells his cast, “We’re going to have a lot of things going on simultaneously. We’re going to really screw the audience up.” 

At other moments, Altman is more reserved and tentative than this. At one rehearsal he ambles over to an acquaintance who’s been watching the actors at work. “Were you confused by the set?” he asks. “Did you get it?” Yes, he is told. He seems reassured. “I think it’s going to work, I’m seeing how it’s going to work,” he mutters from time to time, as if to reassure himself. Another morning he arrives at rehearsal and announces, “I’m not going to be much help today.” Dennis asks him why. “Lack of confidence,” says Altman. 

“That makes two of us,” says Cher.

Altman is obsessed, from the very first rehearsal, with what he calls the “look” of the play—the way the actors move about the set, navigate transitions from past to present, as well as the movement of the play itself, balancing the scenes in the past with events in the present. Over and over, he calls the play “a ballet, a musical.” He tells the actors he’s concerned with “choreography.” He spends no time talking with the actors about objectives, motivations. “There’s a little bit of contention about when we’re going to get to the meaning of things,” he says at one point. “But I think it’s a ballet as much as anything.” He approaches stage directing in much the same way he shoots a film: He rarely consults the script, does no homework (“except for dreaming”), “painting” as he goes along. He puts his actors on their feet right away, scripts in hand, to block the scenes, stopping them only when a piece of blocking isn’t working out. “Don’t get carried away by your emotions,” he tells them. “Just keep it moving, keep it moving.” When they finish a scene, he tells them, “That’s going to work good, that looks good.” 

Gradually, as the days go by, he does change the shape of the play, adding chunks of past action to the first act. When Altman breaks up a speech to create time shifts, Graczyk leaves the rehearsal. “I’m going to go hang myself,” he says. Altman, impervious, is pleased. “I think this is going to work.”

Two weeks before her encounter with the vitamin, Cher takes a comical tumble on the mock-wooden set during a rehearsal. She is standing midway up the tall stepladder that Sissy is using to hang crêpe-paper decorations for the reunion. As she finishes a line, she loses her balance, toppling backward into a large empty cardboard box behind her. The box falls on its side, with Cher inside it; her red-booted feet stick out from one end. After a quick break, she returns, without a whimper, to her perch on the stepladder. 

Rehearsals are as unglamorous as Cher’s pratfall. For the first week, the heat isn’t working in the cavernous theater; it is so cold inside that Altman complains he can’t distinguish one actress from another beneath their bundlings of coats, mufflers, gloves, hats, boots. No one complains about the cold. Nor do they complain when they get splinters from the practice set, or when they break an hour late for lunch. 

Everyone is amazed at how well the three stars get on. Cher, barbed and gabby, and Dennis, more reserved, strike up an improbable friendship. Cher calls Dennis “my fuck-around friend”; Altman has to shush them to stop them from chatting. Black is more aloof at first (“She always spends the first two weeks checking out the other actors,” says a friend). The only strained moment of rehearsal comes when Dennis, trying to help Black solve a blocking problem, says, “Tell me what you want me to do. I can do anything you want.” Black smiles. “So can I.” But she warms soon enough. They go to lunch together, laugh at the off-color anecdotes Cher tells them during breaks. In part, their ease with one another stems from their easiness with Altman. He is affectionate with all of them, teasing Dennis (“Let Sandy act—she’ll feel better”), lunging for Cher’s artificial breasts with a lusty growl, draping his arm around Black.

As he has always made a point of doing on film sets, Altman listens to any ideas about blocking, line changes, or bits of business that the actors care to suggest. At one rehearsal, he leaves the room for part of the morning to talk business in the office, and congratulates the actresses afterward for working out a complex piece of blocking “without my interference”; at another he tells the cast that “this is a play directed by six women”—referring to the six actresses who play the major roles. “I understand why actors love him,” says Sudie Bond. “He never says, ‘Do this, do that’ He’s open.” 

For Altman, there is no such thing as a “small” contribution: He is entranced, for example, by an actress’s suggestion to change the scripted word “mayonnaise” to “Miracle Whip.” “ ‘Miracle Whip’ is poetry,” says Altman. “ ‘Mayonnaise’ isn’t.” 

“I’m not a democratic director, exactly,” Altman says. “I try to run a benevolent monarchy. I don’t think you can force actors to behave the way you want them to. It’s better for them to do what they want, and let me worry about the adjustments.” So he is having fun? “You bet. Je l’adore. 

Black, on the other hand, bluntly admits that rehearsals, while “exhilarating,” aren’t as much fun as shooting a film with Altman. “It’s not happy,” she says. “In a film with Bob you have an idea and you put it in, like a splash of red paint—most of my scenes in Nashville I just improvised—and you move on. In rehearsals, that splash of red paint can be taken out the next time you do a scene, or it can turn green or blue, depending on what Bob says or what the other actors do. It’s a grind.” 

Cher, of course, has never worked on a film with Altman, “I can’t say if I would’ve done this play if Bob weren’t directing it,” she says over a tossed-salad lunch at Joe Allen’s. She wears her white beret low on her forehead, and she’s got on her artificial breasts, which she invites anyone who wishes to squeeze. “All I can say is thank God it’s Bob.” Why? “He accepts all of us—that’s what’s wonderful. We’re okay, he’s okay. He’ll stop and listen to anything we have to say.” 

Cher came to New York in November, following a six-month global tour of her lavish nightclub act. She came alone—without rock guitarist Les Dudek, her current beau, or her two children—and she came, she says, to take acting classes with Lee Strasberg. But she’d sat in on only two classes before Altman heard she was in town and had her read for the play. “I didn’t come here to get parts. I came to learn how to act. I’d wanted to do it for years. No, I didn’t have time—I was going to make time.” Cher is mercurial, by turns earthy, credulous, cranky. Today she is cranky; even so, there’s something vulnerable about the huge round eyes. “Most people think I don’t know how to act. People think I’m such a frivolous person. You know, after I got the part, I called my agency here and asked if they could tell me about the play. They didn’t know I already had the part; they said, ‘Oh, you can’t get in to read for that.’ That really pissed me off.” 

Is she frightened? “Only at home at night. I get lonely without my kids; my sister [ex-soap-opera actress Georganne LaPiere] isn’t here; I think, ‘Here I am in New York alone.’ ” Not exactly: She and her male secretary are staying with an ex-boyfriend, Gene Simmons of Kiss, until she settles on an apartment; her children will arrive shortly. “At rehearsals I’m fine, because I’m crazy about everyone I’m working with. But I’m exhausted every night. Yesterday I did my speech twice, and I was a mess afterward, A fucking mess.” 

She looks anxious, a little droopy. Kathy Bates, also sitting at the table, showers her with compliments about her performance in the scene. “But what about technique?” asks Cher. 

“Technique is what you do when you’re talking to Sandy in that scene—that’s technique.” (Cher has been improvising applying lipstick and eye makeup during this particular scene.) “You’ve got plenty of technique.” Cher seems cheered. She invites one of the others at the table to squeeze her breasts. 

“Sometimes I don’t know what I’m supposed to be feeling,” she laments one day. Altman tells her that real people don’t think about what they’re feeling. “But in portraying someone, don’t you have to pick a consistent feeling?” No, Altman tells her, real people behave differently on different days. Cher doesn’t look happy. As rehearsals progress, however, Altman’s words seem to give her a measure of confidence—perhaps it is his insistence that she not attempt to “act”; in every piece of advice, he reminds her of real life. “You can have a mother, you have a sister, you know what it’s like putting up with people,” he says in his folksy way, and she nods. She takes to quoting him: “Bob says people just deal with what they’re dealt. That’s how I’m going to play Sissy, anyway.”

Black and Dennis know Altman better than to ask acting questions. Dennis, 44, worked with Altman thirteen years ago on a thriller he directed called That Cold Day in the Park; she was fond enough of his directorial style to agree to play in Jimmy Dean. She likes Altman’s unstudied way of not pressing actors to talk about, analyze, or dissect their parts. “I don’t like reading the play until you want to scream. Altman has cast this show really well—when you do that, you don’t have to interfere, because everyone has a sense of her own character.” Dennis says she hasn’t “gotten” her character yet—“Ask me in five years”—but seems sanguine. 

Black is more edgy. “I’ve been taking Joanne home with me for a week,” she says, her close-set eyes intense. “I dream about the play. She’s the most difficult part I’ve ever played. Other characters I can be instantly; just being her is so rough.” The character, she says, is “making me unaccountably sad.” 

Black has had a “strange” past few years, she says; preoccupied with her third husband (from whom she’s now divorced), a child, and maintaining a large house, she performed a string of indifferent roles. She finally decided to “take control” of her career, and had been hankering to return to stage work. But she probably wouldn’t be putting herself through any of this if it weren’t for Altman. “I’d do anything for Bob. He gives you a fail-safe feeling. He makes you realize that knowing, feeling, wanting is a higher activity than thinking. That’s creating. But it’s so … hard.” 

Altman is on his best behavior these days. At rehearsals there are no flashes of the notorious temper; he is cordial to all the visitors who drop in. Each evening, he works on production details or other projects, at the theater or at the Central Park South office that houses his three-person production team. He still drinks in the evenings, but he is in bed in his apartment by 10:30 every night and at rehearsals by ten in the morning. He lives alone: His wife will join him soon; his four children are scattered. 

He has not forgotten or forgiven his enemies, however. Studio movie executives—the people who “hate me because I don’t fit into their pattern”—are his chief targets. “Guys like Diller,” he tells a newspaper reporter, “they should come out and punch me” for the terrible things he has said about them. (Altman believes Paramount chairman Barry Diller tried to jinx Popeye by leaking negative stories about it before its release. Paramount sued Altman for going over budget on the $22-million film.) Later he adds, “I’ll say anything about Diller. I’d love him to sue me for slander or libel, and then get people on the witness stand to talk about what he did to me.”

There are other battlefronts. too. He is suing Dino De Laurentiis; Altman says he never got paid in full for Buffalo Bill and the Indians, North Dallas Forty, or Ragtime (he didn’t direct the last two, of course, but says he is owed development money). He says he would like to sue Lesser Persky for allegedly reneging on Lone Star, the James McLure comedy that Altman was to direct and in which Altman claims to have a controlling interest. “He can’t move it without my consent or involvement, and I’d never agree to it, let alone have a conversation with him.” (Persky denies these facts, saying he paid Altman a $50,000 one-time development fee. A spokesman for McLure says the author has never had a contract with Altman.) Even Robert Evans, who produced Popeye for Paramount Pictures and supported the film, is held in suspicion. More than a year ago, Evans purchased the rights to the story of Harlem’s Cotton Club and asked Altman to direct; now, says Altman, he has been “surreptitiously dismissed” from the project. “Evans is a seducer. When he wants something out of you, he seduces you; when he doesn’t, he’s gone. 

“I’m not going to do another film for the studios. My work is too precious to me. I’m not going to make those kinds of compromises. I’d rather do what I want to do, take a chance, and lose.” Always more comfortable juggling several projects at once, Altman is now taking chances on several of his own projects, He’s editing a cable version of 2 by South, produced in association with A.B.C Video Enterprises to air this spring. He has optioned Jim Leonard’s The Diviners, staged at Circle Rep last fall; the 24-year-old Leonard will write the screenplay, and Altman will direct. Joseph Clapsaddle, a co-producer for Jimmy Dean, has made money available for the project. He wants to option a new play by Getting Out author Marsha Norman; he will direct Frank South’s work in progress. He has written a screenplay. He wants to do an opera. 

There’s more. He wants to start his own theater. He has been scouring the city for a suitable space, though it’s been difficult, considering the kind of space he wants. “Ideally there would be three areas, a theater, a cabaret, and a place for the performing arts—dance, mime, clowns, comedians, jugglers, poetry readings. I’m talking about a laboratory, someplace where you can say ‘Let’s try this,’ and if it fails it makes no difference. It won’t be a rep situation, but obviously we’ll try to attract playwrights and develop actors and directors.”

After a festive champagne toast to celebrate having got through the entire play once, Altman says, “Let’s get to work—action,” and has the cast repeat the second act. Cher does her speech (with her back to the audience, as she and Altman have agreed) in tears, and sniffles through most of the rest of the act. Black leaps up on the luncheonette counter and spills a glassful of water over her breasts during one of her major moments. Even Graczyk is pleased—the rewrites haven’t been drastic after all. And Altman is pleased. “It’s going to work real good,” he says.

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