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Tea and Sympathy's Robert Anderson Was a Class Act: The Great Playwright Lured Deborah Kerr to Broadway

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At lunch today, a friend told me he'd just heard on the radio that Robert Anderson died at the age of 91. He knew that I knew the renowned playwright and wanted to make sure I was aware.

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For those not familiar with his name, Robert Anderson wrote Tea and Sympathy, one of the most famous and popular plays of the 1950's -- a play remembered eternally for its final line delivered by Deborah Kerr, "Years from now when you talk about this -- and you will -- be kind." It was one of the tenderest moments in Broadway history; an older woman bedding a young man to save him from what she perceives might be a tortured life. A scene eerily familiar to what takes place in The Reader, except, as Laura Reynolds, Deborah Kerr's actions are entirely selfless.

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This was Robert Anderson's most memorable hit, though he had others, such as You Know I Can't Hear You When The Water's Running, Silent Night, Lonely Night and I Never Sang For My Father, the latter of which as a film earned him a Writers Guild Award and an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. He also received nominations from the WGA and the Academy for his script work on The Nun's Story and wrote the WGA nominated screenplay for The Sand Pebbles. Additionally, in his long career he wrote the film versions of Until they Sail and Tea and Sympathy, as well as major television movies such as The Patricia Neal Story. He won the ACE Cable TV award in 1991 forThe Last Act is a Solo.

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But this is not so much an obit of Mr. Anderson's achievements, but a prelude to a story I wanted to tell about the man's dear friendship with Deborah Kerr and how I got to know him.

As some of you may know, I wrote a Huffington Post piece about Deborah Kerr last year, which among other things mentioned my campaign to get her a long overdue Oscar and later a royal honor from the Queen. In the course of this, I wrote to Robert Anderson and others with whom Deborah had worked during her fabulous career. Many responded and sent letters to the Motion Picture Academy, but Anderson and I began a warm relationship as well.

He thanked me over and over for what I was doing for this wonderful star, who meant so much to him and whom he called every year on her birthday, September 30, which coincidentally was the anniversary of the Broadway opening of Tea and Sympathy. When the honorary Oscar was finally announced three years later, Mr. Anderson (I always called him that), upon learning I was coming to New York, said he wanted to take me to lunch.

It was a great meeting, one-on-one with a theatrical icon -- perhaps not as famous as contemporaries Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, but nonetheless the writer of a play which during its era received equal acclaim with the top works of the period. He regaled me with personal stories, such as his affair with Ingrid Bergman when she performed Tea and Sympathy in Paris and added -- almost to prove it to me -- "She mentioned it in her biography."

He told of going out with Deborah for drinks after the show and feeling guilty about the fact that his first wife, Phyllis, was dying. I suggested that he needed to have some sort of relief from the pain he was suffering and he thanked me, indicating "It's what I rationalized to myself, but it's still hurtful to think about."

He complained about the lack of work possibilities, that the Roundabout Theatre, after an excellent reading of Tea and Sympathy in the nineties and much talk of a revival, wouldn't return his phone calls. That representatives at his agency gave him little notice after his long-time and beloved agent Ben Benjamin had died. I must say it was fascinating hearing these negative comments from someone who continued working and collecting awards until well into his eighties, when so many of us in the entertainment industry would love to have had his career and "problems." Indeed, he wrote me just before his 81st birthday in 1998 that it had been "a year full of wanderings to various theatre conferences...a few awards... (I'd rather be produced)."

After the Oscar success for Deborah, I enlisted him to join me in writing the Queen urging her to honor Deborah Kerr as a Dame and we both laughed at getting letters from the Queen's private secretary sternly informing us that only the Prime Minister could communicate directly with the Queen. Undaunted we wrote the PM and, after a series of attempts joined by some of my screenwriter friends and former Scottish Film Council head David Bruce, finally succeeded in getting Deborah an Honor, though it was to be a CBE and not Dame. He called Deborah in Switzerland to congratulate her and then called me a bit later telling me he'd told her about what I'd done and then said, "Why don't you give her a call?" I didn't want to bother Deborah, but he insisted and so I did. Needless to say, hearing the familiar, oh so lyrical voice thanking me on the phone from Klosters -- well, the experience was wonderful and unforgettable.

I saw him one more time almost ten years ago, again in New York, when he took me to the Harvard Club for lunch and advised me how best to deliver a talk I was giving at a screen and television conference in Providence.

Robert Anderson was a down to earth, intelligent and kind man with a certain degree of humility and a lot of class. He deserves to be honored and remembered for that, as well as the incredible body of work in the theatre, film, television and novels he created and left for us to enjoy forever. I, for one, treasure the memory of knowing him, however slightly, and for his standing beside me to pay tribute to our much beloved Deborah Kerr.

Michael Russnow's website is www.ramproductionsinternational.com