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That Deadly Pinter Sneer

12/04/2012 08:17 am ET | Updated Feb 03, 2013
  • Sherman Yellen Screenwriter, Playwright, Lyricist, author of forthcoming memoir of a New York boyhood, "Spotless."

Harold Pinter nearly killed me. Not with a knife, a bullet, or a karate chop, but with that most deadly of all weapons, a lofty sneer. While I was working at Shepperton Studios in Middlesex, Surrey, England in the late 1970's, I spied Pinter, alone, standing by the bar during a break in the filming of one of his screenplays. A few years before I had worked with John Bury, a great British scenic designer on my Broadway show, The Rothschilds, and John who became a good friend to me, was a close friend of Pinter. A bear of a man with the most delicate, meticulous talent - and a gruff, generous, elegant heart, John had been the designer of most of the Pinter shows for the National Theater for which he had been highly praised for creating sets that revealed the unspoken menace of Pinter's work.

Whenever I was working in London I would visit John and his wife at their home in Barnes where we often enjoyed a rowdy conversation that spared no one including us. On this particular visit John, learning that I was working at the same studio as Pinter, suggested that I introduce myself to the playwright should I come across him. "You two nice Jewish boys should have a lot in common," he asserted. At that time Pinter was a playwright I deeply envied but whose work I secretly disdained as Samuel Beckett light. A few years before I had witnessed the power of Pinter to clear out a TV room in an inn I had visited during a trip through the West Country with my wife. I had never seen so many Brits flee the telly in the lounge and head for the bar as they did when "The Homecoming" played on the old black and white TV screen. Time would alter my opinion of the playwright's work, and I would come to regard its pauses and mysteries as magical when performed by an Alan Bates or a John Geilgud, but then, I scoffed at the pretentious nihilism of it all.

Finding myself facing Pinter at the bar in Shepperton, his ale in hand, I nodded at him, approached cautiously, and told him that I was a friend of John Bury, and that John had suggested that I introduce myself to him. What followed was a long Pintereque pause, ending with "Did he?" directed at his beer glass, and when I mentioned that I was here working on a television adaptation of Great Expectations, he paused once again and added accusingly "Are you?" as he turned towards the bartender to refresh his glass, leaving in the air his two word questions that condemned John for his bad judgment in suggesting that I introduce myself and me for my presumption in doing so. Here was the living demonstration of words spoken by Pinter in an interview at that time. "I don't give a damn what other people think. It's entirely their own business." Oh how I then envied that glorious self-sufficiency towards life and work even as I suspected that those who do not give a damn about the opinion of others are filled with such a lofty admiration for themselves that they need nothing from strangers. Clearly, Pinter's great affection for his designer friend John Bury was not sufficient to tolerate the introduction of an American television writer who had lifted the invisible velvet rope that protected him from those he would rather not know. The Pinter insult -- for insult it was -- had reached me -- its vulnerable target -- all too easily. Kafka could not have created a greater metamorphosis. I was no longer myself, a man of some talent and value, but a pesky summer fly that had come too close to his august person and settled on the orange slice in the fruit salad he was planning to eat. I was not so much dismissed as swatted away. I have seen art museum guards shoo away people who come too close to a master painting with more grace than Pinter had shown towards me. Am I making too much of this tiny incident? Of course I am. Except for what followed. Shortly thereafter I came down with tuberculosis and nearly died of it.

Can such a snub really lower the immune system and create a pathway to a deadly disease? I conjecture that a snub can be absolutely virulent if it comes from someone whom the world honors for their works, someone you envy, and one who has made you feel that you have trespassed on the private grounds of their life. Pinter had in the course of less than a minute turned me from a colleague at the studio to a fumbling fan that had violated his intellectual and social turf. I believe that an insult can infect if one is as vulnerable as I was, not just to disease but to disdain, and unprepared for anything but a friendly "That's nice. How is dear old John?" The worldly young writer I thought myself to be disappeared in a moment and I became the asthmatic child in the Bronx who felt no control over his health or life.

I went back to my table, ordered a gin and tonic, and faced the army of coughers among the crew and the cast, the hacking, harrumphing, spray coughing, sport sneezing, and back of hand snot wiping humanity that found its nearest, most vulnerable target in me. All this mixed in the petrie dish with cigarette smoke and raucous open mouthed laughter. Flying home to New York a month later, I coughed into my initialed handkerchief (one of the dozen my mother always gave me for Christmas) and saw the scarlet signpost of a hemorrhage, to be followed up by a visit to the doctor, an X-ray and a diagnosis. Despite the medication the condition persisted until the specialist determined that the only cure for it was the removal of my left lung -- something my wife refused to authorize. We would seek help elsewhere. And thus began my two year adventure with tuberculosis which began in that pub, and continued to plague me while I worked on Broadway on the musical Rex with Richard Rodgers -- stoned on powerful antibiotics and consulting my handkerchiefs between the acts for the spots of blood that dotted it, and watched a musical I loved beaten to death by its insane star, Nicol Williamson, and later by many of the critics. Having survived Rex -- which I later revised with Sheldon Harnick for a successful Canadian revival -- I felt I could now survive anything -- including TB.

My mother's immigrant family had all contracted TB in the slums of Essex Street, and died of it, mother, older sister and brother, met their end in a Colorado sanatorium in the years directly preceding the First World War. I was therefore determined to hide my illness from her, not wishing her to believe that I was headed in that same direction, and caring as I did for her peace of mind. My wife was my conspirator in this as we visited doctors in New York for a cure, found my strain of the disease resistant to the available medications, and finally ended up in Arizona in a search for the cure.

While the insult of the notable playwright might have opened a path for the disease to enter and set up shop -- the slap from some critics seemed to will me towards recovery. "Snap out of it," my mother would have said to me in my youth, and I did. But it took a trip to the Arizona desert with my doctor where I climbed an old abandoned Zuni mesa, spat up more blood, and vowed that I would never do so again, a promise I kept to my frail but determined body. I had a wife I loved and two young sons to live for, and I would not let Harold Pinter's pause or Clive Barnes pan deny me the life I intended to live, one of good work and a great family. All signs of the disease ended the day after that trip to the mesa according to the X ray I took in the Phoenix hospital where I now had treatment. It probably was the new medication finally kicking in, but I prefer to believe it was the climb up a rough wooden ladder to the interior of the abandoned pueblo in the mesa, and my will to believe that there was something magical in that place that held a cure, a power stronger than Harold Pinter's snub, or a bad theater review. And like most self-proclaimed realists, I found the fantasy of a mystical cure larger than a pile of pills to believe in.

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