How does one begin to properly document a life, no matter how extraordinary, when it's far from over?
Such has been the dilemma for documentary filmmaker Cindy Kleine, who always wanted to make a film about her husband André Gregory's epic life, including his work as a revolutionary stage director, beloved acting teacher, film actor, and acclaimed raconteur (widely known from his role in My Dinner With André). And while many people felt that his stories should ultimately be chronicled in a fitting memoir, the moment Kleine elected to make a documentary about her husband, she found herself staring down the barrels of a menacing obstacle -- she had no idea of where to start her film.
Then in 2009 Gregory learned a troubling family secret about his late father's possible work in pre-war Nazi Germany, which upset him so much that he came down with shingles the next day.
But for Kleine, the right door opened at last.
"It was the seed that gave me a place to begin," said Kleine, who recently spoke with us from the couple's home in Cape Cod. "First of all, his favorite topic of conversation is often his parents and childhood and this information gave me a place to start. So, I suggested that we go to the cemetery where his parents were buried and we'd bring the camera and see what kind of stories it evoked in him."
André William Gregory was born in France in 1934 to Russian parents who not only failed to tell their children how their family managed to stay one step ahead of the Nazis before emigrating to the United States, but also left out an important piece of information about their heritage.
"Only later did I learn later that we were Jewish," Gregory told us in a recent interview. "My father had never discussed the fact that he came from a family of orthodox Jews in Lithuania and my mother, whose father had been a prominent attorney in Moscow, was even more secretive about her Jewish background."
And though answers about his identity would continue to elude him for years, it was his parents' cold indifference to his emotional well-being that drove Gregory to the warmth and humanity of theater.
"I was lucky that early on I was able to work as an actor with some of the greatest directors in the world -- Jerzy Grotowski, Bertold Brecht, and Lee Strasberg," Gregory recalled. "But I told myself that if I'm not successful by 30, I'd become either a rabbi or a lawyer. Thankfully at 29 I directed a play called The Blacks with a very young James Earl Jones and it was somewhat successful. Suddenly I was a director, which I never thought I would be."
A few years later he was contacted by actor Gregory Peck and writer Budd Schulberg to help take over The Inner-City Cultural Center, in the highly volatile and economically depressed Watts section of Los Angeles, which had only recently been the site of the infamous Watts Riots.
It was a program, which would consist partly of kids and adults from the ghetto and Beverly Hills. "We did a production of Moliere's Tartuffe, so radical that the Catholic Church put its official ban on it," Gregory said. "The only person to really like it was Eldridge Cleaver who called it 'Tar-tough,' which was the ghetto expression for beautiful."
Gregory then directed a number of experimental plays throughout the 1960s and 1970s. His avant-garde production of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was perhaps his most successful, earning him an OBIE Award and an opportunity to tour with the play around the world for several years. Around this time Gregory began to realize his inimitable style as a director and his ability to create a creative atmosphere that was intimate and nurturing for his actors and audience.
It was also during this period in which he met his close friend and future collaborator Wallace Shawn, who starred opposite Gregory in My Dinner With André -- the 110-minute movie depicting an in-depth, existential dinner conversation between Shawn and Gregory at a Manhattan restaurant. The film is Gregory's most identifiable role and made him famous for his masterful gift of storytelling, something Cindy Kleine has captured in her upcoming documentary, Before and After Dinner, now in its final stages of post-production.
Kleine is confident that the film will provide the right platform to showcase her husband's breathtaking exuberance and life-affirming positivity to an entirely new generation of theater people who don't quite know his work. Gregory also agrees that a discussion of his life could serve young theater people who have embarked on an uncertain career path but also feels that the film could help them in other ways.
"This film is also about a happy marriage," says Gregory, who met Kleine through a mutual friend after his first wife passed away. "And I think it's incredibly inspirational to young people that it's possible to achieve happiness in a successful marriage."
However, when pressed further about whether he could have achieved the same success had he started in the theater today, Gregory concluded:
"I have great compassion for young people starting out because the environment is less conducive to art and experimentation. We so live now in the era of the bottom line and worshiping the fatted calf that people who have a bent towards idealism and passion don't find much support for that around them. And I think that a film like this is fundamentally saying, do what you love to do, persevere, follow your star, don't give up, you can do it if it means that much to you."
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