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In the beginning I was just a boy with a dream: I wanted to be a cowboy. I had a great collection of toy guns that I found endlessly entertaining. I couldn't imagine living without them, so at the age of six I devised an elegant solution. I would make a career of it. So when people asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I'd answer, "I want to be a gunslinger."
Looking back, I have no idea why my parents weren't alarmed. They somehow knew I didn't have what it took to be a professional gunslinger. Gunslingers were humorless and I was funny. Cowboys were serious, I was notI had too many interests and was too easygoing as a kid. Besides, cowboys ride broncs, but they don't live in the Bronx.
Beyond a love of toy guns I knew a couple of things about myself. Number one, I loved the theater. Number two, I hated the Yankees, and still do. Number three, the Pittsburgh Pirates were my team: a lifelong decision made when I was four. I liked the way the team's name sounded, though I had no idea where Pittsburgh was, and the only pirates I knew sang Gilbert and Sullivan. My brother Bobby told me they were the worst team in baseball. It was true. That year, in 1952, they lost 120 ball games out of 154. He said by the time you know what's going on they'll have to be better.
I was born David Landau on June 22 in 1947 in Brooklyn, New York, delivered by my mother's brother-in-law Uncle Jack Liswood, whose wife, Aunt Rebecca, was also my pediatrician. My parents, Saul and Stella, and my older brother and I made our home in the NorthBronx in a four-room apartment in a six-story apartment building. I remember an enormous front yard with two large hedges that created a beautiful path to run through. For many years an old farm stood across the street, though it appeared to be a tiny farm of nothing, maybe a total of two chickens. The people who lived there were blond and blue-eyed and looked like no one I knew (everyone around me was Jewish or Italian). The farmers left by the time I was eight or nine, when their home was torn down and replaced by apartment buildings housing more Jews and Italians. At the time I figured everyone in the world belonged to these two groupseven President Eisenhower.
Both my mother and father taught school in the New York public school system. Mom taught science in junior high school, and Dad was the chairman for the math department at James Monroe High School. Besides being teachers, my parents were nuts about the artsespecially the theater.
Broadway Theater was thriving in the 1950s and 1960s in New Yorkwith forty shows running at any given time. With tickets priced between $2 and $6, the middle class could afford to go to shows on a regular basis. For my parents, who had seen the original production of Oklahoma! for 55 cents, "regular" meant "as often as possible." They trundled into town on the subway at least once a week, often seeing the same play twicefirst together, then later with Bobby and me.
For my father, the thrill of the theater began long before a play actually came to town. He scanned newspapers for any theater news. His favorite column was News of the Rialto in the Sunday theater section of the New York Times. If he found something interesting (as he often did when reading about legendary collaborations that produced musicals like My Fair Lady and West Side Story), he'd sit at his desk in the living room and write the producers long, beautiful, handwritten letters requesting tickets. The game was to order tickets before the first advertisement appeared in order to get seats in the first five center rows (my mother was hard of hearing).
Beyond that, when my father saw a show and where he sat was a great source of pride, particularly when dealing with the most popular shows which, once opened, would be sold out for months in advance. Dad was proud of the fact that he saw My Fair Lady twice in the first year of its runthe first time within the first week of opening and then again with Bobby and me six weeks later.
Dad fell in love with theater after seeing his first play, the Marx Brother's The Cocoanuts at the New Amsterdam Theater on Forty-second Street. He was only fifteen, and he had just arrived in New York from Poland. One show was all it took to hook him. After that, theater became a part of life.
As a young man, Dad worked as a social director for a Jewish adult camp in the Catskills. In those days, summer camps were a big deal for New Yorkers, especially for young people looking for husbands and wives. My father loved to put on plays, but because he couldn't afford to buy the scripts, he had to go and watch a show and copy down as much of the dialogue and stage direction as he could. He'd then stage the plays at camp, casting himself in the lead.
Despite Dad's passion for theater, he seemed content as a teacher. Though he had friends who became successful actors, he never expressed regret at his own amateur status. Years before, a friend tried to talk Dad into going to Hollywood with him to attempt a professional career, but Dad refused.
"Why didn't you go?" I asked him.
"Show business didn't give me security, and I loved math," Dad said.
In his eyes, teaching was an honor and an important profession. When I was flunking math in the sixth grade, he was heartsick because he believed my teachers were not doing their job. When I said, "Hey, Dad, did it ever occur to you that I might be stupid?" It was the only time he ever raised his hand to me, as if the thought of striking me had crossed his mind.
My father was a proud man, and remained an avid theatergoer until the day he died. Even in retirement, he'd happily drive twenty miles to see a high school production of Death of a Salesman.
My mother often remarked that I had inherited my father's sense of humor.
"You're almost as funny as your dad," she'd say. "Nah!" Dad would answer, "Funnier."
"You're a natural," he'd add. "Don't stop this. You don't discourage this."
Bobby and I would spend our summers at camp in upstate New York. For a few years, my father was the drama counselor and my mother was the nature counselor. Dad would put on three or four plays a summer, and my brother and I acted in them. My first part was Dopey in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when I was four and a half. My role as Dopey didn't sit well. "Dopey?" I asked. "Dad, why did you cast me as Dopey? He has no lines."
"You want lines, you have to learn how to read."
With my father's strong encouragement, by the age of ten I gave up my dream of a gunslinger or athlete for the life of an actor. But my love for theater had a tough competitor in television, particularly the Sid Ceasar and Phil Silvers shows. I had also heard about a school in New York City that trained actors, called the High School of the Performing Arts. A school where one could study acting? I couldn't believe my ears. I wanted to go there!
At age fourteen I auditioned and got in.
On the first day of school, I met a boy named Rich Greenberg and we had lunch at the Automat. I was nonplussed about what I had seen so far: It was not impressive.
"It seems to me that no one here knows anything about the theater," I said.
Incredulous, Rich peered at me from over his sandwich. "You want to be an actor?"
Rich Greenberg had no intention of acting. He lived nearby, and the school was convenient. This was typical of those days. Though Performing Arts had phenomenal dance and music departments, the drama department seemed to be a place where young men went when they didn't know where else to go. My favorite play at the time was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I saw it on Broadway twenty-four times. Each time, I envisioned myself in the part of Finch played by Robert Morse. In fact, I've often wondered if I willed myself to be short, knowing I could not possibly grow any taller than Bobby Morse and still play that part.
Standing room was one cheap way to see a lot of theater. The other was second-acting, sneaking into theaters after intermission. Almost every Wednesday, my best friend, Steve Ryan, and I would wear suits to school. In those days people dressed up when they went to the theater. At three o'clock, when classes were over, we could catch the last half of any matinee. We mingled in the crowd during intermission and then snuck into the theater looking for an empty cluster of seats, careful to choose a spot where the ushers wouldn't notice us.
I did this so often and became so confident of my strategy that I even took a date to Star Spangled Girl. We went to the library and read the first act and then snuck into the theater to watch the second act.
Performing Arts was located in the heart of Manhattan's Theater District at Forty-Sixth Street and Sixth Avenue. I'd take the subway to and from our Bronx home and every Wednesday during the spring of my senior year, I'd buy Variety to accompany me on my rides. I liked to look in casting news to see if there were any open calls for actors not in the union, Equity. I eventually found an open call for a male lead between eighteen and twenty-five for a role in a summer stock production of Enter Laughing. Auditions were held at the Henry Miller Theater only a few blocks from school. I had seen the Broadway production of the same play several times and knew I could do it. Since the auditions were held in the afternoon, I had to cut my acting class. The teacher, Mike Howard, was always telling us what bullshit Performing Arts' rules were, so even though I knew students were not allowed to audition for a professional theater company until after their graduation, I didn't think it would be a problem since the show wouldn't open until after graduation.
When I showed up at the open call, there must've been over two hundred people in the theater. The stage manager came on to the stage and said, "Thank you for coming. Everyone over twenty-five can go home now." I was stunned to see three-quarters of the actors get up and leave, but excited to survive the first cut of my first professional audition.
Two cuts later, I was still in the running.
I didn't get the part.
To make matters even worse, I got busted for cutting classes to audition for the part I didn't get. Mike Howard was pissed.
"Rules are rules," he said, "and we can't have separate rules for you." Without mentioning my name, he had the class vote on whether I should be allowed to graduate. The class voted twenty-three to two, in favor of my getting a diploma. I'd love to find those two kids who voted against me. I'm sure now I could get them to change their minds.
During the audition process, I had met another would-be actor with my same last name. He told me he had been thinking of changing his name from Danny Landau to David Landau, but he was an Equity member and Equity wouldn't let two David Landaus in the union. Innocently I told him I'm not in the union. Years later, when I was cast in my first Equity job, I was told I couldn't use it.
Eventually it came back to me; that little sneak, the Danny Landau I had met auditioning for Enter Laughing, had gone ahead and changed his name to David!
"How about if I use my middle initial?"
"Nope," Equity said. "It's got to be a different name."
I called my Dad and together we chose the name Lander. We had thought about Landers, but when I was talking to Equity they said, "Landers. Are you related to Ann Landers?"
I didn't want to be asked that for the rest of my life. As it turned out, it didn't matter. S or no S, Lander is a name people instinctively want to hang an s on. When Kathy and I were married, even the invitations read: "Landers."