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Dan Rice The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of

Dan Rice The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of

by David Carlyon, Ken Emerson (Foreword by)

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Dan Rice, alone in the world as a boy, had tried whatever came to hand. He was a pig presenter, strongman, lecturer, comic singer, and blackface performer. Then he joined the glittering world of circus and quickly rose to prominence as a talking clown, tossing out quips, quoting Shakespeare, singing about bloomers, and feuding with Horace Greeley. He named his own


Dan Rice, alone in the world as a boy, had tried whatever came to hand. He was a pig presenter, strongman, lecturer, comic singer, and blackface performer. Then he joined the glittering world of circus and quickly rose to prominence as a talking clown, tossing out quips, quoting Shakespeare, singing about bloomers, and feuding with Horace Greeley. He named his own circus "Dan Rice's Great Show" and labeled himself the Great American Humorist. The spitting image of Uncle Sam in a striped suit, top hat, and goatee, Rice spoke on issues of the day till he became one of the most famous men in America, probably seen by more people than any anyone else at the time. That fame propelled him to several campaigns for public office, including a brief run for president.

So what happened? Why have so few people heard of Dan Rice? Rice rose to prominence because he was supremely adept at engaging audiences in what was then a bubbling public stew of participation. Circus, theater, minstrelsy, and lectures overlapped with politics, and crowds roared out with their boisterous opinions. Rice, took that energy and tossed it back, dazzling audiences. But polite society, propelled by a vague urge of "refinement." increasingly deemed robust amusements inappropriate. The raucous antebellum blend of performers and audiences and forms began to split along a new performance hierarchy of high and low.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
This is a biography of one of the most celebrated and controversial circus performers of all time. But be forewarned: It is about much more. It's about the shift from rural America across the great divide to the Industrial Revolution. It's about lowbrow culture in the 19th century. And at its most revealing, it's about the war that tore the nation in half, and how the cultural images that surrounded and led up to that war found themselves paraded down Main Street and enacted on informal stages everywhere.

Dan Rice played his part in those culture wars; he created famous a blackface character, performed as a minstrel, and worked both sides of the patriotic divide. He was for the South in southern towns, a Union man in the Northeast. He made his fortune during the first golden age of the circus, and was as gruff and totally synthetic as the popular entertainment of the day would tolerate. Later in the century, Gilded Age America would turn to Europe and Shakespeare for inspiration, but the America of Dan Rice was filled with rougher "pleasures": immigrant bashing, racial stereotypes, child labor, hard drinking, and no-holds-barred stunts planned to attract crowds. Surely, America before the Civil War and America afterward were two very different places.

Looking at the popular culture of the day gives us an understanding of what everyday people and their communities were like. Whether you read Dan Rice to find out about "the most famous man you never heard of" (as the book's subtitle suggests) or to see how "the show business" evolved over a 70-year period, you will get a lively sense of Americana at its best and worst: a mirror to the way we were. (Elena Simon)

Elena Simon lives in New York City.

Time Out New York
"[W]ell-researched and witty . . .thanks to David Carlyon, Rice may find a new audience here in the 21st century
Chicago Tribune
It is a great story that Carlyon has chosen to tell...The writing is lively...and the stories are fresh.
Book Magazine
In this well-written and fascinating biography,Carlyon paints a vivid picture of a simpler,rougher time in America.
NY Times Book Review
an exhaustively detailed history of Rice's colorful career....Carlyon seems ideally suited to write a biography of Rice.
In 1857, the clown Dan Rice was hailed by the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer as "the most amusing man of modern times." He was also among the most famous, enjoying a national stature in his day comparable to someone like Babe Ruth, Elvis or Michael Jordan. He even ran for president. It sounds absurd today, but in the day of Rice and P.T. Barnum, the word "clown" meant a ready reciter of Shakespeare, a strongman and stuntman, a skilled horseman and animal trainer and, most important, a sharp-tongued political satirist, all rolled into one. The circus, more than just escapism, was an institution that aspired to edify and uplift, offering the promise of (to use the catchphrase of the era) "something higher." In this well-written and fascinating biography, Carlyon paints a vivid picture of a simpler, rougher time in America, when the roots of our popular culture were just being formed.
—Eric Wargo
Publishers Weekly
Except in the works of political commentators, clowns and presidents hardly ever inhabit the same body. But Dan Rice perhaps the premiere clown and showman of 19th-century America was also a presidential candidate. This wonderfully appealing and constantly fascinating biography is not only a perceptive examination of Rice's life and times, but a serious and deeply researched look at the complex intersections among popular culture and politics, and the birth of a unique American character in the years before and after the Civil War. Born in 1823, Rice joined, as a dancer and jockey at the age of 13, the transitory, not very respectable world of traveling shows, and ran a "learned pig" routine in small towns (the pig could tell time and ascertain the character of audience members). He eventually made a name doing "nigero singing and dancing" blackface and by the 1850s became a major producer of popular circus events. By 1864 he was running for public office and ran for president in 1868. Carlyon, who has been a clown, actor, director and playwright and holds a Ph.D. in theater as well as a law degree from Berkeley, places Rice firmly in the spectacle of 19th-century popular culture. Covering such diverse topics as the Astor Place riots (which were caused by rival performances of Shakespeare), the birth of the clown as an American type who commented on politics, the sexualization of popular entertainment, the appropriation of African-American culture for white audiences, the regendering of popular culture after women's suffrage and many others, Carlyon has produced a masterful work of cultural and theater criticism that advances the literature as well as it entertains. (Dec.) Copyright 2001Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Dan Rice, a 19th-century American circus entertainer, was one of the country's first nationally known humorists. He climbed from poverty to wealth and celebrity, leaving New York and finding success in the Midwest and South. First-time author Carlyon has fashioned the first scholarly account of Rice, which is both a biography and a historical account of circus life in the 1800s. A former clown with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus who also holds a Ph.D. in theater, Carlyon brings a unique perspective to the task. He organizes the book chronologically, recounting in detail Rice's successes, failures, struggles, and adventures. At times, Carlyon's fascination with his subject overshadows his critical eye, and the generalist may be overwhelmed. Still, this is a well-researched and informative study that will delight connoisseurs of American theater and entertainment. Recommended for larger public libraries, academic libraries, and specialized Americana collections. David Potash, Baruch Coll., New York Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


                           The adored daughter of a New Jersey country preacher charms her way past his strict principles and flies off to a "merry-making" at the Monmouth races. There she spies a sport from Manhattan, who turns out to be an important importer-exporter, Aaron Burr's friend, and law clerk to Martin Van Buren. They elope to a justice of the peace, and then to his home across the Hudson. After a son is born, the preacher tracks down his impetuous daughter and forces an annulment, with $1,000 damages for seduction.

    As with other tales Dan Rice would tell, some of this one was true.

    The young woman, Rice's mother, was Elizabeth Crum, born on March 4, 1803, the tenth of thirteen children of Elizabeth and Richard D. Crum. The Crums had been colonists from Holland, possibly Teutonic knights before that. In 1690, Floris Crom was High Sheriff of Orange County, New York. A family story marries Floris's son, Cornelius, to a woman of the Six Nations. If true, that made Comelius's great-grandson, Dan Rice, one-eighth Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cuyuga, Seneca, or Tuscarora. The other side of Elizabeth's family were Gardners, from Nantucket. By 1823, the Crums lived in Ocean Township, New Jersey, near Long Branch, which was on its way to becoming a fashionable seaside resort for the urban bon ton. The Crums were of a different ton. Besides being country folks, theywere Methodists. Barely large enough to be a trivial cult in 1800, the Methodist Church was becoming the largest denomination in the United States through its appeal to democratic, some would say vulgar, tastes. John Wesley's church had achieved its explosive growth by celebrating the religious impulses of common people and eliminating pew fees, a denial of social distinctions that incurred the disdain of more established denominations. Exuberance confirmed Methodism's low status. It was a church on fire, spiritually and emotionally; a jumping, singing, clapping church. Reinforcing the idea that worshippers bowed to no supremacy but God's, ministers chosen from the congregation, lay preachers like Crum, outnumbered the ordained three to one. Preacher Crum lived a fervent distrust of authority that would be the family heritage. Nor was he a shy country mouse outside church. He had served as a "matross," or gunner's mate, in the Revolution. (The family boasted that he had started as a drummer boy with General Washington.)

    Elizabeth had inherited the family fervor. Her son remembered her as a "shouting Methodist." When she met her man, she did not wait dutifully for permission but grabbed her freedom.

    The "important importer-exporter" was Daniel McLaren Jr., a Manhattan grocer following in the footsteps of his Scottish father. In 1790, when the nation's first president moved in to 39 Broadway, McLaren Sr. owned a grocery a few doors down, at number 30. He moved farther up Broadway in 1795, the year his son was born. His wife died when the boy was twelve. McLaren Jr. clerked for his father as they switched locations regularly, each time moving on May 1, Manhattan's notorious Moving Day. Following Dutch colonial custom, leases expired on May Day, when the noisy, crowded streets became noisier with people, and more crowded with tables and chairs, beds and bed pans in every cart or dray or wagon that could be found, plunging "hapless Gotham" into pandemonium, like a giant game of musical houses. In 1820, McLaren Jr. set up shop on Chatham Street, now Park Row. (He dropped the "Jr." in 1829, four years after his father died.) It was a block south of the intersection of five streets, then called "The Collect," after the Fresh Water Pond, source of the city's water until it became so polluted that it had to be filled in. Soon came a new name, the Five Points, internationally infamous for degradation. During his visit to America in 1842, Charles Dickens was allowed to tour the Five Points only with an armed escort. But in McLaren's day, the area—later to become Chinatown—was an ordinary slum of native whites, Irish immigrants, free blacks, and slaves (freed by New York proclamation in 1827). Craftsmen's shops abutted brothels, and the first city tenements bumped up against slaughterhouses. Grocers frequently sold liquor and many grocer-grog shop proprietors traded in stolen goods. None of that made McLaren's shop a dive. Though economic forces were starting to segregate neighborhoods by class, the city's vibrant mix persisted. A few blocks west of McLaren's store lay City Hall, and a little to the east, where Manhattan bulges into the East River, Corlear's Hook gave its name to local workers, the "hookers."

    Elizabeth's belly grew with the full moon in January 1823. She knew the bloody facts ahead, and the danger. Countless headstones commemorating mother and child still bear mute testimony to the risks of childbirth in the nineteenth century. Sweating in the damp chill as winter rain rattled the windows, her hair matted to her head, she labored. Labor. Usage has worn the word smooth, but it still hints at severe exertion, through surges of pain, ebbing and spiking again, hour after long hour. On January 25, Elizabeth gave birth to a boy. She named him Daniel after his father; but that same father gave the name Daniel McLaren to a later son, suggesting that this first baby was an "engagement child." Or illegitimate: No record has been found of the Crum-McLaren marriage, and the family story included the contradictory claim of $1,000 in damages for seduction. Premarital pregnancy was not unusual. Though rates had dropped from a Revolutionary-era high, over 20 percent of the women who married in the 1820s were pregnant.

    As the mother returned with her baby to Long Branch, the father turned to other ventures. In 1824, McLaren obtained a charter for the New Jersey Protection and Lombard Bank in Jersey City, a ferry commute across the Hudson from his grocery. The bank started strong, selling $128,000 in insurance, but warning signals went up in June when McLaren delayed payment of a required $25,000 to the state's School Fund. He finally paid, but immediately borrowed the money back for himself, using the bank's stock as security. When McLaren stalled repayment and then asked for a larger loan in the fall, he sparked a run on the bank. In November 1825, less than a year after starting, business was suspended. The failure shocked the state. Investigating, the legislature discovered that the insurance policies were worthless and the bank's initial capital, supposed to be $400,000, had amounted to only $50,000. That was less than McLaren paid himself for his services. He had also paid a lobbyist for help in "explaining principles" of his enterprise, which moved the investigating committee to the startling conclusion that "legislation may be subverted by interested persons." Unnerved by the fiasco, New Jersey approved no more bank charters for three years. The state tried to sue McLaren in New York, but, despite what a later study of New Jersey banking called "his remarkably artistic handiwork," he had done nothing illegal. The Newark Centennial summed up McLaren's scheme with words that could apply to his son's life; it was "so much like a fairy tale as to be almost incredible, and more like romance than real history."

    Little Dandy was growing into a lively toddler among the dusty country lanes, but it was not the life his mother wanted. Elizabeth was not content under her father's strict régime, she returned to the city with her son, perhaps bringing a new husband along. On March 19, 1825, she married a Jersey dairyman, Hugh Manahan, in a Methodist ceremony in Manhattan. At twenty-one, Manahan was a year younger than his strong-willed bride. Family lore says they met over milk on Mulberry Street, on his route delivering to Elizabeth's sister, Catherine, married to a painter, Hugh Reed, also from Long Branch. Manahan worked for others until 1827, when he got a farm on the Bowery near Art Street—now the site of Cooper Union. He supplemented his milk route by supplying the Harlem Railroad with cordwood. A later photograph shows Manahan with the hint of a grin, unusual for portraits of the time; Rice recalled a man who drank, chased women, and took him to the races. The small family lived on Mulberry, perhaps with the Reeds.

    Around the corner, on Chatham, was McLaren's store. It is not clear whether Dan knew then that McLaren was his father. When he did find out, he idealized the absent father, conjuring a grander parent than his genial companion of the streets and the tracks, Manahan. The difference can be seen in Rice's corresponding stories of each man with a prostitute. New York was rife with brothels and "nymphs du pavé." Prostitution, catering to a rowdy male culture, was an open secret all over Manhattan. Whitman claimed that 95 percent of men, including "the best classes," visited brothels. Some community leaders, such as George Lorillard, in whose tobacco factory Rice claimed he had worked, made money from "parlor houses" in respectable neighborhoods. As for the women, it has been estimated that up to 10 percent between the ages of fifteen and thirty engaged in the trade, a proportion that rose in hard times. A woman who would normally earn $3 or $4 a week could pull down $10, sometimes much more, as a "Venus Pedestris." Against that backdrop, Rice paired each of his fathers with a famous prostitute. Though both purported amours were probably fiction, the disparity in the women he chose reveals a stark difference in his image of the two men. He coupled Manahan with a symbol of degradation, the famously murdered Helen Jewett, Whose probable killer got off because he was from a "good family." Meanwhile, Rice matched McLaren with Madame Jumel, who managed her prostitution so well that she became rich, then sufficiently proper to wed Aaron Burr. Rice claimed that his father was Jumel's advisor and that McLaren proposed marriage to her after she had divorced Burr; but the prospective union crashed on the rocks of his ugly snaggle teeth, which he wouldn't fix for fear of dentists.

    Rice later blamed his mother and her "exacting Methodism" for pushing Manahan into Jewett's arms. The names of his siblings show Elizabeth's strong hand. In 1827, she gave birth to a second baby, whom she named William Crum Manahan after her younger brother. (Though William was her husband's first name, he went by Hugh.) When her third child was born, in 1831, she again looked to her side of the family and named her daughter Elizabeth after herself and her own mother, who died that year. Two years later, she used her sister's name, Catherine, for another baby. The girls were nicknamed Libbie and Kate.

    Dan probably chafed under his mother's strict régime as well. He was a buster, gregarious and pugnacious, a blend of his mother's fire, his father's audacity, and his stepfather's geniality. He was apparently "the terror of orderly schools," including the Kellogg Seminary of Orson Shubael Kellogg, at Broadway and Prince. One fanciful tale put Dan back in New Jersey, as a boy attending Princeton University. With "burlesque constructions of the ancient classic," he dazzled the learned faculty, just as the boy Jesus had confounded the temple elders. No matter which school Dan attended, the spelling in his early letters shows that he was not a diligent student. Mostly, he drove a milk wagon for Manahan.

    Dan's true education lay in the turbulent medley of early Manhattan. Even before the opening in 1825, the Erie Canal, which sent grains and hides flowing east, and goods and people west, was transforming New York into a metropolitan city. A seaport swagger overflowed from the wharves, where squat canal boats now joined tall sailing ships, with bowsprits jutting over the docks, and webs of masts, spars and rigging towering above. Immigration boosted the population past 100,000 in 1820 and double that through the decade. Expansion pushed Manahan north, to a farm on Fifth Avenue near 14th Street in 1829, and up to 26th a few years later. Yet most of the island remained woods or pasture. The Bowery of Manahan's first farm was, in Whitman's words, still a "shrubby, viny, orchardy, cabbagey road," and Dan remembered picking blackberries on Chatham Street. Running barefoot, he climbed trees and splashed through brooks, a homespun shirt flopping in the breeze. He could have been Huck Finn.

    Manhattan's rural Eden overlapped urban bustle, which included animals. With dogs always underfoot, rabies scares were common. In the hot summer when Dan was eight, panicky authorities ordered the killing of unleashed dogs and set off a massacre. Pigs wandered freely, squealing, rooting, copulating, and defecating; periodic attempts at regulation led to hog riots, in which hundreds of black and white women attacked the authorities to free their porkers. Bull baiting had mostly disappeared, but cockfighting and rat fighting—terriers slaughtering collected rats—were still treats. Then there were horses, and horse manure. Plodding horses pulled drays, while barouches clattered behind frisky mares, and racing took over city streets. Third Avenue was a favorite stretch, starting near Manahan's farm, "straight, nearly level for a long distance, macadamized and kept in good condition." It is easy to envision Dan on his stepfather's horse, flinging a challenge to another rider.

    Foremost in Dan's education was the human menagerie. The streets were symphonic with yells, singing, and oaths. Swaggering Bowery boys—infamous as "b'hoys"—jostled open-mouthed bumpkins while immigrants from all over crisscrossed staid old Knickerbockers, proud to be as stodgy as they fancied the original Dutch settlers had been. Dan's voice, growing from childish treble to solid baritone, rose over the cacophony. With an eye for clothes, he would pause at a vendue—a street auction—or under the awnings that covered the sidewalks, looking in at turbans and dresses of copper-colored satin, trimmed in white satin and black velvet. Street vendors offered a movable feast: strawberries, hot corn, pineapples, "Albany beef"—sturgeon from the Hudson—and "saltwater vegetables"—clams and oysters. Dan later pictured himself bedeviling a young Cornelius Vanderbilt peddling clams from Rockaway. Nighttime had its own delights, including bright lights. The year Dan was born, the city awarded the first gas franchise. Though working-class neighborhoods continued to rely on the feeble flicker of whale-oil lamps, and theaters were mostly lit by candles, gaslight began to make Broadway the great white way.

    Public life offered its amusements. Christmas was still only a modest religious holiday, but New Year's filled the streets with people; the well-to-do paid social calls during the day, and nighttime revelers, like the "Callithumpians," beat on pans and confronted the gentry. The Fourth of July was the country's grand holiday, its hours of speeches followed by the drinking and iced cream of "pic-nics." Elections were also public celebrations. Rallies under the hot sun blended into torch-lit meetings, the speeches punctuated by cheering and chanting, stomping and jeering, and more drinking. Violence flared often. When Dan was eleven, the first popular election for mayor sparked demonstrations against the propertied classes, with the militia called out to restore order. Strikes similarly combined political action and group celebrations. Tailoresses went on strike in 1825, and in 1836 tailors condemned the local aristocracy in one of the largest mass meetings the city had known. Special occasions added to the exciting brew. When the city welcomed Andrew Jackson in 1833, the whole city seemed to be a party, with Old Hickory cheered "three times three" and serenaded at his hotel. Fires were another civic amusement. "Connoisseurs of conflagrations," rich and poor alike ran to fires, bounding in the wake of the volunteer fire companies. The bucket brigades of the colonial past, anchored by merchants and masters, had been replaced in 1820 by private companies of journeymen and apprentices eager to enjoy swagger sanctioned by public service. Rival companies fought often, sometimes on the way to fires, to the point of letting a building burn while they battled.

    Fighting was a major component of civic amusements. On a small scale, there were simple fisticuffs, always a favorite activity for Dan. Combatants peeled off cumbersome clothes and earrings for battle. Gangs, overlapping with fire companies, organized the violence. Five Points gangs such as the Plug Uglies, the Roach Guards in blue-striped pantaloons, and the red-suspendered Dead Rabbits battled crews from other parts of the city, the Bowery Boys, the East Side Buckaroos, and the Slaughterhouse Gang. Black men banded together, too, though their gangs were blamed on abolitionists. The educated and high-born had their own feuds, fights, and duels. That included newspapermen. William Cullen Bryant, editor of the Evening Post, whipped a fellow newspaperman; and James Gordon Bennett, editor of the Herald, sold papers by printing the details of attacks on himself. Fighting sometimes escalated: 1834 became known as the "Year of Riots," and in one 1839 fight, over 1,000 men battled. A disturbance in the Bowery Theater jumped to the street, where white abolitionists and black citizens were attacked.

    Like street fare, theaters were intensely participatory. In November 1832, when Junius Brutus Booth—father of Edwin and John Wilkes—performed Richard III at the Bowery Theatre, management oversold the house; so people sat on the stage, fingering the props and refereeing the Battle of Bosworth Field as if it were a street fight, and boys ran for coins thrown by the characters. Later ages see k as outrageous behavior, but the New York Mirror was bemused by the "avalanche of spectators," including "jolly tars, and a number of apple-munching urchins. The scene was indescribably ludicrous. Booth played in his best style, and was really anxious to make a hit, but the confusion ... occasioned constant and most humorous interruptions." It was "all done in perfect good humor, and with no intention to make a row."

    Dan was part of the exuberant crew, cheering at the circus, heckling mistakes at wild-animal shows, hissing bad actors. One story puts him on a dark street alone after a play about graveyards and ghosts at the Bowery Theatre. Spying a shape behind him, he decided it was the Devil and ran home in a fright—chased all the way by a black dog. Dan might have attended the opera. In the 1830s, opera audiences were still mixed, and popular music "was simply whatever sold the most copies and was known to the most people, whether it be simple, strophic English song or an adaptation of music from Italian opera."

    The rambunctious Manhattan mix was perilous. People were knifed, gored, burned, maimed by faulty equipment, smothered in cave-ins. Rice twice narrowly escaped drowning in the Hudson, and joked about another, near suffocation, cracking that he had matured so early because he was manured so early when he fell into a vat of "stable earth," saved only when Manahan spotted his red shoes. Winter added the hazard of sleighs, which were muffled on the snow, often running people down. Sleigh bells were not decoration but a safety measure to warn of onrushing danger. Disease was rampant. Cholera hit New York in 1832, in the world's first global epidemic. The disease killed thousands of New Yorkers that year and during a resurgence in 1834. In one day, eight people died on Mulberry Street, including one at 27 Mulberry, where Dan had lived with the Reeds. No one knew the cause, but cholera was worse in cities; those who could afford to flee did so. Others, including Manahan with his milk routes, stayed and prayed and worried.

    Women endured their own hazard, childbirth. Late in the fall of 1835, Elizabeth took to her bed to deliver another baby. Public and private mingled in the antebellum world, spilling through thin walls, under ill-fitting doors, out of open windows. A gasp of pain in the night that jabbed Elizabeth from a fitful doze would waken Dan, too. As December began, the baby struggled out of her womb, through the birth canal, into the air. Mother and child, little Hugh, named for his father, were weak.

    Midway through the month, as the ordeal in the Manahan home continued in growing cold, fire broke out in the city. Hoses froze to ice, so people watched helplessly while the conflagration spread, blazing from Wall Street south. Firefighters in Philadelphia turned out because they thought the glow to the north was a fire of their own. The year of 1835 would be called the Year of the Great Fire; the blaze was the most destructive in the city's history, its losses estimated as high as $40,000,000. Philip Hone, one of the city's first mayors, called it "the most awful calamity which has ever visited these United States." The next day, crowds wandered through the smoking ruins, as looters fought with shopkeepers, tourists of their own devastation. Then came snow, and more snow, piling up for weeks, turning the streets into canyons. Pedestrians risked avalanches crashing from the roofs. Deep holes in the streets made sleighing just as dangerous. Walls of ice looked like black marble.


Excerpted from DAN RICE by David Carlyon. Copyright © 2001 by David Carlyon. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

After graduating from Clown College, David Carlyon toured three years with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He has since worked as an actor, director, playwright and university professor. He was in the Army, has a Ph.D. in Theatre from Northwestern University and holds a Berkeley law degree. He lives in Larchmont, New York with his wife and two sons.

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