If you were looking for an example to precisely illustrate what is meant by a “colorful career”, you would need to look no further than Lester Colodny.
During his career, this 84-year-old resident of Westport performed on Broadway alongside Mae West, created the television series The Munsters, won an Emmy for writing and directing a show for Jack Benny, wrote and directed commercials featuring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Paul Anka, and Dolly Parton, and served as a literary agent for entertainment greats Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola. Oh, and he was also a friend and talent agent to Neil Simon during his early years, even babysitting the two Simon daughters from time to time.
“I have been reasonably successful, and have had a marvelous time, all of my life,” says Colodny. Currently, Colodny is having a marvelous time directing the Neil Simon play Jake’s Women for the Town Players of New Canaan. Given his first-hand knowledge of the playwright and his family, Colodny plans to add his own interpretations to this production of the play. He says, “I have never before directed a Neil Simon play. For me, it’s a big kick to do this.”
With elements taken from Simon’s own life, Jake’s Women centers on a novelist who is more successful with his fiction than his real life. His regular daydreams about the women in his life contribute to a marital crisis with his second wife. The parade of real and imagined visitations from those women into the author’s workspace creates scenes that are, by turn, wildly comic and deeply moving.
Neil “Doc” Simon was represented by Colodny during Simon’s early years as a television writer. Colodny recalls, “television writers were hired and fired regularly in those days. I could not be a mentor to these writers. I was just a kid, always hustling, moving writers around from show to show. The thing I had to do was keep the writers away from the producers long enough to sell them for the show. As soon as they got the job, many writers became impossibly big talkers.” He adds, “Doc and his brother Danny were fledgling writers when I worked with them, but they were sensational.”
Colodny has never seen a production of Jake’s Women, and that’s the way he likes it when directing a show. “Then I can bring all of my imagination to a play,” he says. “If you have seen a play before, there is no question you will imitate that production in some ways.”
What Colodny has seen is Simon’s intense, all-encompassing love for his first wife, Joan, who died of cancer while still a young woman. He says, “she was a very unusual woman, one of the most special people I ever met. She had a gorgeous face, and she was so ebullient, so for him. For her, everything was Doc.”
In Jake’s Women, the novelist also feels passionately for a lost wife. In one scene, Jake is asked by his psychiatrist what one thing he most desires. He answers, “To have the rest of my life together with my dead first wife.”
"In directing this play,” Colodny continues, “I want to really show the incredible feelings he had for this woman. You will understand that he never stopped loving her. You will see the totality of his feelings for her.”
There are other changes Colodny intends as well. “Doc wrote the novelist character in this play in a very self-deprecating manner. I don’t know why he did that,” considers Colodny. “I think I will play Jake differently than Alan Alda played it (in the original Broadway production). Jake will still be neurotic and crazy, but he will be played more sympathetically. We will soften Jake a bit. The audience will really like him.” He continues, “You also will see that Jake really loves his second wife, but it’s not enough.” Colodny calls the play’s scenes with the first wife and daughter “truly lovely”, and says he intends to make Jake’s interaction with his abrasive sister (Simon does not have a sister) “delicious”.
When not directing community theater, as he has done for two decades, Colodny says he reads prodigiously, plays golf and “becomes aggravated as I don’t have enough to do.” He recently wrote a thinly disguised memoir, for which he is seeking a publisher, but says, “if it was up to me, I would direct a play every month.”
“One of the things I have learned is that a director is as good as his casting,” he says. “There was so much talent here, I wondered how to choose.” He continues, “and I love actors. I would rather hang out with actors than my peers. I think I am a performer deep down, so I tend to draw the best performances from actors. These actors will really do a job. I will guarantee that this play will be as good as any on Broadway.”
Yes, it is rare for an 84-year-old to still be directing, but Colodny calls this opportunity a thrill. He says, “Neil Simon is the greatest living American playwright, and I am a cockamamie director.” Besides, Colodny says that directing community theater, keeps him young. He confides, “I was tired today, but as I drove here, and got closer to the theater, my whole mien changed. I feel young again. I feel like I am 27.”
Jake’s Women opens Oct. 30 at the Powerhouse.
— Laura Walbert
Editor's Note: This article was contributed by the Town Players.