A Talent of Multiple Hughes

A Talent of Multiple Hughes

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Jul 16th 2018

Even a marvelously down-to-earth, multimedia-favorite character actor like the beloved Barnard Hughes (1915-2006), who would have turned 103 today, could be prone to occasional exaggeration. Always a valuable ensemble player, he was quoted thusly in The New York Times’s obituary that ran when the actor died a few days short of his birthday in 2006: “Speaking of the early years, when he was playing mostly minor parts in film and theater, Mr. Hughes said in a 1978 interview in The New York Times that he could have played the roles ‘without pants.’ ‘I was always sitting behind something like a desk,’ he said. ‘I was a judge or a businessman or a lawyer or a doctor. Nobody saw my bottom half.’” As someone with a warm memory of his terrific Broadway performances in Neil Simon’s 1973 The Good Doctor and Hugh Leonard’s 1978 Da (the actor’s signature Tony®-winning stage and screen role), I can attest that he was fully clothed and decidedly well vested and appropriately full-body-costumed in his roles. Recent Blu-ray releases like Criterion’s Midnight Cowboy(1969, as the gay man brutalized by Jon Voight) and Olive’s Cold Turkey (1971, as the chosen Iowa town’s nicotine-fiend medico) are reminders of his range and skill, just as perennial favorites like The Lost Boys (1987) and Doc Hollywood (1991) offer his indelibly funny portraits of irascible and underestimated seniors. A couple of Twilight Time titles offer Hughes in distinctive wardrobe choices.

In the Paddy Chayefsky-written/Arthur Hiller-directed black comedy The Hospital (1971), Hughes is glimpsed mostly in either a patient gown or doctor’s scrubs, depending upon his momentary state of mind as the calculating andunhinged Edmund Drummond (aka the self-proclaimed “the Fool for Christ and the Paraclete of Caborca”), an elderly admittee who sets some shocking staff and patient deaths in motion as a “divinely inspired” response to the institution’s bureaucractic indifference to humane medical practice. As the old man describes (to Diana Rigg as his daughter Barbara and George C. Scott as the center’s emotionally drained chief resident Dr. Herbert Bock) a his plan to exact retribution on three doctors who diagnosed him and a dialysis nurse whose negligence caused him to go into a coma: “God clearly intended a measure of irony here. The hospital was to do all the killing for me. All I need do is arrange for the doctors to become patients in their own hospital.” Hughes also once told an interviewer that it was his nonsinging small role in the 1967 Broadway musical How Now, Dow Jones that brought him to director John Schlesinger’s attention for his above-mentioned breakthrough movie role in Midnight Cowboy. After more than a decade of stage and screen success, Hughes came back to the musical form – still nonsinging but definitely well-cast – as the forlornly grandiose, broken but unbowed Shakespearean actor Henry Robertson in director Michael Ritchie’s sprightly film translation of the Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt favorite The Fantasticks (1995/2000). Here, as a motley crew member of El Gallo’s travelling carnival, Hughes first appears emerging from a trunk in raggedy flannel nightwear, then proceeds to don a procession of ratty robes, clown faces and satiny schmatta to help in the troupe’s gauche if gallant efforts to school the gossamer piece’s young lovers (appealingly played by Jean Louisa Kelly and Joe McIntyre) in the rituals of romance. And, in all-too-brief moments of Falstaffian grandeur, we also get Hughes’ poignant delivery of snatches and semblances of the Bard’s vibrant verse, perfectly served-up ham done wry.

All one need say in tribute to birthday honoree Hughes is: Try to Remember The Hospital and The Fantasticks, respectfully offered here –– and here –– on lovely TT hi-def Blu-rays, without him.