It is with great grief and shock that I am saddened to report the passing of one of America’s great actresses, Helen Hanft. She was 79 and it was very sudden.
I had the great good fortune to have had known and worked with Helen for nearly 40 years. She was the greatest of inspirations to me as a playwright and actor and director, too.
I wrote nearly a dozen plays for Helen including “Reety in Hell”(1973) at the WPA , “The Kitty Glitter Story” (1974) at La Mama E.T. C., “Stoop” and “London Loo” two one-woman one-acts which she performed together as a one woman show (1977) at the Van Dam Theater, “The Blonde Leading the Blonde” at the Theater for the New City(1982) and “Bambi Levine, Please Shut Up!” in 1996 also at La Mama. Among others.
Renowned for her great comedic sense, I was always trying challenge her as a dramatic actress as well. She had the chops.
She was always acting from an early age, having attended the Performing Arts High School where classmates included Dom DeLuise, Rita Gam, and the artist Shelley Estrin, whom she remained friends with through the years.
Helen always remembered Sidney Lumet spending more time on Dom De Luise. Although both clearly future comedians, Lumet called Helen “too happy-go-lucky.”
She and I met in early 1973 when we appeared together as actors at the WPA Theater in a production of Sardou’s original play of “Tosca” on which the Opera was based. The play differs from the Opera in that there is an entire Second Act that Pucinni deleted when he musicalized it. And Helen and I played characters that do not appear in the opera. She was Marie, Queen of Naples. And I was the Marquis D’attavanti.
A little nervous upon meeting her I said, “Are you the legend Helen Hanft?” and she rolled her eyes delightedly and said “Yes….” drawing out the word for dramatic emphasis as only Helen could.
Many people are surprised to find that Helen and I were married by the Rev. Al Carmines at the Judson Church, where he also lived. It was circa 1975 and Sweet William Edgar, with whom she was appearing Off Broadway at the time in “Women Behind Bars” was one of the two witnesses.
Al Carmines, a legend himself, said to us, at the time, ” This is a religious service. I am a clergyman but you have to go down to City Hall and get the license and the blood tests.” Helen and I never did.
And Al said, “But this a spiritual marriage. In the eyes of God, you are forever united.” And it was true.
She was my Muse.