Sunday, February 24, 2008

Dennis Letts

I was so shocked and so saddened when I found out this morning that Dennis Letts died on Friday from cancer at age 73. Steve on Broadway has written a thoughtful, moving appreciation of Letts, pictured above at right with his son Tracy.

It's a bit of a strange feeling to think that someone I saw on stage at Broadway's Imperial Theatre just a few months ago has passed away.

Letts portrayed family patriarch Beverly Weston in Tracy Letts' play August: Osage County, and he only had one scene. But it's the first scene, and it sets the tone for the entire evening. I can still picture him sitting in a swivel chair, interviewing a young woman who will be taking care of his cancer-stricken wife. While Letts' time on stage wasn't long, he was a deeply felt presence throughout this amazing 2 1/2-hour drama.

In hindsight, what was even more amazing about Letts' performance is that he was diagnosed with cancer in September, but chose to go with the rest of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company when August: Osage County made the move from Chicago to Broadway. I had no idea that the powerful actor I was seeing on stage was so ill. There was nothing in his portrayal that gave me a clue.

My thoughts are with Letts' wife and sons, and with his family in the wonderful Steppenwolf troupe. I will always feel tremendous admiration for his decision to keep working, and so privileged that I had a chance to see him on stage.

In a statement reported in the Chicago Tribune Tracy Letts said, "his choice to persevere with the New York production in the face of his devastating diagnosis is a testament to his love for the project and the people involved. “Dad had a full and fascinating life, and 'August Osage County' was the cherry on top.”

Dennis Letts' love for the project - and pride in his family - was always apparent.

In an article on, he wrote about the secrets of his success in life: his marriage to novelist Billie Letts, his three sons, "all good men, all funny, all so bright they make your hair hurt." Letts, who turned to acting after a career as an English professor in his native Oklahoma, said, "I'd already had a great run as an actor. Then came Steppenwolf and August: Osage County and an entirely new magical experience."

In November, he told a reporter for the Tulsa World: "Hey, you're talking to a fellow who's gone from Tishimingo Community Theater to Broadway. That's quite a step. And I'm in a great play my son has written. I'm the luckiest man alive."

When August: Osage County came out in paperback a few weeks ago, I bought a copy. Before I started to write this post, I picked it up to read Dennis Letts' part, but I got a little choked up at the dedication. It says simply: For Dad.

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