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Clarence Derwent

“The struggle of the newcomer has always interested me,” wrote Clarence Derwent, and throughout his life he worked to ease that struggle. An actor, director and manager, this London-born theatre-artist, who, legend has it, came to America when he saw a cumulous cloud form a finger pointing west, is best remembered today for his efforts in what he called “theatre politics.” His tenure as President of Actors’ Equity (1946 – 1952) saw the Union through struggles against theatre segregation, but most of all, Derwent is remembered each year by two rising Broadway actors, the recipients of the Derwent Award. This award, honoring supporting actors, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

Clarence Derwent, 1953

“As far back as my memory serves,” Derwent wrote, “I was at all times an avid theatre-goer.” Born Harold Stanley David Wolff in 1884, theatre was always the center of his life. He would spend hours waiting in line to see famous actors such as Henry Irving and Ellen Tree stride the London stages, and then sneak into theatre balconies to secretly watch those same actors rehearse. He refused to follow in his father’s footsteps as a diamond merchant, finally running away from home to join a traveling theatre troupe. During his first year on stage he played 30 smaller Shakespearean roles, and gained an appreciation for the supporting actor.

Derwent with Tallulah Bankhead in THE EAGLE HAS TWO HEADS, 1947

While still in London, he began what he later called “a lifetime affiliation with the economic and administrative side of the acting profession” as a member of England’s Council of Actors’ Association, a precursor of British Equity. When he moved to America, he became an Equity Council member and was elected Equity President in 1946. While in office, he presided over Equity’s battle with the theatres in Washington, D.C. over audience segregation. Speaking of a black actor performing at the National Theatre, he commented, “It passes my comprehension to follow the logic of a policy which permits this…actor to enter the stage door nightly and appear at this theatre on one side of the footlights while denying to his mother or his brother the right to witness his performance from the other side of the footlights.” Derwent seemed to speak for the entire civil rights movement when he wrote, “Apparently, when discrimination enters, logic flies out the window.” In 1947, Equity gave Marcus Heiman, manager of the National, one year to change his policies. This tense stand-off had unexpected results: three other theatres in Washington reversed their discrimination policy. Heiman would not budge, finally turning the National into a movie house. Five years later, however, the National re-opened, desegregated, under new management.

Derwent with Aline MacMahon in THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT, 1950

Unknown to anyone but his sister and lawyer, Clarence Derwent had stipulated in his will that two five hundred dollar prizes were to be given out annually to the best individual supporting performances on Broadway. He had originally planned to have the awards given out only after his death, but, he reflected, “The amount of fun one can have from one’s money when underground is strictly limited…” So the Derwent Awards began in 1945. For Derwent, money was the least vital element of the award. Rather, he hoped that its possession would “serve as an open sesame to the ‘holy of holies’ when casting is in progress…” This has certainly been the case. Winners have included Judy Holliday, Frederick O’Neal, Barbara Bel Geddes, Ray Walston, Iggie Wolfington, James Stewart, Frances Sternhagen, Gene Wilder, Christopher Walken, Ann Reinking, Marybeth Hurt, Morgan Freeman and Dianne Wiest.

When Clarence Derwent died in 1959, Frederick O’Neill, the first actor to receive the Derwent Award, said, “In his presence, one had a feeling of spiritual elevation, a moment of true belief and confidence in all mankind…” This confidence blossomed in his love for the passionate struggle of supporting actors. Or as Clarence Derwent wrote, “Young actors rush in where angels fear to tread…”

By Peter Royston

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