1961 saw the television debuts of The Bob Newhart Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Yogi Bear, and …um, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, famously described by theater critic Vivian Mercier as “a play in which nothing happens, twice.”
Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel, both trying to salvage careers after being blacklisted in the McCarthy period, starred as Vladimir and Estragon, in WNTA-TV’s Play of the Week series’ no-frills production. In contrast to the recent Broadway revival starring grizzled, grubby knights of the realm, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, Meredith and Mostel make a pretty harmless—and apparently unharmed—team. Vladimir’s prostate trouble was scrubbed from the shooting script, along with some 40 minutes of the stage version, five years after its disastrous American premiere.
Alan Schneider, who directed that production, returned to helm the Play of the Week, along with original American cast members Kurt Kaszner and Alvin Epstein, reprising their supporting turns as Pozzo and Lucky. Schneider appears to have had his hands full with the always-larger-than-life Mostel who chews plenty of scenery in addition to his carrot.
For his part, Mostel stated that he “wished to be re-blacklisted” if that would keep him from ever having to work with that director again.
Despite the tension, he and Meredith achieve a winsome Laurel and Hardy-like rapport as they plod up and down a painted road with choreographed aimlessness.
It’s still a bit hard for me to imagine American television audiences tuning-in in numbers sufficient to justify the effort.
To be fair, there were a lot fewer channels then. Play of the Week was a high brow project serving up serious theatrical work on the small screen. The first episode was Judith Anderson’s Medea. Compared to that, or Shakespeare, or Ibsen, a prostate-free Godot might be passed off as televised entertainment the whole family could tolerate for an hour and forty-nine minutes.
If you’re up for it, the entire production is yours for the viewing below.