Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot Airs on American TV (1961): Starring Burgess Meredith & Zero Mostel

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Samuel Beck­ett Directs His Absur­dist Play Wait­ing for Godot (1985)

Mon­ster­piece The­ater Presents Wait­ing for Elmo, Calls BS on Samuel Beck­ett

Rare Audio: Samuel Beck­ett Reads Two Poems From His Nov­el Watt

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the author of sev­en books, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the award-win­ning East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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