The breakout myth goes like this: Dustin Hoffman was created in 1967, when, at age 30, he played a 21-year-old closet rebel in The Graduate; Meryl Streep didn't exist until her 1978 role in The Deer Hunter; and Robert Redford wasn't ROBERT REDFORD until he dropped out of the sky and into 1967's Barefoot in the Park.
So strange it is, then, to poke around the Broadway Theater Archive, which has become one of the best-kept secrets of home video since being founded in 1997.
For the past couple of years, this Manhattan-based company has been methodically clearing the rights to and digitally restoring more than 300 rare television adaptations of theatrical plays, then periodically releasing the results on video. You're not likely to see a display for their releases in your video store, but watching them (on tape or DVD) is not unlike happening upon a trove of live performances you were certain were lost forever.
There's Hoffman in 1966, already immersing himself in a character, playing a doddering publishing house lackey in the black-and-white PBS production of his Off-Broadway breakthrough, Journey of the Fifth Horse. And there's Streep, a year before The Deer Hunter, looking frail and young in Secret Service (which also includes an unknown John Lithgow). Then the mother lode: Jason Robards in a 1960 public-TV version of his star-making role in The Iceman Cometh, alongside a 23-year-old Redford.
Indeed, many of these were almost lost forever last September. Broadway Theater Archive is part of Broadway Digital Entertainment. Its offices were crushed when the World Trade Center collapsed, but neither its staff nor the original masters were in at the time.
What remains are productions shot in that overlit public television style that still retains what it might have felt like to watch these plays. Many are with their original casts. This week, for instance, the archive released: Hoffman in Journey, Susan Sarandon in the 1974 adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Ring Lardner's June Moon, Walter Matthau in a 1972 TV version of Awake and Sing!, and, perhaps the best place to start, a classic 1966 Death of a Salesman, adapted by Arthur Miller himself, and starring the original Willy Loman, Lee J. Cobb. But look closely. That's George Segal as Biff.
And there's Gene Wilder as Bernard. And in June Moon, watch for Steven Sondheim making his acting debut, as a piano player. We'd be here until next Thursday if I mentioned all the highlights found in this first-rate collection. A full list of what's available can be found at broadwayarchive.com.
New on video: The Man Who Wasn't There (Uneven but fun Coen brothers film noir starring Billy Bob Thornton as a barber who gets involved in blackmail and murder; Dashiell Hammett would have approved); Domestic Disturbance (John Travolta's second slide into oblivion continues with this forgettable thriller); Black Knight (Martin Lawrence stars as a janitor who wakes up in medieval times and channels the spirit of Don Knotts, who, incidentally, is not dead); Texas Rangers (James Van Der Beek in a rough-and-tumble western. Yeah, right.)
Never played Toledo, now on video: Two of last year's most under-appreciated films: The Deep End (An eerie tale of domestic slumber upended, this absorbing film noir stars Tilda Swinton as a mother caught up in blackmail and murder; it never goes where you expect, and Swinton deserved an Oscar nomination); Tape (One of two excellent films Richard Linklater made last year; not as adventurous as Waking Life, this searing drama, set entirely in a hotel room, stars Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman as long-lost friends who should probably stay that way.)
New on DVD: A couple of very different musicals: The Clash: Westway to the World ($19.98) is probably the best Behind the Music episode that never was, a rare and fascinating BBC documentary about the rise and breakup of one of the best rock bands that ever was. One great bonus: 22 minutes of footage from The Clash on Broadway, a feature-length concert film shot in 1981 that never got off the ground when most of the film was lost.
Can't Stop the Music ($19.98) is something else, perhaps the worst musical ever made. I don't even know where to begin. Just don't miss it; it's so bad, until Moulin Rouge came along, it was blamed for single-handedly killing off the Hollywood musical. Stars include the Village People, Steve Guttenberg, Valerie Perrine, Bruce Jenner. Nancy Walker directed - right, Rosie the Bounty lady. In the short documentary that comes with the DVD, she says, “Honey, you gotta remember, movies are nothing but little pieces of stuff snipped together.” (Only she didn't say “stuff.”)
After endless shoddy reissues (eight on DVD alone), Night of the Living Dead: The Millenium Edition ($24.98, Elite Entertainment) finally does justice to this chilling 1968 classic. Shot outside Pittsburgh, the film still looks so stark and offhand (here, with a crisp black-and-white picture and good sound) that the DVD only accentuates how much it feels like a documentary. (Zombie hunter to news reporter: “Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up.”) Underlying the realism on this generous disc is a fun selection of director George Romero's commercials for Pennsylvania car dealerships, as well as a Romero commentary track, liner notes from Stephen King, and a dead-on film school parody from 1990, Night of the Living Bread.