By Skip Kaltenheuser
Gadfly Sep./Oct. 1999
from a long cord, the swinging light came so close
to Rick Cluchey's head that with every swing it
nearly singed his wild hair. The packed audience
watching SCENA Theatre's Samuel Beckett Festival
in Washington, D.C., sat stunned, wondering whether
this was planned. Cluchey silently cursed the
stagehand who had tied the knot in the cord, the
knot that had slipped and dropped the light into
orbit three feet lower than expected, turning
one of Sam Beckett's masterstrokes into a moment
of real danger.
technical glitches in dramatic stagings have always
haunted Rick Cluchey. In March of 1955, he flubbed
his first and only Los Angeles performance in
the real-life theater of armed robbery. It went
like this: He was nervous, as for any performance.
He emerged, as rehearsed, from hiding in his victim's
car. He brandished his gun to drive home the message
that he meant business. His audience was attentive,
handing over eight hundred dollars and a diamond
ring. But as Cluchey slipped the .44 Magnum, the
key prop in this film noir-like moment, back into
his pants, it discharged. Car windows up, the
.44 Magnum was a cannon. The bullet went down
and ricocheted off a spring in the car seat, grazing
the victim in the arm. The plot rumbled downhill
from there for the desperate twenty-one-year-old,
fresh out of the Army, an eighth-grade dropout,
jobless and desperate for cash, with a wife and
gunshot shocked me," Cluchey says, "and
I ruled out a life of crime before returning home
to Chicago." Six months later, he fell out
with a partner-in-crime after a drunken car party
in a snowstorm. The partner had gotten rough with
a couple of hookers, who sliced him up a bit before
departing, leaving him bleeding and holding one
of their wigs as a memento. He was pissed and
didn't care for Cluchey's admonitions and attempts
to calm him. A hard-knuckle brawl began. Shouting.
Blood stains in the snow. The cops showed up within
minutes. Both men were jailed for rowdy behavior.
Cluchey maintained an alias of "Henry Davis"
for several days, until his partner 'fessed up
and turned him in for the robbery back in Los
Angeles. He was shipped back to southern California.
Then came court.
was officially charged with "bodily harm
while being moved under duress during an armed
robbery." As the victim had driven on for
several blocks, the crime was construed as kidnapping,
kicking in California's "Little Lindbergh
Law." Prosecutor J. Miller Levy was an ambitious
and high-profile hardcase who had executed Barbara
Graham and Carl Chessman. To Cluchey's amazement,
Levy wanted to gas him, too.
fifteen months, Cluchey waited it out between
brawls in county jail. The victim, who was out
of the hospital in a day and whose diamond ring
had been returned, maintained that the shooting
was an accident and actually tried to help Cluchey.
But the hotel chain on whose property the crime
took place wanted a lesson taught. The judge rankled
the prosecutor by refusing to execute Cluchey,
who had no criminal record. Instead, Cluchey got
life without chance of parole in San Quentin Prison.
That's about as bleak as it gets.
life should have been over," says Cluchey.
Quentin wasn't famed for its cultural offerings.
In the 1890s, Sarah Bernhardt did a one-act play
in San Quentin's lower yard. That was it for showbiz
until Waiting for Godot arrived
in 1957, via the San Francisco Actors Workshop.
The captive audience of twelve hundred included
Cluchey, who'd "never been in a theater,
not even to rob one," he says. "I saw
myself on that stage, amid the two tramps commenting,
and the baronial character hauling another guy
with a rope around his neck." And, of course,
waiting for something to happen. For Martin Esslin,
author of The Theatre of the Absurd (1973),
the reaction to the first performance of Waiting
for Godot and the perceptive reviews
of it in the prisoners' newspaper, The San
Quentin News, was proof that "Beckett
was not a writer for highbrows."
was a prison boxer, which kept the bullies and
rapists at bay. Trained in prison as a dental
technician, he became popular in a land of bad
teeth. Still, those pursuits fell short of making
a life sentence interesting. Godot
still on his mind a year after, Cluchey asked
the warden for permission to start a prison theatrical
troupe. The warden gave the go-ahead, providing
there were no female impersonations—female
roles being considered too dicey an illusion for
an easily provoked audience.
Mandell, the former general manager for the Lincoln
Center and consulting director at the Los Angeles
Theater Center, had acted in the first performance
of Godot in San Quentin. Cluchey
and Mandell co-founded the San Quentin Drama Workshop
(SQDW). Mandell began a long mentorship with Cluchey.
For more than six years, he made weekly visits
to San Quentin, teaching directing, acting and
Mandell, who recently performed on Broadway with
Holly Hunter in Impossible Marriage,
"It was as though a light had gone on, and
Rick suddenly found the key to open the door to
his life." Fittingly, the first SQDW production
was Godot—the invitees included
the San Francisco Actors Workshop. Mandell and
the troupe worked their craft against the wall
of prison noise that never abates. Prison productions
were not elaborate. The stage occupied the former
site of the gallows. The initial annual budget
was $25 for makeup. But San Francisco's colleges
attracted a wealth of lecturers from around the
world, and Mandell convinced many to lecture at
and Cluchey made amazing gains. But prison realities
meant that after struggling with the creations
of top playwrights, before returning home, Mandell
would hear the heart-deadening sounds of his actors
being locked up.
Cluchey, separation from the world outside crushed
him with helplessness. When his four-year-old
boy was struck and killed by a car, he could do
nothing. The guard showed up at night with an
opened telegram, violating protocol—the
chaplain was supposed to deliver such news in
private—saying, "You got a telegram,
Clucky." "Sorry to inform you Rusty
was killed, letter to follow" were the written
words. When Cluchey's father didn't show up for
his regular Saturday visit—no phones in
prison then—Cluchey could only wait in suspense
for two days until a relative brought news of
years passed before Cluchey could perform with
his prison troupe. A man with nothing to lose
by going over the wall—Cluchey admits that
he "often thought of it"—was considered
too big a risk to let out at night. Meanwhile,
prison life exploded when mess halls and lines
suddenly desegregated and racial hate became a
deadly one-on-one affair. Cluchey navigated the
minefield with a growing reputation as a middleweight
boxer who dropped his opponents without regard
to race, creed or color. He befriended prison
classmate Eldridge Cleaver and doomed "Soledad
Brother" George Jackson. Jackson used his
position in the prison audio-visual office to
show the drama films Cluchey requested. To make
a buck and escape prison's "pressure cooker,"
Cluchey sold all the blood he could drain and
volunteered for "totally irresponsible, mad-scientist
found something in art, some hope among the bleakness,
that helped him cope with prison. He began working
with the chaplain, counseling inmates. Already
in courtyard favor as a purveyor of theatrical
escape, as the Catholic chaplain's secretary Cluchey
drove up his survival stock by distributing one
of prison's rare perks—Christmas cards for
the inmates' mothers. "After that, I could've
run for office," he says.
things count big in prison wastelands. For Cluchey,
the little thing that proved invaluable was a
small nook in the prison chapel where he could
write in privacy. In 1965, Cluchey wrote a prison
drama, The Cage, trying to convey
"the disintegration of the human animal behind
walls and the less tangible rigidity of prison."
The warden said, "I don't want it about my
prison," so Cluchey called it Le Cage
and gave the characters French names. The play
deals primarily with four prisoners, one of whom
is driven mad and homicidal, a role Cluchey sometimes
performed himself. When the warden saw it, his
sole comment was "I didn't know things were
so bad in France."
consoles Cluchey that when an outside troupe performed
his play in San Francisco, his father was front
and center at every performance, daring again
to hope something might go his son's way. The
1987 film Weeds was inspired by
the SQDW, with Nick Nolte as the Cluchey character.
However, it took such artistic license that Mandell
kept a distance, and Cluchey's charitable description
is, "very loosely based."
acted and directed in thirty-five plays at San
Quentin. Meanwhile, Mandell worked behind the
scenes to spring him. The judge who had sentenced
Cluchey also lobbied the governor. In a reversal
of fortune, Governor Pat Brown, on his last day
of office after defeat by Ronald Reagan, allowed
the parole board the option to consider life parole.
often speculate on my chances under Reagan, if
I hadn't been on Brown's mind that day—pretty
grim, pretty grim." Still, two more years
passed before the prison gates opened for Cluchey.
After "eleven years, nine months and fourteen
days in prison, and ten years of civil death parole—twenty-two
years in a system designed to keep you,"
says Cluchey, another Governor Brown, Pat's son
Jerry, gave a full pardon.
never disputed that "you should do the time
if you do the crime," but says "punishment
should fit the crime. It didn't. Still doesn't.
It was a time for revenge, not rehabilitation.
The economy went down and the blinders went up."
The actor has little use for politicians pushing
"three strikes, you're out" and other
measures that "straitjacket judges"
and defy both logic and justice, helping quadruple
the prison population since 1980.
left prison on a foggy day, December 12, 1966,
amid great fanfare from the convicts and the press
and television cameras. Waiting to take him to
new beginnings was a Silver Dawn Rolls Royce.
The Rolls was a prize in a fundraising contest
for Bill Sands' Seven Steps Foundation, a convict
rehabilitation organization Cluchey worked with
until the theater recaptured him. Sands helped
him reform the SQDW by joining former warden Clinton
Duffy in busting down the bureaucratic gates that
prohibited ex-cons from getting together.
fielded a troupe that could stay out of jail.
In 1969 he performed The Cage on
Broadway, after breaking box-office records at
Washington's Arena Stage. He performed The
Cage in nearly every state in the U.S.
and throughout Europe, with changing casts, many
of them ex-cons, often before prison audiences
and colleges. Performances were followed with
audience discussions, the public usually revealing
a determined ignorance of the realities of prison
life. Ultimately, Cluchey bent his rules, letting
in actors who were not felons C particularly actresses,
whom Cluchey was quite pleased to finally work
with. One was an attractive Puerto Rican actress,
Teresita Garcia-Suro. They married and had two
children, and a long theatrical collaboration,
before an amiable parting.
before prisons, watching the damage magnified
by "the current political fashions, as society
abandons the incarcerated," takes its toll.
Last year, after donating copies of the SQDW archives
to the central juvenile lockup in Los Angeles,
Cluchey appeared there to perform Beckett's Eh,
Joe. He looked at the boys who came
in, "all under seventeen, row after row of
them, all chained together, committed for murder
or attempted murder, or taking the rap for a gang,"
and broke into tears. He told them it was the
emotion and spirituality of being with them. He
didn't say that underlying it was the hopelessness
of their broken youth. But Cluchey never completely
caves in. Within him remains a never-say-die achiever
who pulls himself off the edge at the critical
moment. He's a guy who quit the ninth grade to
join the army with a forged birth certificate,
shooting for Korea. His mom ratted to his commanding
officer, who pulled him off the boat shortly before
his entire unit was overrun, but he joined again
as soon as he was legal.
his dozen years in prison, though visions of escape
often danced through his head, resilient as bad
tattoos, Cluchey never broke a single prison rule.
"That's something," the warden told
reporters, "when you think of all the rules
we have here."
personal life is equally tenacious. He is now
happily wedded to his fourth wife, Nora Masterson,
the Irish stepdancer and actress, and is thrilled
with their young boy Jameson. He has three generations
of children, all of whom he's close to, after
occasionally rocky roads. And he was tenacious
in his goal of reaching the man who put a mark
on him, Samuel Beckett.
corresponded with the playwright and had been
given permission to do his plays royalty free.
But he'd never been able to obtain an audience
with a man who kept such a low profile he didn't
show up to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature
in 1973, in Paris, he invited Beckett to a SQDW
production of the playwright's Endgame.
Instead, Beckett sent his niece to scout the play.
Impressed with her account, he invited Cluchey
for coffee. To identify himself, Cluchey wore
a Godot trademark prop, a bowler
hat. Asked Beckett, "Tell me something, do
you always wear that hat?" The playwright
took Cluchey to Berlin as his second directing
assistant in a production of Godot,
and Cluchey took Beckett to Tegel Prison, where
Cluchey was teaching a class of German inmates.
A strong bond developed, Cluchey becoming a surrogate
son to Beckett, and they worked closely together
from 1977 to 1984.
was hit by a lot of labels, the victim of a lot
of words. Avoiding interviews, he was greatly
misunderstood," says Cluchey. "Everyone
thought him an atheist, but he wasn't. Our common
exchange, come and go, was 'God bless, Sam,' 'God
bless, Rick.' He was a spiritual man with an Irish
sense of humor who carried deep pain from his
identification with the harsher events in the
world. He was one of the originals, with Hemingway,
against the loyalist movement in Spain, and a
member of the French resistance—most of
his group were killed. But Beckett was a stoic,
not a cynic. He looked at the moment very closely.
He was not a nihilist, but a minimalist, his poetic
vision is distilled to the last drop." Indeed,
Karl Ragnar Gierow, then secretary of the eighteen-member
Swedish Academy that represents the literary establishment,
fended off confusion over Alfred Nobel's mandate
to honor uplifting literature. "The degradation
of humanity is a recurrent theme in Beckett's
writing," said Cluchey, "and to this
extent his philosophy, simply accentuated by elements
of the grotesque and of tragic farce, can be said
to be a negativism that knows no heaven."
Then, likening Beckett's work to a photograph,
he says that printing a negative produces "a
positive, a clarification, with the black proving
to be the light of day, the parts in deepest shade,
those which reflect the light sources. The perception
of human degradation is not possible if human
values are denied. This is the source of inner
cleansing, the life force in spite of everything,
in Beckett's pessimism. I look upon Beckett as
a saintly man, who certainly made it easier for
a lot of us who were trying to write for the theater,"
continues Cluchey. "He was a breakthrough
dramatist, a form-smasher. The prose he was writing
at the time had gone dry, and he turned to the
theater for some relief from that process. But
he was a man in his fifties before he ever saw
his name on the theater marquee. He struggled
all his life."
says Beckett's affinity with SQDW came easily.
"Beckett's apartment overlooked a French
prison yard, he watched inmates signal him with
mirrors. He was fascinated by prisons, mental
hospitals, all the so-called bleeding meat of
society. When he got the Nobel prize, it was for
demonstrating to humanity its pain in a way it
could be understood. We live on the edge of the
void. A friend of mine has a series of photos
of Picasso's face when he was told that they had
dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and how many people
had been killed. In three frames you see the whole
horror of that generation when they learned that
this kind of destruction was possible. So the
void became more accessible to everybody, particularly
to one with those sensibilities and means of expression."
its twentieth-anniversary performance in 1987,
Cluchey updated The Cage to address
AIDS. Taking note of the powerful public response
to the play's three-month run in Los Angeles,
the California Department of Corrections began
screening incoming inmates for AIDS. "There
are tough questions on privacy rights, but prison
is an incubator for death sentences both in and
outside," says Cluchey. "If anything
good comes of this tragedy, it may be a hard look
at practical penal objectives."
this period in the late 1980s, Cluchey worked
on the video project Beckett Directs Beckett,
in which Waiting for Godot, Krapp's
Last Tape and Endgame
were performed under Beckett's direction. The
plays are stunners and include Cluchey going full
circle as Pozzo, the character who keeps a rope
around Lucky (Alan Mandell). But the video distribution
was by the Smithsonian Institution, which acted
like a Hollywood accountant, offering neither
money nor an accounting and selling the rights
to another distribution company.
an acting career without setbacks would not be
a career. Certainly not an ex-con's career. Cluchey
has seen the bottom, though, lived there, in fact,
so he's quick to move on, to work harder, never
wasting time. He became the first non-Italian
actor to win the Italian Drama Critics' Award.
He received a 1983 Obie for David Mamet's Edmond,
was named an Exxon Distinguished Scholar, and
was awarded two Los Angeles Dramalogue Critics'
Awards, one in 1987 for writing, directing and
acting in The Cage, and one in 1997
for directing the show Beckett's Women.
He has just been invited to perform Krapp's
Last Tape and Piece of Monologue
in the Berlin 2000 Beckett Festival next September.
And he hopes to soon finish a recording of Beckett's
novel Murphy, which he will distribute
free on compact disc to inmates in need of a little