The first time I saw Grant Richey was sometime around the middle of the 80’s. I was a Jerome Fellow at the Playwrights’ Center and I was having a memorably terrible day. Back then, for all I know, still, the Center threw open the doors once around the beginning of the Fellowship year and let pretty much anyone audition for the chance to act in readings during the year. The ordeal went on for two or three days and the people who weren’t being paid to be there stayed away in droves. As a playwrighting newby I thought I should watch every audition.
On this day I had seen a young woman seemingly possessed by the spirtis of the characters of the Little House books. She played Laura and Ma and Pa and Black Susan the cat all by herself. Then there was an actor whose seeing-eye dog barked at him all through his scene. One actress whispered to me before she started that she was having her period and the audition would not be very good, but that ordinarily she was really great. Then Grant did a Sam Shepard monologue that literally blew back my hair like a cartoon guy. It was the best audition monologue I had ever seen, and I have never again seen one that approached it. Wow, I thought.
Actors do a lot of thankless things. But for me, audition monologues are the ground zero of thanklessness. If this guy could “wow” me, cold, in the midst of that bleak day, I knew he was the kind of actor I wanted in my plays. So I wrote a part for him, and because I had seen this actor who could be big and small and funny and true all at once, that was the kind of part I wrote. He did it and was great. I wrote for him again, but even when he didn’t end up doing parts he had inspired, it’s like he was involved on some level anyway, because some actors open doors. They change your ideas about what actors do.
From “The Revenge of the Space Pandas” to Brecht, from the guy who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby to the immortal Tony Martinithere were so many shows he made better, some he made unforgettable, and others he made bearable. He was a master of being genuinely himself while being many completely different people.
The last time I worked with Grant was a couple of years ago. I was writing a Thirst play and he wanted to be in it. So I asked him if there was anyone he’d always wanted to play. He said he’d always wanted to do Julia Child. So he played Julia Child, recently reincarnated to guest star on a sit-com and about to be un-reincarnanted for bad ratings. His Julia was charming and desperate and skewedall Julia, all Grant, and so funny I cried. Wow, I thought.
Grant is gone, and the world and many of the plays in it will be somewhat less fun, but I’m not necessarily done writing for him. And I’m sure I’ll never stop seeing him in other actors here, actors knowingly or not bearing bits of his spirit, his style, walking through doors he opened. I don’t believe in any kind of immortality, but I believe one of the delights of a theatre community is that someone like Grant will linger like that. For a long time.