They sat, masked, on a bench, six feet apart, in the Katharine Hepburn Garden in Turtle Bay. An appropriate spot for these two men, in their eighties, to meet up again after so many years. Why appropriate? They had both been actors on Broadway some 65 years ago — playing the same part in the same show, though not at the same time.
Let’s go back. In 1955, Peter Levin (then billed as David, as there was already a Peter Levin in Equity) was in his 20s and an aspiring actor. He met Garson Kanin, who was soon to direct a new play called “The Diary of Anne Frank” on Broadway. Levin read a few lines and Kanin said, “you’ll do.” That year, he played Anne’s hidden neighbor and crush, Peter Van Daan, in a production that earned great reviews.
Levin played the role for nine months and then was drafted. At which time, Kanin decided to cast Arnold Margolin, who was the assistant stage manager, as Peter. “I only had one rehearsal,” recalls Margolin, “and Garson gave me one direction ... ‘louder!’” Margolin stayed in the show for a year — until he was drafted.
Decades went by. Levin spent a year and a half performing in the Army, then married an actress-writer in New York. They had their own little company (The Hardware Poets Playhouse), but eventually decided to move to Los Angeles. His acting career waned (“It was cut short when I couldn’t get a job as a waiter,” he likes to say) and he became a highly respected television director (37 Movies of the Week and ten episodes of “Lou Grant,” among many others).
Meanwhile, Margolin finished his service, returned to New York, and had far more interest in working behind the stage. He, too, eventually moved to Los Angeles, married, and became a hugely successful TV producer (creating “Love American Style” and many more).
Amazingly, they did not formally meet until ... well, either at an “Anne Frank” commemoration at a museum in Los Angeles in 2005, or at a dinner party ten years earlier. “Trying to get an 88-year-old and an 85-year-old to remember anything is a comedy in itself,” says Margolin.
They do both recall that 1995 dinner party in Los Angeles, where the host, writer-producer George Furth, thought it would be fun to bring the two former Peter Van Daans together. More years passed and now, they both have returned full time to New York. Recently they learned that they lived near each other. Hence, the meetings on that bench — and later strolling the gardens — in that park named after that very famous actress.
Being able to see old friends — let alone make new ones — at this time is challenging. This particular one will likely continue, for good reason. One could spend hours listening to Levin and Margolin speak of long lives filled with great stories. They share, they laugh, they remember. All those famous names they encountered along the way. “Like this young kid who hung out with my little group here for awhile,” says Margolin, “who wanted to be a piano bar performer. His name? Warren Beatty.”
Although they made very good livings in the world of television, they feel most strongly about where they began. Margolin is writing his third play in a row. (Which he asked Levin to read) Levin went to an Actors Equity event one night, because someone was reading the words of Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who hid the Anne Frank family. When Levin timidly mentioned his role in the original production, the room-full of dreamy actors cheered.
“I hardly watch television, but I really miss the theater,” he says. ”It was my passion as a young man, and remains my passion as an old one.”
“Trying to get an 88-year-old and an 85-year-old to remember anything is a comedy in itself.” Arnold Margolin