Guest Post by David Henry Hwang
It is generally known that the lead roles in the play for which I'm best known, M. Butterfly, were originated by two amazing actors, John Lithgow and B.D. Wong. They blessed my work with their iconic performances on Broadway in 1988. However, my play might have had quite a different trajectory. Originally cast in the Lithgow role was another legendary actor, whose death was announced earlier today: Gene Wilder.
Best known for his immortal comic turns in movies like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Young Frankenstein, The Producers and Blazing Saddles, Gene was originally offered the role of Rene Gallimard, the French diplomat who carries on a 20 year affair with a Chinese actress, who he later discovers to be a man. Gene had started in theatre, but hadn't appeared on Broadway since the early-1960s, after which he'd become a movie star. Yet this part apparently intrigued him enough that he agreed to take it on.
Gene had some reservations about the script, though, so my producer Stuart Ostrow and I were privileged to enjoy several meetings with him at his home in Los Angeles. Always kind and generous, meticulous and probing, with a keen intelligence, he struggled with the fact that Gallimard serves both as my play's narrator, and one of its two major characters. "I don't know how to be 'Gallimard' and the 'Stage Manager' at the same time," he would declare, referencing the narrator character in Thorton Wilder's classic Our Town. We went back and forth debating, while all the time, a little voice in the back of my head was going, "This is so cool! I'm talking about my play with 'Dr. Fronkensteen!'"