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First Person: Saving Grace

By Martin Moran
April 6, 2004

About the author:
It's no secret that Martin Moran is an accomplished stage actor. His list of theatrical credits includes Bells Are Ringing, Cabaret, Titanic, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Man of No Importance, The Cider House Rules, Floyd Collins and Big River. But he is also a writer, and in 2001 he was awarded a Fellowship in Creative Non-Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Now he is combining both talents with The Tricky Part. The one-man show, which Moran wrote and stars in at off-Broadway's McGinn/Cazale Theatre, is a humorous perspective on the conflicts between Catholicism and sexuality. Here, Moran talks about a famous family member who taught him the importance of telling stories.


As I am about to open in The Tricky Part, a play I've written, I find myself thinking of my Great Uncle Morgan, of things he shared with me before he died. Morgan was a wonderfully accomplished actor. He spoke of the stage as a calling. He said to me, "I'm a storyteller; stories are what shorten the distance between us."

I knew nothing of my uncle growing up. It seemed a miraculous fluke when, after my first year of college in 1979, I found him. I was studying pre-law and miserable when, one morning, a classmate talked me into auditioning for Disneyland--'All American College Singers and Dancers.' That's how I landed my first job--20 shows a week in the Land of Tomorrow. Grueling and silly as the gig was, it gave me courage to begin to express to my family this seemingly insane desire to act. I wrote a letter to my great aunt, who was a Cloistered nun. I loved her and I knew she held out hope that I might find a religious vocation. "Dear Aunt Marion," I scribbled from the lawn of my freshman dorm, "I don't think I'll ever be a priest. I believe I want to be an actor. I hope you understand." In her prompt and supportive reply she told me that I had a relative who was an actor who, if still alive, was in Los Angeles.

I was thrilled and vowed to find him.

On the first Sunday I could escape Disney, I took a bus into L.A. to meet Keene Curtis. A professor of mine knew Keene and had arranged this brunch with a "real working actor." I sat by Keene's little pool, chomping arugula, stunned to recognize him from all his TV shows. He told me to make myself at home while he went in to take a nap before his matinee. (He was playing Daddy Warbucks in Annie.) "May I use your phone?" I asked. "I'm trying to locate a lost relative." Keene brought me a phone book then turned to go inside. He paused to ask, "Who is this relative of yours?"

"Morgan Farley," I replied.

Keene's bald head furrowed with astonishment. "My dear boy," he bellowed, "do you know who Morgan is? He was one of the Broadway greats of the '20s and '30s." Without a moment's hesitation, Keene picked up the phone and dialed.

"Morgan, darling…I have a great nephew of yours poolside. Yes, yes really. Martin Moran." He handed me the phone.

"Hello," I said.

"Hello, Martin…or is it Marty?"

He sounded like someone out of a Noel Coward movie.

Keene organized a brunch the following Sunday in honor of young blood finding old. His table was beautifully laid, his house full of guests--James Hurlihy (author of Midnight Cowboy) Teno, a guy I recognized from Gunsmoke…several others. They all told me how thrilled Morgan would be to meet a young actor from his own family. I noted that all the guests were men; that the last luncheon I'd been to like this was at a recruiting meeting for Saint Thomas' seminary.

Morgan was running late. "He just wants to make an entrance," Keene said.

The car arrived. We all looked out the den window. A small man with a cane emerged. He looked to have dropped from the turn of the century--blue blazer, red ascot. In his free hand he carried a little gold box. Refusing the arm of his driver, he shuffled up the walk. When he entered, everyone fell silent. Morgan took my hand and smiled. Keene ushered us into a small den so that we could be alone for a few minutes. Morgan sat on the couch; I perched on the edge of the coffee table.

"It's a brutal and great profession my dear boy. Are you sure you want to pursue it?"

"I think so."

"You must know."

He handed me the gold box, it was filled with clippings and reviews from his many shows, including a small, rust-colored program from John Geilgud's Hamlet, 1937. The cast included Judith Anderson, Lillian Gish and Morgan. "Keep this stuff," Morgan said, "it's just turning yellow along with my teeth." He turned his blue eyes on me. "Go to New York," he said. "And don't wait for the bastards to call you. Study, memorize roles and, if you can…write. Write about being human. Telling stories…it can be your saving grace."