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Ernest Thompson: Modern Renaissance Man

By Kelli Allred, Ph.D.
From Insights, 2006

 

Once upon a time—1979 to be exact—American theater welcomed a new star into the firmament. Born 6 November 1949, Ernest Thompson would write his way to fame through his award-winning scripts for stage and screen. Best known for writing the play On Golden Pond (1979), Ernest Thompson has come to be known as playwright, actor, screen writer, director, producer, mentor, and family man—truly a renaissance man for our season (http://www.ernestthompson.net).

His parents, Theron and Esther Thompson, raised their children in Bellows Falls, a small Vermont town where there were no strangers. When Ernest left home to attend a large university in 1967, he was quickly swallowed up in anonymity among 32,000 other students. He remembers drifting across campus one day when he saw an audition notice for Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! His successful audition baptized him into the world of theater, and he spent the next two years reading and re-reading the complete works of a number of playwrights (Albee, O’Neill, Williams, and Miller) in response to an English teacher’s challenge that Ernest do something with his New England work ethic. So he wrote plays, acted, and directed throughout college, graduating in 1971 (personal interview with Ernest Thompson, January 2006).

Thompson admits he spent his “draft dodging years attending a number of different colleges,” graduating from Boston University in 1971. Today Thompson’s papers are archived at Boston University's esteemed Mugar Library, among more than 140,000 volumes of rare books and historical documents extending from the sixteenth century to the present (http://www.ernestthompson.net). All things considered, Thompson certainly qualifies as a master of modern theater, and therefore a logical choice for the Utah Shakespeare Festival stage.

In the '80s, Ernest Thompson wrote the drama Sweet Hearts Dance, directed by Robert Greenwald and starring Susan Sarandon and Don Johnson. In 1989 he made his film directorial debut with 1969, starring Kiefer Sutherland and Winona Ryder. During the '90s, he wrote and directed made-for-television movies: Take Me Home Again, The West Side Waltz, and Out of Time. In 2001, he directed his own television version of On Golden Pond, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer (http://www.ernestthompson.net).

It is no coincidence that both the playwright’s father Theron Thompson and Norman Thayer—the protagonist in On Golden Pond— are retired school principals. Both Thompson’s mother Esther and the play’s Ethel fill similar roles as well: they represent the rock of familial stability and assurance. A self-proclaimed nonbeliever, Thompson writes about lost souls who do not have “the luxury of turning to diety,” so his characters must rely upon one another. Over the years, Thompson has rewritten On Golden Pond twice in an effort to “eliminate fluff . . . because the more mature writer sees the anger in the story.” He reminds us that “Alzheimer’s wasn’t a word” when he first wrote the play, and anger was newly accepted in 1978, a remnant of the Viet Nam War (personal interview with Ernest Thompson, January 2006).

The original 1979 Broadway production of On Golden Pond featured Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen as Norman and Ethel Thayer spending their summer at a New England lake. The only Tony Award nomination garnered by On Golden Pond that year was for best actress, but Sternhagen did not win. After writing a third version of the play, Thompson once again was thrown into the limelight when On Golden Pond returned to Broadway in April 2005. Leonard Foglia directed the all-Black cast that starred James Earl Jones (Norman Thayer) and Leslie Uggams (Ethel Thayer). The revival earned two Tony Award nominations: Best Actor in a Play and Best Revival of a Play, and ran a successful three months (Internet Movie Database, 2006, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0860125/).

On Golden Pond was Ernest Thompson’s first screenplay to be produced and was a huge hit in 1981. The film enjoyed top box office attendance in theaters that year with over 119 million viewers, second only to Raiders of the Lost Ark (Internet Movie Database, 2006, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0860125/). Thompson was recognized internationally with an Academy Award for best screenplay adaptation, a Golden Globe Award for best screenplay in a drama, and a Writers Guild Award for best writer.

Although Thompson has never really subscribed to a collaborative approach to his craft, he remains open to the creative input of others. “We learn from each other’s mistakes,” he says as he speaks of a suggestion that Jane Fonda offered during pre-production meetings for the film. When she suggested “how great a fire” would be, Thompson went to work incorporating a fire scene into the film, a scene in which Normal accidentally sets the living room on fire (personal interview with Ernest Thompson, January 2006). The dramatic scene was effective in showing the old man’s vulnerability. Later, Thompson thanked Jane Fonda for the “fire” suggestion. She laughed and told him that she had meant a campfire, where the family could sit around roasting marshmallows. Thompson credits Fonda for the suggestion, because it gave the film credibility apart from the stage play.

Toward the end of the story, Ethel sings a sentimental tribute to the lake: “You can tell who we are by the gleam in our eyes / Our minds are clear and our hearts are strong. / We are dancing here but we won’t be long / There will soon be deer where there now are fawns. / But we’ll remember our years on Golden Pond / On Golden Pond” (Ernest Thompson, On Golden Pond, [New York: Dramatist’s Play Service, 1998].

Thompson’s own mother, Esther, would later write, "It is truly wonderful to be back on Golden Pond, which is timeless, with the sparkling lake, the rustic village, the devoted loon couple and their one baby. Spring is delightful, with the new leaves, the flowers." There can be no mistaking the sentiment of the playwright’s mother in the song that Ethel sings (http://www.ernestthompson.net).

Today Thompson lives a bi-coastal life. A small, rural New Hampshire town serves as the family’s home base, where he volunteers, observes classes at a local college, and is a favorite guest speaker. He also provides mentoring for new writers, as part owner of a small theater in Maine. Thompson and his wife, a scenic designer, live in their southern California home while Ernest continues to produce, direct, and write for television. They are the parents of three children: Heather has been accepted to the Tisch School acting program; Danielle attends the University of Georgia; and son August attends high school in Santa Monica, California (personal interview with Ernest Thompson, January 2006).

On Golden Pond continues to be one of the most popular and frequently staged plays in theaters across America. One recent production left Thompson feeling a new sense of his own mortality when he discovered Ethel and Norman Thayer were being played by the child star of his generation, Hayley Mills and ’60s television star Richard Chamberlain (http://www.ernestthompson.net).

On a personal note, I must add that interviewing Ernest Thompson for this article was a delight. He’s an interesting and gifted talent who remains down-to-earth as a modern husband/father. He continues to create opportunities for self expression through his persistence and commitment to writing. When I asked him where he’d like to be in 10 years, he replied “Hopefully, still living.” Let’s hope he is still around for another decade, writing, mentoring, and directing new works. Truly a modern renaissance man, his talent for artistic expression remains distinct and inspiring.

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