NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his new series, "One On 1," with a profile of one of the most controversial columnists in New York, Frank Rich of the New York Times.
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It's been years since Frank Rich has been called "The Butcher of Broadway." But some monikers are memorable, and so more than 10 years after he stopped doing theater reviews for the New York Times, the name is still with him.
“It was picked up by the British tabloid press, which is always preoccupied with me because I was not a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber's, who was their then national idol," says Rich. “I knew something had happened in my life when I arrived for one trip and found I was literally being chased by paparazzi and tabloid reporters through Heathrow Airport."
Rich was the theater critic, then an op-ed columnist, and is now the cultural essayist for the New York Times.
“It seems that whatever the hell I do I end up getting an emotional response out of people,” he says. “I guess that's just me, not the subject.”
Rich also offers his views at events like a recent commencement ceremony in Chicago. But his main voice is an 1,800-word column in the Arts and Leisure section every Sunday linking culture and politics.
And through the years, he's gotten thousands of letters and e-mails.
“I have learned to develop a thick skin,” he says. “The volume is so extraordinary, much larger in this job than being drama critic. The most frequent mail I got when was drama critic was, 'How dare you send me to that boring piece of junk?’"
But the tone of the mail is much different now.
“Post-9/11 and the war on terrorism and the war on Iraq, people have violent feelings and one way or another are reflective of this moment in history, and will often vent them on a columnist," he says. “When you write about something that is really a lightning rod, like Mel Gibson, you would be buried under it. You have a thick skin, you tune it out, or you'd have no time left to do your job.”
In the past year, Rich has written extensively about Mel Gibson, leading up to the release of "The Passion of the Christ." Gibson vented about his critics in a New Yorker article last September.
His quote about Rich? "I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog."
"That was sort of an out-of-body experience in that I never met Mel Gibson in my life,” he says. “I don't have a personal vendetta against him at all. I was simply writing about the publicity campaign, which I found ugly, for one, and this movie, which I also found ugly."
Frank Rich made his name at the Times as the theater critic from 1980-1993, and he still appears publicly to talk about theater, as in an appearance with playwright Arthur Miller at the 92nd Street YMCA.
Rich describes the Times theater critic job as "very specific, weird."
“If you have the Times as a platform, you have an enormous effect over this very tiny community and industry, of which the epicenter is right here in Times Square, so there's very intense reaction to New York Times theater reviews,” he says. “I think it's unlike any other experience I think you can have as a writer in journalism."
Rich's 1998 book "Hot Seat" contained many of his reviews from the 13 years as theater critic. As if to prove his point that his power as Times theater critic was exaggerated, Rich includes a list of shows which he liked but closed quickly, and others he disliked which enjoyed long runs.
But he says the power of the New York Times theater critic can be a burden.
“I learned early on that you can't be paralyzed by it,” he says. “If you start every time you sit down to write a piece and think, 'My God, the New York Times has such influence in the theater,’ you'll be mealy mouthed about everything."
With the Times as his platform, Rich became the most influential theater critic in the country. Ironic, when you consider how he started.
"I was a film critic for seven years, so while I grew up loving the theater, I'd never written a professional theater review before I came to the New York Times,” he says. “I'd written some in college, but that was it. I'd never written one, so of course I was frightened."
But he quickly realized the power of his words.
“The power of the Times could be used as a force for good,” he says. “The classic example is 'Sunday in the Park with George,' which was panned by virtually every other critic. I was the only major critic who liked it. It didn't turn it into a hit, it didn't pay back its investment, but it didn't close in a week. By writing about it in the Times, I could at least draw an audience to it."
But Rich's Broadway days were not just about raves and pans. He was there when AIDS, in his words, "came knocking down walls in the theater," a time he says when culture and the real world collided.
“As a theater critic I saw that when AIDS came in, and now when you see something like the war in Iraq collide with the culture, my subject now, there is this definite symmetry to that,” he says. “That's my vision of the way the world works."
Frank Rich's journey to Broadway began in his native Washington D.C., where his mom, who was from Brooklyn, introduced him to the theater.
"I found the theater was always the world I could escape into during a tumultuous time in childhood," he says.
He wrote about those experiences in his memoir, "Ghost Light."
His parents divorced at a time when, as Rich puts it, "divorce was not represented in the culture." His mother remarried, to a politically connected man who loved the theater, but was violent with his children.
"I've had therapy like many people, and this is in some weird way the reverse,” he says. “In therapy you take apart your life, analyze it, take apart the various pieces and you put them in different context and try to figure out where they come from. In writing 'Ghost Light,' it was writing those pieces and putting them back into the narrative and figuring out how they fit together and how you got from here to there."
Rich's escape into the theater included family trips to New York.
"The skeleton of Times Square remains very much unchanged for me, and I do think about what it was like to discover it for the first time," he says.
His mother inspired rich to love the theater. Ironically, her sudden death in a car accident in 1991 led him to leave his position as theater critic.
"I obviously had a lot of grief about my mother,” he says. “I felt, 'something's changed,' but I couldn't articulate what it was. Most people who are drama critics of the New York Times are carried out on a stretcher at the end of it. And God knows I mastered it, but I was getting bored, besides the personal considerations that led me to want to leave it."
Rich says he always enjoyed the pace of relentless deadlines, but the lifestyle took its toll.
"When I was a theater critic it involved going out almost every night, and that takes a toll on your family life and it can be grueling," he says. “My first marriage broke up, and I think it at least was a contributing factor. I found at that point I wanted to change it."
Rich has two grown children and has remarried. The workload is different now, but he says the reaction is more intense than ever. It’s seemingly a perfect time to be writing about the nexus between culture and politics.
"Culture involves everyone more than electoral politics does,” he says. “I feel I've landed in an area where there is a lot of interest, and that may say less about me than it does about the times we're in.”
Frank Rich has written about theater and politics and culture. When it comes to his career, he says he believes in shaking things up, even if that means he will fail.
“I never believed I should be a film critic forever, a theater critic forever, a columnist forever,” he says. “I'm always looking for new challenges. Something about me needs that. And even if that means taking a risk and risk losing your audience or failing, that's part of life."