Encore presentation of my interview with the late Barry Dennen about acting, being gay, and former love Barbra Streisand
Barry Dennen played Pontius Pilate in the original stage and film versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and earlier played a key role in Barbra Streisand’s emergence from cabaret unknown to a superstar.
He died this morning in Burbank at the age of 79, according to Deadline Hollywood.
Back in 2009, I did an interview with Dennen and am sharing it with you in its entirety below:
It was terrific fun to see stage veteran Barry Dennen in the role of “The Old Actor” named Henry in the Reprise Theatre Company’s new production of The Fantasticks. We spoke a few weeks before opening night and he was excited but a little nervous about his return to the stage after a decade-long hiatus.
“I haven’t done theater anywhere in a very, very long time, for 9-10 years. I had sort oif hung up my make-up towel,” he said. “It’s all been very quick and I’ve been trying to learn my lines. It’s all thrown together really, really fast. I’ve never done The Fantasticks before. I saw it when I was a young man when it first opened off-Broadway and I saw it with the original cast. It was a very beautiful little piece.”
The role in The Fantasticks marks Dennen’s return to LA theater after a long hiatus. He previously was in a production of She Loves Me at The Ahmanson and in Ghetto at the Mark Taper Forum.
“I was very spoiled in terms of working in LA theater which hasn’t quite found its footing yet. It seems to be put on in storefronts and reconverted spaces , most of the places you go to aren’t theaters. And then there’s the further problem of most actors who want to act in LA theater want to do it so casting directors will see them and put them in a sitcom or a movie. They see it as a stepping stone and not an end in itself which is it in New York.”
While he’s been away from the stage, he hasn’t stopped performing as he is in heavy demand for voiceover work for computer games.
“I mainly plays monsters and holy men,” he said, laughing. “That’s really what I do these days, that’s all I’ve been doing. I lime it. I don’t have to memorize anything or even shave if I don’t want to.”
“It was the original London production and we were the toast of the town,” he remembered. “That kind of thing does not happen every day.I haven’t stayed in touch with (Dench), I let that all go. Someday, somehow maybe we’ll bump into each other.We were together for a year and we got along very, very well on the show and had lots of laughs. I met al kinds of incredible people through her – she brought Ian McKellen to the dressing room! It was a wonderful show and we really road in on the wave together then went in entirel;y different directions. It was in 1968 and I became better known in England than I was in America so I decided to try and stay there.”
Dennen ended up living in London from 1968 until 1982 and during that time, had his most famous role of Pontius Pilate in the original concept album, original Broadway production and film version of Jesus Christ Superstar (pictured, left and below from his official website) His other film credits include roles in Trading Places, The Shining, Kentucky Fried Movie, Superman III, Dark Crystal, Fiddler on the Roof, and Titanic.
While I loved talking to Barry about Judi Dench and talking about his most famous roles, what I really wanted to talk about was Barry’s relationship with Barbra Streisand! He lived with her in the early 60s just before she became a superstar and created and directed the nightclub act that helped launch her.
“We were living together and worked together about three years and at one point, were going to get married but it didn’t work out,” said Barry, who in 1997 wrote the memoir My Life With Barbra: A Love Story. “She and I met when we were kids, she was 17, I was 20. It was a wonderful adventure, it was very exciting – the first young years of our lives.”
So what happened?
“I was gay,” he explained. “But I really do believe I fell in love with her. I was very emotionally involved with her but there wasn’t the glue.”
Professionally, things were smoother.
“It worked out in an incredible way, that early work,” Barry said. “I worked with her on I Can Get It For You Wholesale and it cemented the launch platform. After that was over, Barbra never looked back. She goes from one person to the next to the next who can help her. She got a group around her and her career took off to superstardom.”
He knew from the beginning that even if Streisand was not a conventional beauty, she was a singular talent.
“When we started to work, all the singers were Doris Day, all pretty little ladies and Barbra was very unusual looking,” he said. “I thought she was beautiful and stunning. I hope I made her see that. I knew she sang like a dream because I had collected phonographs of all the old singers. I got her to my apartment and played all those old records by (Edith) Piaf and said, ‘You can do this.”
A fabulous singer yes, but a superstar?
“I was very surprised when everyone else thought she was great too!” Barry said. “It never occurred to me she would become a superatar. When she took off, I was thrilled.”
Still, the famously private Streisand is well-known for wanting to control her public image and could not have been thrilled with Dennen writing a book more than 30 years after their relationship ended. I asked him about her reaction.
“When the book was about to be published, I called her manager Marty Erhlichman and said, ‘Tell Barbra I’m writing a book.’ She called and we talked a couple of times about the book. She didn’t want me to write it. She tends to think of anything written about her as some sort of criticism and as using bits of her to further an agenda.”
Streisand gave him a bit of the third-degree, Dennen remembered.
“She said, ‘Why are you doing this? For the money?’ I didn’t get any money out of our working together and told her, ‘You never turned your nose up at money!’ We went right back into the old mode that we were in. She asked if I was going to tell people that I was gay. I said of course. To me, that was the story: a young gay kid who falls in love with a young straight woman and they try and work it out and don’t.”
Did he ever find out what Streisand thought of the book about their time together?
“I sent her the first copy off the press but I doubt she read it. She probably did open it up and snoop around.”
But Streisand was not the last woman in his life and Dennen went on to marry a woman before finally living as a gay man in the early 80s.
“When I was growing up, being gay was not what it is these days. It was a mental illness. They raided bars and printed names and people lost their jobs and their whole lives. It’s getting much, much better than it was even 10 years ago. I did not want to be gay and tried to get over it – I even tried reparative therapy and got marriued. I’m here to tell you today, it cannot be done. I’m here to tell the tale. I’ve been out for a long time and all the women I was involved with, my wife and Barbra, I told them I fooled around with guys and was very conflicted and confused.”
After his marriage ended in 1981, he met a man who he was with until 2001 when the man died of lung cancer.
These days, Dennen is happy and single and open to new possibilities.
“I’m available boys,” he said, laughing. “I’ve kept my health up – I got to the gym five days a week and do an hour of cardio and an hour of lifting and I eat very, very well. I tell people, ‘I’ve never had McDonalds! I’ve never been to Wendys!’ I think a lot of my energy coimes from that, from eating well and taking care.”