Queens’ Gorman made his name playing Lenny Bruce

By The Greater Astoria Historical Society

Longtime New Yorkers should remember character actor Cliff Gorman for his breakthrough stage roles as Emory in “The Boys in the Band” and as Lenny Bruce in the eponymous “Lenny.”

Born in Queens in 1936, Gorman had a long career on the Broadway stage, in television and in pivotal roles in several movies.

The child of Ethel Kaplan Gorman and Samuel Gorman, Cliff was raised in the Jewish tradition. Although Cliff graduated from New York University in 1959 with a bachelor’s in education, he had already become active in the New York theater community. His first role of note was in “Hogan’s Goat” in 1965 with the yet-to-be-discovered Faye Dunaway.

“Boys in the Band,” written by Mart Crowley, who would later go on to write and direct the successful TV series “Hart to Hart,” gave Gorman the breakthrough role every actor salivates over. Cast against his type, that of the macho, swaggering New York tough guy, Gorman enriched the role of Emory from how it was written from just being a swishy stereotype of a gay man of the time, instead infusing it with humor and subtle pathos.

Gorman reprised his role for the film version, directed by William Friedkin, who later famously helmed “The Exorcist,” and released in 1970. Although many critics today find “Boys in the Band” dated and uneven, it remains an important work depicting life at the dawn of the gay rights movement.

Moving on from the ensemble work in “Boys,” Gorman followed up that success with a more dramatic turn as Lenny Bruce in “Lenny.” Bruce was a groundbreaking, controversial comedian in the 1950s and ’60s, made famous by his string of obscenity arrests. Bruce was a deeply troubled man and died of a drug overdose in 1966.

His peers in the Broadway community honored Gorman with the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play in 1973 for his harrowing performance in the role. Later, when the play was made into a movie, director Bob Fosse felt Gorman was not enough of a marquee name and cast Dustin Hoffman instead. Although Hoffman turned in a brilliant performance, one cannot help but wonder if this was a missed opportunity that would have sent Gorman’s career to new heights.

Gorman continued to act and received a 1977 Tony nomination for Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two.” He recurred in the late 1990s as a tough Judge on “Law & Order” and one of his last roles was in the cult favorite “Ghost Dog.”

By the turn of the millennium, he was diagnosed with leukemia, which he died of in 2002.

Gorman leaves behind a vast body of work as an actor and a reputation as a giving friend and co-worker, and should be remembered for his acting achievements in two important theater pieces of the ’60s and ’70s.

For more information, call 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.

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