One morning, back in the summer of 2015, I made up my mind to go ahead with writing a book about Pontius Pilate in film, the quintessential Roman in the quintessential modern art form. How much fun would that be, I thought? So many fine performances … David Bowie in Last Temptation of Christ, Frank Thring in Ben Hur, Rod Steiger in Jesus of Nazareth. But, of all of them, the one I liked best was Barry Dennen from Jesus Christ Superstar. In the early 70s, I had fairly worn out the old Decca album, the one with the brown cover that they call the Brown Bible, from playing it so often. I knew every single word of JCS and while Yvonne Elliman had the best voice and Herod’s Song was the funniest, my favorite parts were all Pilate’s. The edgy nervousness in Barry Dennen’s voice just seemed to capture so much about my life, a tween living in the Watergate era. And what is truth? … Are mine the same as yours?
So, yeah, why not a book on Pilate? I thought. And then it occurred to me, I should try to interview Barry Dennen. Hey, now there’s an idea.
Yeah, another voice in my head said. How are you going to manage that? You’re a classicist in rural Tennessee, pretty far from the glitz of Hollywood. Lotsa luck with that, pal.
But I turned it over in my head, and spent the rest of the afternoon giving it a shot. Googled agents, casting companies, shot off e-mails. All of it kind of pathetic. Dear Mr. Dennen, You don’t know me but …
Toward the end of the day, it occurred to me that, well, maybe he was on Facebook. And damned if he wasn’t. It was one of those celebrity pages, the kind you can’t post to, but I thought, maybe I’ll send a private message. Couldn’t hurt. So I cut and pasted in one of the pathetic e-mails I’d written earlier, looked at the clock, gathered my things and hopped on my bike home.
My wife and I were having dinner with the boys when the phone rang. She answered it. “Uh huh. Yes, he’s here. Let me get him.” She handed me the phone.
“Is this Christopher McDonough?”
“This is Barry Dennen. My assistant sent me your message. Is this a good time to talk?”
JESUS CHRIST, I thought. JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. I yammered something, but mostly I was hyperventilating.
“It’s OK. I know how it is,” he said. “Take a breath. Tell me a little about your project, and maybe we can find a better time for a longer chat.” And so we talked, and then set up a time for a longer chat. Barry was in his 70s, but he still kept up an active schedule as a voice actor. Scheduling a time was a bit tricky, but eventually, he and managed to connect. I really don’t understand how Skype works, but after hitting a few keystrokes, after a while, up popped Barry’s face onto the laptop screen, the very screen I’m looking at now as I type up these words.
We talked for over an hour, with me furiously scribbling notes the whole time. Much of those remarks will make it into the book. Among other things, he told me about touring with Superstar in Italy a couple of years ago. “We did the show in the amphitheatre in Verona, an incredible place,” he said. “Afterwards this young man approached me, tenatively. And he took my hand and said, ‘This play means everything to me.’ And he paused, and then said, ‘You are my myth.’ Can you imagine that? Being somebody’s myth? I nearly lost it. No, I’m sure I lost it.”
The next summer, I travelled to Los Angeles to continue working on the Pilate book, for which I now had a contract with Edinburgh University Press. There was a lot of archival work to do, at UCLA, the Margaret Herrick Library (the Academy’s library!), and elsewhere. One evening, I went to visit Barry at his home in Hollywood. After finding a parking place on his steep street, I climbed the stairs to his place. On the door was funny little sign with his name on it, and a cartoon eye. I rang the door, and out he came and took my hand in his– his hands, the hands that try to wash off the blood of Christ in a glass bowl so memorably toward the end of the film of Superstar. “So, you found me!” he said, and invited me in.
We talked about the movie and the filming in Israel. “So hot there, you can’t understand why everyone there isn’t crazy. There was a guy who would come by the set in the afternoon selling cold melons, and we would all be waiting to pounce on him just to get one.” He told me about his life with Barbara Streisand, and about his record collection. “Oh yes, some great old French records, classic stuff from the 40s. I played them for Barbara over and over, and that’s where she really learned her singing style from.” At one point, we talked about his own singing and he told me how he convinced Andrew Lloyd Weber to write “Pilate’s Dream” for him. And then he sang a line of it for me. I dreamt I met a Galilaean, a most amazing man. My hair still stands on end a little remembering him singing this, and at what he said afterward too. “Imagine if you met someone in a dream,” he explained. “And then you met that person in real life? And you knew from your dream what you were going to do to that person, and how everybody would blame you for it? What would that be like? That is how I played Pilate.”
We met again a few days later at Solar de Cahuenga, a breakfast place in LA, to carry on our conversation. I picked him up in my car, and he came out wearing a black T-shirt with an image of his youthful self from Superstar. “I figured you might want to take a picture,” he told me, “and you’ll probably want Pilate in it.” We enjoyed our breakfast, and among various anecdotes, he told me about being on the wintry set in Croatia of Fiddler on the Roof and the endless board games they’d play to pass the time at night. One evening, he told me, the director Norman Jewison said, “You know that record of yours about Jesus is shooting up the charts in London. I’m thinking it might make a good movie.” And so Barry trudged out in the snow to the closest village to find a working phone–this was long before e-mail or cellphones–and called Andrew to tell him about it.
Sometimes I have wondered to myself what it must be like to have somebody track you down to talk to you about something you did forty years ago. Truthfully, wouldn’t that have to be kind of irritating? Pilate’s song ends powerfully, And then I heard them mentioning my name, and leaving me the blame. If it were me, that is a burden I’d be only too happy to get out from under. But I got the distinct feeling from Barry that he understood the significance that being a generation’s Pontius Pilate conveyed, the weighty symbolic value the role carried for millions of people.
He understood, in other words, what it meant to be somebody else’s myth. Despite that, though, there was a thorough-going humbleness in his manner, and an ungrudging generosity that seemed to come from his heart. Some of you will know that Barry died last September, and I have been thinking about another conversation we had in his living room in the Hollywood hills. He showed me a book he was reading about lying. “Liars fascinate me,” he said. It touched so close upon his work as an actor, he reflected, where one worked hard to become somebody or something other than what one actually was. There was a reason for this, of course, which he insisted was more than entertainment, more akin in his mind to religion. “But why do liars do it, pretend that something is true that isn’t? What do they gain that makes it worthwhile to hurt people?” He thought about people in his life who had hidden behind falsehoods and done him and others harm. But then again, as he pondered it, telling the truth can be hurtful too. “And that’s very wrong, because the truth should never be used for unkindness.” What is truth, you may ask, as did Pilate in the Gospel of John. Christ didn’t answer him, and I can’t answer it either, but now that Barry has taken his leave of us, it seems to me there’s just a little less kindness in the world, and a little less truth.