David Thacker was put in an impossible position when he was told his leading actress was dying.
The then 29-year-old had enjoyed a hiatus as he had secured Oscar winning actress Gloria Grahame to appear in his first ever production as an artistic director at The Dukes a year earlier in 1980.
She had turned down lucrative film and television work to perform in Lancaster and enjoyed the experience so much that she returned in September 1981 to appear in The Glass Menagerie as the lead role of Amanda Wingfield.
But it soon became apparent she was gravely ill and David was faced with the dilemma of respecting the wishes of his dying friend, or taking the advice of a surgeon, which would delay her death.
He remembers: “When I saw her again, I was very shocked by the change in her appearance over the last 12 months. It soon became clear during rehearsals she was very ill. She had a distended stomach and she said she had colitis. She said she had the fluid in her stomach drained regularly and I arranged for her to go to a cottage hospital the weekend before we were due to open to get it drained.
“I left her overnight and the next morning the surgeon informed me she had cancer - she had a huge tumour in her stomach.
“He said she needed to be operated on immediately or she would die within three weeks.
“Gloria refused to be operated on and asked to be discharged.
“I was in a position where I was the only way of Gloria getting out of hospital. I had the decision of whether or not I work with her request, or the advice of the doctor.
“I decided to get a wheelchair and I got her to my car.
“I drove her back to where she was staying - a tiny hotel opposite Lancaster Castle.
“I carried her up to her room and I put her to bed. I went back home and rang the consultant, asking what happens now. He said ‘unless you persuade her to change her mind, you just have to be there until she dies.’
“I went back and spent some time with her. I continued the conversations about going back to the hospital so she understood what was happening to her.
“I managed to make some transatlantic phone calls to her family and discovered she had a boyfriend - Peter Turner. I managed to track him down and he came up to Lancaster to discuss how to proceed.
“He said to me the only way I could do this was to lie to her and say we would postpone the opening and take her to see Pete’s mum, in Liverpool, who she had a good relationship with.
“We said once she got better we could do the show.
“I drove her to Liverpool, which was one of the most difficult journeys I have had. I was convinced she had died before we had got there as she was so ill.
“I left her in the very capable hands of Peter’s family, whilst I made further contact with the States.”
In between rehearsals and working to find another actress to play Gloria’s part, David drove to Liverpool to see how his ailing friend was.
He adds: “She seemed to be much better but that was because she was supposedly in remission.
“I found out from Pete she was to be flown back to the States and have her family pick her up."
David, who is now a Professor of Theatre at the University of Bolton and associate artistic director at the Octagon Theatre Bolton, adds it was during a poignant and ironic point he discovered Gloria had died on October 5.
He recalls: “One evening I was reading the biography of Tennesse Williams who wrote The Glass Menagerie. I had come to the part when Laurette Taylor who played Amanda Wingfield had died whilst doing the play. I was reading that paragraph when I got a phone call from Gloria’s family in the US, saying ‘sorry to tell you but Gloria Grahame has just passed away.’
“I then understood why she had been so tenacious and determined to go on stage to do the play.
“I recalled the time I drive her from the hospital to her hotel in Lancaster and the conversation was about the play. She kept saying, ‘we still haven’t got scene six right.’ She was completely determined.
“One regret is that I went along with the silly notion of draining the fluid in her stomach, as I had no idea she had cancer.
“Had she not gone into hospital, she would have at least been able to go on stage. I doubt she would have completed the run but she would have had her moment.
“But who knows what the outcome would have been? Maybe she would have died on stage.”
The 66-year-old admits that although he had only known Gloria for a short time, they had developed a strong working relationship.
He adds: “Any relationship with an actor becomes very intense very quickly. Gloria and I would never have been friends outside of the theatre but we had developed such an intense relationship through our work.
“She was an exceptional, charismatic and rather idiosyncratic woman. I have many fond and happy memories of working with her.
“That’s not to say it wasn’t tricky working with her. She was charming but also quite innocent. She was inexperienced in the theatre and was naive but she had a fantastic talent.
“Her death was a very emotional and powerful experience for me.
“To have a crisis like that so early in your career means that there will never be a crisis like that again.
“I was having to make this difficult moral judgement about what was the right thing.”
Gloria was a screen icon in the forties and fifties, having starred in Sudden Fear (1952), Human Desire (1953), The Big Heat (1953), and Oklahoma! (1955).
She also had a small part in It’s a Wonderful Life.
So it was a huge surprise for David that she would take a part in his first play.
He muses: “She was very important to me because she was in my first production as artistic director - Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. It was quite risky to cast an Oscar winning actress as I had never met her. But it paid off and the reviews for the show were incredible.
“At the time I was having difficulty finding a leading lady. I called an agent, Jeremy Conway, without even knowing he represented Gloria and he suggested her.
“I didn’t like to say I didn’t know who she was so I pretended to know of her. She was obsessed with England and happy to play here.
“We had a couple of telephone conversations with her to test whether I thought she was good.
“She spoke very slowly which didn’t give me much faith in her as the character she was to play was very quick witted.
“I then spoke to a colleague - Peter James - who had directed her in England before. He said to me: ‘do you want to sleep at night? It’s a nightmare but if you manage to pull it off, it will be amazing.’ I asked what the problem was with her and he said she found it difficult to learn her lines.
“I am a truthful person, but I have to admit I had lied to Gloria twice: once was about postponing The Glass Menagerie before her death and the other was about my method of working.
“I told her I get actors to learn their lines before they start rehearsing. She told me: ‘I have six months. I will do that.’
“In rehearsals I spent a lot of time working with her on her own. I found the best thing to do was to stop with the other actors at 4pm and then we would work together in her dressing room.
“I realised by working with her on our own how brilliant she was. She never really showed that with other actors as she would have to go back to the beginning every 10 minutes.
“It was very challenging, but I got a lot of out her and so I invited her back the next year for The Glass Menagerie.
“It was a big deal for Lancaster audiences to have this Oscar winning actress. She was a cult figure.”
Despite the tragedy behind the production, The Glass Menagerie, opened 10 days after the scheduled opening night, with Doreen Andrew taking Gloria’s original role.
Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, written by Gloria’s former boyfriend Peter Turner, will be screened at the Lancaster cinema from November 24 to 30.
Starring Annette Bening, Jamie Bell and Julie Walters, the film focuses on the end of Gloria’s life and particularly her intense romance with a much younger man.
It also references her appearance at The Dukes.
On November 30 at 7pm David Thacker will talk about her time at the theatre. Tickets are free but must be booked in advance.
As a further tribute to the only Oscar winning actor to grace The Dukes stage, on November 25 the cinema will screen one of Gloria’s most famous films – The Big Heat (15) – where she plays a gangster’s moll.
Tickets for Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool and The Big Heat are each £6.50/£5.50 concessions.
For more information and to book, call The Dukes Box Office on 01524 598500 or visit http://www.dukes-lancaster.org