In the new play, “Bullet for Adolf,” set in the course of a Houston summer in 1983, two buddies on a construction crew assess their relationship.
“You think we’ll ever be friends again?” says Zach, a laconic slacker who’s about to head to New York City to pursue an acting career.
Frankie, his African-American crew mate, replies, “I don’t think either of us knows the give and take of friendship.”
In fact, Woody Harrelson and Frankie Hyman are exploring just that in “Bullet for Adolf,” the comedy on which they collaborated and which is opening Wednesday at off-Broadway’s New World Stages. The semi-autobiographical play recaptures the summer that changed their respective lives. At the time Harrelson, here named Zach, was a callow 22-year-old, who with a buddy, Clint, had moved to Houston to earn seed money for a trip to New York to pursue acting. Hyman was escaping the life of addiction he left behind in Harlem and to which he would return after his fateful encounter with Harrelson on a construction site.
Neither knew exactly how fateful it would turn out to be. After that summer, the friends lost touch for nearly a decade. But Harrelson had never forgotten Hyman and, at one point, even hired a detective to try to track him down. Then in 1993, while appearing on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” the actor gave a shout out, requesting help from the public in the search. Hyman’s brother happened to be watching the program. In short order, Harrelson brought his long-lost friend out to Los Angeles, where he was then living, and helped him overcome his addiction.
Recalling that summer — and the crazy-quilt of oddballs who peopled it — they decided to write a comedy, which eventually morphed into “Bullet.” The inspiration for the title came when Harrelson heard a story about a luger, which was supposed to have been used in a plot to assassinate its owner, Adolf Hitler. The gun loosely figures in the zany antics, which include a birthday feast featuring placenta stew, flurries of racial and sexual epithets, and irreverent jokes about pedophilia, homosexuality, and the Holocaust. The play had a brief run at Toronto’s Hart Theatre last year, where it received mixed reviews but quite of a lot of attention for its co-writer and director, who, since the events of the play, has won Oscar nominations (“The People vs. Larry Flynt”, “The Messenger”) and roles in hit movies such as “Zombieland” and “The Hunger Games.”
Perhaps because of his high profile, Harrelson often deferred to Hyman when they recently sat down with ARTINFO for a conversation about “Bullet.” Harrelson recently turned 51 and Hyman is around a decade older. But the years melted away as the easy-going, softspoken duo reminisced and occasionally ribbed each other as they must’ve done thirty years ago.
Woody, you’ve mentioned that Frankie was the first black man you ever knew. What did he teach you about race?
Woody: Well, I think it wasn’t so much learning about race as you know....Well, there was a lot more racism in Houston at the time, and then when I lived in Ohio, I don’t remember so much overt racism as the fact that there weren’t many black people where I lived. So meeting Frankie meant coming into contact with a person who was just from another world. And then to find out that he’s the same. He’s different but he’s the same. So it just made me at ease being with a black person. And it wasn’t even that I was ill at ease before. I just hadn’t much experience. It now seems impossible for me to even think of that. But it 1983, it was a big deal to be able to have that kind of ease.
Frankie, how was it for you to be rooming in that house with Woody and his fellow actor, Clint?
Frankie: It was a fast progression into friendship with Woody. But it started with a big resistance. A big wall was up. He was white, I was black. But then we began what Woody just described: getting to realize how much we had in common. So many similarities. To the point that I’m almost forgetting — and I don’t’ want to forget — that this guy is white! And then it progressed to the point that we both had black girlfriends. And that wasn’t all right for me at first. You know what I mean? It was just this progression. And it started off with resistance, but you apply a certain amount of honesty and openness, and we just got a good result.
Was that your first black girlfriend, Woody?
Did you two compete for women?
Frankie: No. Woody was —
Woody: I don’t think we had the same kind of —
What were you going to say about Woody, Frankie?
Frankie: Woody was the one who had the girlfriends. I never was a big…uh, I had to struggle. I had big struggles getting girls. In fact, the black girl we’re talking about was a friend of Woody’s girlfriend.
Did you put that in the play in the friendship between Shareeta and Jackie?
Woody: Yeah, Jackie was Frankie’s girlfriend, and Shareeta was my girlfriend. And those were their names, too. You can see in the play that Shareeta and Zach are going to get together. It’s kind of heading that way. It just hadn’t blossomed yet. And Clint did actually steal a girlfriend away from me just like in the play. Batina. I had not contacted her for nine months so that didn’t help my odds.
There’s a lot of edgy material in the play. Was that true of that summer?
Frankie: We would push each other to the edge: “If you didn’t like that then why didn’t you like it?” Woody was really good for that. He could really get inside your head, fool with you.
Woody: You mean like saying jokes —
Frankie: — that are totally offensive —
Woody: — but could be funny under the offensive nature. There was some edgy kind of “N” word stuff. I mean I’ve always felt like that, uh, who’s that guy who talked about the things you can’t say?
I’ve always been mystified by how this word is off limits, this word has a prohibition, this word is absolutely destructive. They’re just words. So you know some of that was definitely going on.
Frankie: And then there was retaliation. So if they tried it, you could get them back.
There’s also the character of Dago-Czech who says he’s “Half Italian, half Czechoslavakian, a hundred percent nigger.” That must’ve rubbed you the wrong way?
Frankie: I couldn’t stand him! He was more Woody’s friend than mine. I tolerated him.
Woody: He’s the one guy of all the people in the play [who] I wonder if he’s still alive. He was really called China-Mex. But he did have that same thing. Half Chinese, half Mexican and 100 percent…We didn’t make that up. We changed it to Dago-Czech so it would be easier to cast.
What did you respectively want in that summer of 1983?
Frankie: It was more what did the universe want. It was more that I was there, working in construction, meeting Woody, and it just developed into this friendship, this lifelong friendship. Strangely enough, I had very few dreams, very few aspirations at the time. I was just living day to day. And it seemed a wise thing to move to Houston from Harlem to escape my past, to create a new one.
What did you want, Woody?
I wanted three things. Money. Girls. And probably, alcohol. Money. That’s why Clint and I were there. To make money to move to New York. It was not a deep… It wasn’t like I really want to find my right place in the world. I want to get some kind of higher, blissful, ethereal…No, I just wanted money, girls, herb… and alcohol.
We all lose touch with friends from time to time but you really sought out Frankie. Why?
Well, you know, it’s interesting. And I’ve never told him this, but I actually had times when I laid awake wondering, “Where am I going to find this guy?” It really kept me up. Bothering me. There was just such a deep connection that I felt with him, and I was intent. “I’m not going to lose this guy.” And it came down to some kind of extreme measure [“Late Night with Jay Leno”]. But thank God.
Did you feel the same connection, Frankie?
Frankie: Yeah, yeah. I was cheering him on while he was on “Cheers.” I was telling people, “That’s my buddy, That’s my man!” And I was so happy for him.
Woody: I remember, the last time I saw you that summer, we were all, like, in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, and you said to us, “You all are pure gold.” That’s what you said. Which is a rare compliment for him to throw out. He was saying, “You guys are going to be great in New York.”
Frankie: I meant that.
Woody: And we started to leave and we were getting in the car. And he yells out, “Hey!” And he comes back and goes like this — [ Woody grabs his crotch and shakes it] — and he turns around and walks away.
Frankie: C’mon! Are you sure you didn’t dream that? I remember something like that. I don’t remember grabbing my nuts.
Woody: That was the last thing he did. He did that gesture and that was it.
Frankie: He tried to teach me how to drive ‘cause I’m from New York and I didn’t know how —
Woody: I think it was a stick. It was a Chevy Chevette —
Frankie: And we’re in this parking lot in the pitch dark in the middle of the night. Where’s the logic in that? Learning to drive in the pitch DARK? There’s a logic alright, a logic that goes round with a big cloud of marijuana.
Woody: That was one of the scariest things! But didn’t that make you happy?