Despite increasing opportunities in other entertainment media, most of Mary Boylan’s time was spent in New York City’s theater scene, where a rejection of Broadway’s commercialism was attractive to those deeply interested in art for the sake of art itself. Already there was an established Off-Broadway scene, but this was shunned as well. The year 1958 is cited as the birth of Off-Off-Broadway at a place in Greenwich Village known as Caffe Cino, where a plaque today honors the site’s significance. Among the established and most popular regulars there from the start was Mary Boylan, with Al Pacino listed as one of many of the café’s early performers.
True to the Village’s bohemian reputation, the café’s actors received no pay directly. Patrons normally bought a coffee and sandwich, and a basket was passed as compensation for the performers. Caffe Cino’s popularity inspired similar efforts nearby in other café settings, like La Mama, and in churches, bars, and any available spaces, lending to the wild and carefree attitude of the Village. Mary was considered a star performer at both café venues (Cino and La Mama). She looked much older than her actual age, leading to many roles as elderly citizens, but in real life was a smiling, energetic personality with a great sense of humor and a ready laugh.
Some writers created material specifically for Boylan to perform, but the most prolific playwright/director/actor at Joe Cino’s famous café was Robert Dahdah, who frequently partnered with her, utilizing Mary’s exceptional storytelling talents. In 1966, his Off-Off-Broadway musical, Dames at Sea, gained widespread attention, in part because it starred a young and very talented Bernadette Peters. It became the longest running show in the café’s history. Years later, in 2006, Peters said of Dahdah: “He was a terrific director and basically got the show on at the Cino…. I took on the role and I had the best time in my whole life.”
That set the stage (pun intended) for a collaborative effort the following year between Dahdah and Mary Boylan, who together wrote Curley McDimple, a spoof of the beloved Shirley Temple movies. Peters joined the cast (not in the lead role) and Dahdah directed, with spectacular results. It was so successful that even when Bernadette Peters departed in early 1968 (just a few months after opening) for a role in George M!, Curley McDimple continued for more than three years and 931 performances. In 1972 it was revived for another two-month run.
The Caffe Cino lasted from 1958 to 1968, but Mary’s reach extended far beyond the Greenwich Village Off-Off-Broadway scene. She accepted roles in television programs like Naked City, The Patty Duke Show, The Phil Silvers Show (more than a half dozen episodes), The United States Steel Hour, The DuPont Show of the Week, and two soap operas, The Secret Storm and As the World Turns.
She also continued appearing in movies. For Mary it was about the art, as opposed to fame and celebrity, but her profile was unexpectedly elevated while appearing in the 1964 hit film The Night of the Iguana. (The video clip shows her character, Miss Peebles, on the left.)
Not only was the movie excellent, but the supposed drama among the cast and non-cast members caused massive publicity, bolstered by story after story in fan magazines. The movie starred Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and Sue Lyon, but also on hand for the filming at Puerto Vallarta was Burton’s new wife, Elizabeth Taylor. On several occasions, Mary was beset by media members seeking the latest scoop related to supposed wild parties and other goings-on among cast members. She provided an inside look, but nothing negative, praising the stars she worked with and admitting to becoming somewhat smitten with the movie’s male lead.
“No woman could look at Richard Burton and not have her heart beat a little faster. He is so virile, has so much charm, and a beautiful speaking voice,” said Mary. She enjoyed shooting scenes with him, and at the end of one day’s work, he took her to a bar, where they conversed about books, the theater, movies, and other subjects until Liz joined them. Boylan added that Taylor was “always very pleasant,” and that the twelve weeks filming on location were a wonderful adventure—except for one incident that she described with the usual humor. Fully aware of her lesser role compared to the movie’s major stars, Mary laughed while reporting that she had failed to make the movie gossip columns. “Sue Lyon was stung by a scorpion. So was I. But my bite wasn’t written up!”
In the 1960s and ’70s, even after more than 30 years in the business, Mary continued studying acting under various coaches and schools to further develop her craft. It no doubt helped pay the bills, for she performed many credited and uncredited roles during her long career, appearing in two Woody Allen movies, Bananas and Annie Hall, and a number of other well-known films, including Midnight Cowboy, The Exorcist, Heartland, and Alice, Sweet Alice.
Her acting work was beyond reproach, epitomized by a comment from Walter Kerr, a Pulitzer-prize-winning and hall-of-fame theater critic, and a man who was sometimes very tough on the likes of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. While commenting negatively about Women Behind Bars in a New York Times column in 1975, Kerr wrote, “I am forced to make an exception for a canny actress named Mary Boylan who, with granny glasses and toothy grin, can handle just about anything.”
She continued writing and actively pursuing theater roles throughout her life, finally passing away in 1984 at the age of 70. Mary’s career not only touched theater, television, and movies, but also played a role in the historic birth of Off-Off-Broadway theater that spawned an entire new genre of performances. For a relatively unknown actress and writer, she sure knew a lot about getting things done, and left behind a long list of admirers ranging from café hangers-on to TV and movie superstars.
Photos: Mary Boylan (Caffe Cino, circa 1960); playbill cover for Curley McDimple; promo photo, Night of the Iguana, with Sue Lyon; plaque at entrance of former Caffe Cino (Wikipedia)