Who Is Richard Cotovsky?
The Orignal Superior Donuts.
CBS launched a new sitcom earlier this year titled “Superior Donuts,” which is and isn't an adaptation of the play written by the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Letts. The sitcom version stars Judd Hirsch in the lead as Arthur Przybyszewski and Jermaine Fowler plays Franco. These are two characters from the stage production of “Superior Donuts” that sort of resemble the original characters of the play. Also, the location, Chicago, is central to the story, but not in as much depth as it is in Letts' play. The TV series “Superior Donuts” would be more accurately described as a production created by Bob Daily, Garrett Donovan, Neil Goldman and Jermaine Fowler who are credited as producers and writers of the show.
This by no means is a pan on Judd Hirsh, Jermaine Fowler, Katey Segal, Dave Koechner and the rest of the cast of the TV series. They are all fine actors. My friend and neighbor, Marla Cotovsky - who is Richard Cotovsky's sister - attended a SAG-AFTRA Foundation event, “Conversation with Superior Donuts” in Los Angeles. She submitted a general question to the whole cast about their audition process for the show when panelist and cast member Dave Koechner, who knows Richard, asked Marla to repeat her last name because he recognized it. Once Marla confirmed she was Richard Cotovsky's sister Dave went on to pay homage to Richard and told the cast and audience that he was the character Arthur and credited him for the existence of “Superior Donuts.” The event was videotaped and you can see it on YouTube. However, I watched that event and a few episodes of the sitcom, and get the feeling that none of the producers, cast members or series writers has seen the play.
In my conversation with Richard Cotovsky, I ask him for some pre “Superior Donuts” history. Cotovsky, who has a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois in Chicago, started acting in college when he took an elective class, introduction to theater. He has performed in and directed many plays, been cast in various TV show episodes, but his most notable and recognized role has been the Artistic Director of the Mary-Arrchie Theater Group in Chicago for 30 years until the theater closed in 2016. To honor Richard Cotovsky's contribution to the Chicago Theater community the street, West Sheridan Road by Angel Island, where the Mary-Arrchie Theater was located, was dedicated as Honorary Richard Cotovsky Way, by Alderman James Cappleman.
Richard Cotovsky met Tracy Letts many years ago when Letts moved to Chicago and became part of the theater community. They became friends and Richard sat in Tracy's improv theater group a few times. They regularly hung out with a group of theater folks in a bar in Chicago, and as Richard put it, “Tracy got involved with the right crowd and I watched him succeed and we maintained a friendship in theater over the years.” A few years ago, Letts approached Richard telling him he's written a draft of a play, “Superior Donuts,” and was surprised when Tracy told him he based the main character Arthur on him. Tracy Letts is a member of the Steppenwolf Theater Group in Chicago and took the draft of “Superior Donuts” to them. Shortly after they got the play, Cotovsky gets a call from the casting director at Steppenwolf and tells him that the info on the call is top secret and they want to see him about Letts' play “Superior Donuts.” So Richard goes to the theater and meets with the producers and casting director and auditions for the play. That was the first time he read the part of Arthur. They tell him if another actor doesn't come on board the part is his. Michael McKean came on board so Richard's role fell to understudy, but they wanted Richard to workshop the play with them, and he was happy about that.
Since the character Arthur was based on him, Richard was able to help the Steppenwolf Theater Company develop the play. Letts is originally from Tulsa Oklahoma and not as deeply familiar with Chicago as Richard so he was able to add some details and nuances of the city as well as character depth in Arthur. Workshopping the play was a very interesting creative process that Cotovsky enjoyed and found satisfying. Many of Richard's suggestions for the play were considered and accepted by the production group.
The play went from the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago to Broadway, but when the play went to The Studio Theater in Washington DC Richard finally gets cast in the lead as Arthur. He got a call of congrats from Tracy Letts and Richard tells his friend, “The play has come full circle.” “Not until you produce it at the Mary-Arrchie,” urged Letts. And so he did. Richard Cotovsky produced and starred in the lead as Arthur at his theater. He got Matt Miller to direct as he knew Matt was not only a great director but also well connected with the best actors in Chicago. Miller cast a young actor, Preston Tate Jr. for the role of Franco and at first Cotovsky thought he might be a little inexperienced for the role, but quickly he found that Tate was very passionate about playing the character Franco and turned out to be the perfect Franco.
The original “Superior Donuts”
In the play, Arthur is a man in his 50s, a pothead who has avoided things all his life and stuck in his ways. A Vietnam War draft dodger who fled to Canada, Arthur had a strained relationship with his father whose last word spoken to Arthur was “coward.” Arthur's father dies and his mother is left to run the donut shop but needs Arthur to come back and take it over. So he comes back during the amnesty period when draft dodgers could return to the US without penalties or imprisonment. Arthur has no ambition or love for the donut shop and it's a dingy, rundown lifeless place that barely gets by as the donut business hangs on by a thread. Arthur reflects the condition of his shop, unkempt; he keeps his wild frizzy hair in a ponytail and wears old t-shirts and dirty jeans. Arthur's style supports the weight of his life; the disappointments and tragedies. Arthur was married some years earlier but his wife leaves him and takes their daughter with her and they get a divorce. His wife dies five years after she leaves him which causes a deep divide between Arthur and his daughter who has not spoken to him in years. Arthur uses marijuana as a smoke screen to avoid the pain of life.
Franco is a young, intelligent, energetic and idealistic black man who has a gambling addiction betting on football. He is also a writer who carries his novel's manuscript with him at all times in a series of notebooks tied together with a bungee cord. Franco is a central character but he's introduced later in act one. Prior to Franco entering Arthur's world, there is a lot of background in the dialog with and between the characters that frequent the donut shop. The dialog and monologs in the first act reveal details of the why and the how of Arthur. Without this background, an audience would not connect and have emotions for Arthur.
Franco wins the trust and heart of Arthur through persistence. He begins to give Arthur ideas to improve his shop and pointers on how to give better customer service and marketing to increase donut sales. A transformation starts to take place as Franco begins to clean up the place and suggests Arthur get a radio to play music and inject uplifting energy into the donut shop. Franco also sparks an external and internal transformation of Arthur as he pries into Arthur's past. Like a sly therapist, he gets Arthur to reveal his life story and helps Arthur stop avoiding change. Franco extends his trust and friendship with Arthur with the ultimate gesture. He gives Arthur his novel “America Will Be” to read. Arthur takes the bundle of notebooks home and reads the novel. When he brings back the manuscript he tells Franco how good the story is, and that he needs to type it out into a computer so he can submit it for publishing.
The emotional turning point in the play comes when Franco who owes a lot of money to a gangster bookie, but can't repay his debt. The gangster burns Franco's notebooks, the only copy of his novel, and cuts off the fingers on one of Franco's hands. This pushes Arthur to break from his life of avoidance and fear to help Franco by paying off his debt and get into a fist fight with the gangster. The play ends with Franco and Arthur quietly sitting at a table in the donut shop, Franco's hand is bandaged where his fingers were cut off, and Arthur has a notebook in front of him and a pen in hand, and begins to help Franco re-write his novel, “America Will Be.”
Tracy Letts wrote his play “Superior Donuts” with thoughtful, unpretentious honesty and a sarcastic wit. Ironically, during “Superior Donuts'” run at the Mary-Arrchie Theater, Richard Cotovsky had a thought that the play would make a good sitcom. In my interview with Richard, he said he could see ten episodes straight from the play. Franco's character would not be introduced until the third episode, but that would allow for the audience to connect with the story and Arthur, and by then be ready for something to bring about a change in him. Though Richard admits it would be very difficult to change the key dramatic scenes with the notebooks being burned and Franco's fingers being cut off into comedy – these were scenes that brought gasps from the audience every night the play was performed – but there are so many possibilities for the TV series to be an actual adaptation of the original “Superior Donuts” and stretch into many episodes.
At the SAG-AFTRA Foundation event, another question from the audience was how were they able to adapt this play into a TV series? Jermaine Fowler answered, “Keeping the story intact and keeping the soul of the story alive.” That would have been doable, but after watching a few episodes of the sitcom it appears the writers have created a new TV story, not an adaptation. I don't find much of the original story included in this series and the soul… I hope the producers of the TV show will bring in the essence and depth of connection and transformation from the original “Superior Donuts” into the series.