When South Philly playwright Bruce Graham set out to dramatize the life of larger-than-life Frank Rizzo, he made a startling discovery that shook up his creative juices.
"When I started outlining the play, I panicked - and I never panic," said the blue-collar playwright whose Theatre Exile world premiere of "Rizzo" runs tomorrow through Nov. 8 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, in Old City.
Before he researched Rizzo's life, Graham said, "I thought, 'Wow, what an interesting character!' But then I discovered he's not interesting theatrically, because if you put Rizzo in any situation, you know exactly what's going to come out of his mouth."
Graham also faced the plot problem of doing a bio-play about a Philadelphia icon.
"We all know the Rizzo story," Graham said. "And we all know the ending. So, I've got to come up with theatrical tricks because I'm telling you a story you already know."
Graham found the fresh twist he needed in the tense opening scene of the book his play is based on, Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America, by former political journalist and current ESPN football correspondent Sal Paolantonio.
The play begins during a desperate moment in Rizzo's neck-and-neck 1991 Republican primary battle with former district attorney (and now-retired Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice) Ron Castille.
Rizzo, who usually loved crowds and publicity, secretly arrives at a rowhouse for a meeting with a former cop that will determine his political fate.
"It gives the play a sense of mystery," Graham said, sorely needed in a drama about a Philly guy whose life was an open book (long before Paolantonio's) from his years as a tough, profane, racially controversial cop to his years as a tough, profane, racially controversial mayor.
Graham admitted that Rizzo's love-me-or-hate-me history has left him feeling frazzled as he awaits audience reaction.
"I know this is going to be the most divisive thing I've ever written," Graham said. "People who loved Rizzo will say I made him a monster. People who hated him will say I was too soft on him. I'm screwed either way."
Rizzo's racial attitudes at their ugliest are in the play, Graham said, but a surprising side of him is in there, too.
"When we did the research, we went to speak with Jim Turner, one of Rizzo's bodyguards, who is black," Graham said. "This man worshipped him. And this is not a weak man. This guy was a paratrooper in the Marines. This was a tough guy.
"Turner said, 'I was with him every day. I picked him up every morning and spent all day with him. I was in his house. He was in mine. I'd swear on a stack of Bibles he wasn't racist.' "
Graham has been playwriting and screenwriting since 1984, dramatizing everything from death-row inmates exploring the nature of guilt and innocence to a young woman navigating family conflicts with the help of an imaginary friend she's depended on since childhood.
Graham's "The Philly Fan," a tribute to the heartbreaking history of the city's sports teams, always seems to be in production somewhere in the Delaware Valley.
"When the Eagles went to the Super Bowl," Graham said, "somebody asked me, 'So whadduya think? If they win on Sunday, your play's obsolete.' I said, 'Let it be obsolete. I want that parade.' "
Over a decade later, despite a brief break from heartache during the Phillies' 2008 championship season, Graham's play is not obsolete.
Although he's maintained a deep affection for the blue-collar bar folks of his native Delaware County and his longtime South Philly home, Graham has genre-hopped into screenwriter on a kids' movie starring an orangutan and on the Hallmark Channel's hit soap opera, "Cedar Cove."
Based on the books by Debbie Macomber, who has sold 170 million copies of her romance novels, "Cedar Cove" is so greeting-card glamorous that even the bad guys are as pretty as star Andie MacDowell.
Graham admitted that "Cedar Cove" folks are a far cry from the conflicted, gritty characters of his award-winning plays. "They are the best-looking people in the world," he said. "But I also wrote 'Good Witch' for the Hallmark Channel, which makes Cedar Cove look like Vegas."
Graham, who teaches writing at Drexel University, is proud of all his work because he's mastered the craft. "I want a story," he said. "I want structure, rising action, so you've got to come back and see the second act."
He has no patience for shapeless emoting. "Look," he said, "I'm sorry you had a terrible childhood. Structure it well and I'll pay attention. Don't give me message-y stuff without anybody I can care about to deliver the message."
He's even proud of his goofy kids' movie, "Dunston Checks In," starring Sammy the orangutan, who wreaks havoc in a grand hotel.
"When my daughter was 4 or 5," Graham said, "I would sit in the movies with her going, 'Oh, throw me a bone, please!' This was way before 'Shrek.'
"When we screened 'Dunston Checks In,' " he said, "there were eight jokes that went right over the kids' heads and got laughs from the adults." Graham was pleased he'd thrown them a bone.
"Sammy recently died in a reserve," Graham said with a touch of sadness. "He weighed 800 pounds. But smart!"
While writing "Rizzo," Graham found time to return to his first love, acting.
"I tried acting in New York, when I was 22," he said. "I'm short, I was going bald. I'm not exactly photogenic. I wasn't going to get soap-opera roles. I was a character actor. So I started writing plays for schmucky guys. They ended up casting tall guys with hair."
Graham laughed at the memory. "Now that I'm the right age, 58, I started acting again. I'm doing Neil Simon's 'Rumors' at the Bristol Riverside Theatre in March, my third Neil Simon in a row there. Just got a Neil Simon face, I suppose."
After so many years of playwriting, Graham said, he finds acting exhausting.
"I used to be like a racehorse," he said. "But you don't lay off 29 years and get better at acting. I love it but I find myself thinking, 'I could be home with a martini right now. Why the hell am I doing this?' "