Zev Bufman, 52, the co-producer, knows he is a very lucky man, so he is not reticent with his biographical details. His father owned two movie theaters in Tel Aviv, and Bufman’s one distinction growing up with his brilliant imitation of the Danny Kaye routines he’d repeatedly seen. That arcane talent got him to America to tryout for a production of Lady in the Dark. His performance of the rapid-fire “Tschaikowsky” (“There’s Malechevsky, Rubenstein, Arensky, and Tschaikowsky…”) launched him into show business. In 1980, he was in Washington trying to get a revival of Brigadoon off the ground. By that time, he had given up acting for producing, and his fortune had been made primarily by a few theaters he owned in Florida. Although the label “Zev Bufman Presents” has never implied the National Theatre of Great Britain, Bufman was doing very well.
So on opening night of Brigadoon, his date was the founder of Wolf Trap, Kay Shouse, who told him, “I’ve invited a good friend of mine, a senator’s wife, to join us. She is terribly bored here and has nothing to do.” “Fine,” Bufman said, his mind on the first act. But the senator’s wife was late, very late. As the overture ended, Bufman heard the sound of feet running down the aisle, and “then somebody slammed me on the shoulder very hard, like ‘Move over,’” but he didn’t turn around to see who it was. When he finally did look, “the first thing I saw were those two violet eyes, and I stammered, ‘My name is Z-z-z…’ To this day Elizabeth calls me ‘Z-booby.’”
“Hold my hand very fast, I’ve got to run to the bathroom” was the first remark Mrs. John Warner made to her future partner. That was, as Bufman put it, “lesson number one.” Mrs. Warner was earthy, didn’t stand on ceremony, and knew how to beat the crowd. Bufman was not so bad at beating the crowd, either. After the party that night, he turned to Elizabeth Taylor and said, “How about doing a Broadway show with me?” and she answered, “I’d love to.” “I felt there had been a spark between us,” Bufman said.
Lesson two came a few weeks later, in New York, when the new best friends decided to take in 42nd Street. There were no tickets until Bufman said the magic word: “I’m bringing Elizabeth Taylor.” “That was my second lesson. Never say you’re bringing her anywhere.” They arrived at the Winter Garden, and so did 200 photographers, who pushed past the ticket taker, shoving Elizabeth, almost giving her a black eye. For a few moments, Bufman thought she would be furious and their new association dissolved. “I hope that didn’t’ shake you up,” Taylor said. Backstage she told Tammy Grimes, “Zev and I are doing a show together.” “That’s when I knew we were in business.”
The show, of course, would be The Little Foxes. The negotiations with Lillian Hellman were endless—“Anything you do with Lillian takes ten times longer than with anyone else,” he said—but after several fights The Little Foxes opened to rave reviews, an eighteen-month international run; the senator and his wife got divorced; Elizabeth Taylor turned to Bufman for comfort; and everybody involved, including Lillian Hellman, walked away a millionaire.
“Zev,” Taylor said later, “we really should be partners. I want to work. I have good ideas. Let’s co-produce.” Within weeks the partners in the Elizabeth Theatre Group were talking agenda—Inherit the Wind, The Corn is Green, Sweet Bird of Youth, and even loftier productions. Taylor said she wanted to take on the plays of “William Shakespeare.” Cicely Tyson was hired for The Corn is Green, Taylor herself for Sweet Bird, as she calls it. So was the director Milton Katselas, who hadn’t done anything on Broadway in twelve years.
Then they reconsidered. Why not do a comedy, something almost fun? And not just any comedy, but Private Lives, an almost actorproof confection that has served innumerable couples well over the past 53 years. In Elizabeth Taylor’s dressing room there is a terrific picture of Noel Coward walking with Mr. and Mrs. Richard Burton, circa 1965. “Noel used to tell us all the time that we totally fit in her play,” Taylor explained. She and Bufman took that as a mandate. Richard Burton, tanned and healthy and not drinking at all, flew out to Taylor’s house in Bel Air to discuss. Although Burton ahs never been known for his light-comedy skills, the deal was rich: $70,000 a week for both of them. Since Katselas was already hired, the producers decided to let him stay onboard. Therein many future problems would lie.