Culture

Chicago Conspiracy Trial

John Sammon
John Sammon
The author [left] and actor David Watkins treat Logan Ramsey roughly in the play The Chicago Conspiracy Trial. | Photo: sammonsays.com | John Sammon, David Watkins, Logan Ramsey, Court, Trial,

I Was in a Play about the Chicago Eight

I was in the 1979 Odyssey Theatre Ensemble performance of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial in Santa Monica with the late wonderful character actor Logan Ramsey, a 50-year veteran of movies, television and stage. The rough-and-tumble of this play (I violently shake up Ramsey) was eventually too much for Logan, who had a heart condition. After a few months, he had to leave the show. Logan was a truly great actor little recognized and often played character parts with a cynical or con-man edge. His wife Anne was also an actor, and played Mama in Throw Mama from the Train with Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito.

The Chicago Conspiracy Trial depicted the trial of seven defendants who were charged with fomenting riots at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 in protest of the Vietnam War. The trial, and the outrageous acts of abusive real-life mayhem in the courtroom (defendant Bobby Seale was actually bound and gagged in a chair to silence him), came to symbolize the entire tumultuous decade of the 1960s.

Seale was actually the eighth defendant in the case, but his case was separated by the government from the others and he was tried separately----so it became the Chicago Seven.

The stage production of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial is still a legend in equity-waiver theater (less than 90 seats) in Los Angeles. It boasted a fine cast including George Murdock, a semi-regular on the Barney Miller Show who played Officer Scanlon. Murdock died at age 81 last year and had endless performing credits going all the way back to the Twilight Zone in 1960 when he played the part of a come-to-life ventriloquist's dummy opposite Cliff Robertson.

Such brilliant actors and the play recreating the trial of the Chicago Seven fascinated the public. Lines stretched around the block to get in, and the play was a sold-out smash with critical raves that lasted for over a year. It became a live performance record album and was later re-staged with a different cast.

Interestingly, the actual people put on trial came to see themselves portrayed in the play. Jane Fonda, who was an anti-Vietnam War activist, came with her children and then-husband Tom Hayden, who was an actual defendant. In addition, Abbie Hoffman, who at the time was at-large and wanted by the police, came to the play apparently disguised as a woman (he left us a note afterward telling us).

Actors who came to see the play included Andrew Prine, Allen Garfield and Dom DeLuise.

In the audience one night was my future wife, a full year before we met.

The action of the play included a free-for-all brawl that was very realistic. The audience sat close in a small theatre, and one night as I was wrestling the actor who played the part of Abbie Hoffman (Paul Lieber, another actor from Barney Miller), an elderly woman in the front row screamed "Don't hurt me! Don't hurt me!"

In fact, the unusual sight of fisticuffs in an imitation court room appeared to drive some of the audience wild, perhaps because it was a bit like a combination of LA Law and Roller Derby. Some of the audience returned to see the play again and again.

There were ironic and hilarious exchanges in the play between Judge Julius Hoffman (Murdock) and the defendants, taken from the actual recorded transcripts of the trial.

For example, in the real trial, Hoffman failed to see the humor and irony when he admonished the defendants (whom he appeared to personally loathe) for mocking and laughing at him.

"I don't laugh at you!" Hoffman sternly declared, pointing his gavel at the seven. Then he sarcastically added, "Ha, Ha, Ha!"

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Updated Apr 22, 2017 7:34 AM EDT | More details

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