oberst as grizzard
If you’re a Southern male journalist of a certain age, you must retain a certain amount of respect and admiration for Lewis Grizzard. The Georgia writer, who died suddenly (if not surprisingly) at 47 in 1994 following his fourth open-heart surgery, was the legendary Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist, humorist and author of bestselling books with such titles as “Elvis Is Dead And I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.” Grizzard was also popular on the lecture circuit and was, for a time, the nation’s most popular syndicated columnist, appearing in 450 newspapers. He was also something of a playboy who played his button-down, redneck humor and lifestyle to the hilt. Grizzard was the the South’s answer to Hunter Thompson, minus the drugs and radicalism, and his humor has been mined by such Southern comics as Jeff Foxworthy.
So it was not surprising when actor Bill Oberst Jr.—a stage and film actor with the chameleon-like ability to portray such controversial figures as Jesus, John F. Kennedy, Woody Allen and Mark Twain with a commanding physical resemblance and formidable acting skills—found himself reviving Grizzard’s act for what he thought would be a one-off tribute on CMT hosted by Foxworthy.
“I came to Lewis through Mark Twain,” said Oberst in a recent phone interview, connecting the dots between his one-man Twain show. “Lewis had just died, and the idea was to put together a tribute show on CMT starring Jeff Foxworthy. They needed a theatre actor to portray Lewis and someone suggested me.”
That show never jelled beyond its original concept, but Oberst’s likeness and portrayal of Grizzard struck a note with the late writer’s manager, Steve Enoch, who engaged him to star in a one-man Grizzard tribute, a la his popular Mark Twain show.
Oberst, a Southerner who was familiar with Grizzard, liked the character and was receptive to the idea. The only problem was Grizzard’s widow, Dedra Kyle, the writer’s fourth wife who he had married in his hospital bed only four days before his death.
“She wasn’t into it,” Oberst recalled. “She was his fourth wife and she thought people would think she was taking advantage of his legacy.”
To convince her otherwise, a test show was put together and played to a sold-out audience, many of whom approached Dedra afterward to thank her for bringing her husband back to life. That was 1999, and the show has since played to standing-room-only, standing-ovation audiences around the country.
On Saturday, Oberst will again reprise the role with a performance of “A Tribute to Lewis Grizzard: In His Own Words” at 7 p.m. at the Tivoli Theatre. Chattanoogans familiar with Grizzard—of whom I imagine number quite enough to fill the ornate theatre—are in for a treat. The show is based on the act Grizzard himself was set to perform on a concert tour scheduled prior to his death.
I watched a video forwarded to me by the show’s publicist that shows a split screen comparing Oberst’s portrayal of Grizzard with a tape of the humorist’s own stage show. Oberst captures Grizzard with uncanny accuracy. The writer’s signature oversized glasses, his mannerisms and drawl are all pitch perfect. No wonder the fourth Mrs. Grizzard was impressed.
But besides preserving and distilling Grizzard’s legacy for fans who miss him, the show has been a lucrative goldmine for the diminishing Grizzard empire. While the writer’s 20 books can still be purchased on Amazon (and on lewisgrizzard.com, an irony in that the writer famously hated computers) and many videos (including his guest turn on “Designing Women”) are archived on YouTube, the fact remains that Grizzard has been dead for 18 years. There is no new material, no new books and the generation who connected with and made Grizzard a wealthy man are aging fast. With this in mind, I asked Oberst if his show might be reaching its twilight.
“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “The audience is thinning, and I think its a shame that he’s not better remembered than he is. Lewis represented a particular type of white male in 20th century. I grew up in that world, I know that world, and it is vanishing. The South once had a certain identity, but as times changed and years passed, it’s lost that identity. Grizzard represented the last of that generation.”
Changing Southern identities aside, Oberst said he feels Grizzard is a touchstone, a bookend, as it were, for the 20th century that begins with Mark Twain, another American humorist with a substantially larger literary legacy and a uniquely American appeal who also continues to attract new audiences.
“I am a Southerner, and I feel a real responsibility to preserve that,” Oberst said. “Many come to [the show to] remember that time in their lives, that era, and they come up after the show and tell me their stories.”
Oberst, 47, doesn’t need to worry when the show does reach its inevitable end. He’s morphed from a stage actor playing what he calls “a little club of dead people” into an in-demand film actor with a lengthy list of horror movies on his IMDB page. Still, he will miss Grizzard when the time comes.
“I’m into film more now,” he said, “but I’ve enjoyed playing him. I’ve portrayed Jesus and Lewis, and people have a strong, even vehement reaction to both. I’m not comparing them, mind you—but people react, they know I’m not either of them, but they don’t care. That’s an amen from the church choir.”
“A Tribute to Lewis Grizzard: In His Own Words”
7:00 p.m. - Saturday, Jan. 26
Tivoli Theatre - 709 Broad St. - (423) 642-TIXS - chattanoogaonstage.com