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Coco, James (1930-1987)  
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Directed by comic genius Elaine May, Next was equal parts Vietnam War protest play and horrific, Kafkaesque nightmare. Coco's self-deprecating businessman presumes that the absurdity of his induction notice will be recognized once his physical begins, yet he grows increasingly desperate as he finds himself overtaken by the dark, impersonal forces of a totalitarian government agency.

Next was very much a part of the Zeitgeist of the time, starting with a title that echoed the dramatic song "Next" in Eric Blau and Mort Shuman's long-running Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (1968), which was likewise a protest against the dehumanizing experience of being inducted into the military. McNally's Next ran for 707 performances, Coco's performance proving a tour-de-force of comic mania, winning him enormous acclaim, and allowing him to move out of his seedy apartment on West 10th Street (which he bequeathed to the younger and less-prosperous McNally).

Coco would collaborate one final time with McNally on the ill-fated Broadway, Broadway (1978), in which Coco played James Wicker, a stage-actor who had abandoned Broadway for Hollywood to star in a television situation comedy that has just been cancelled. The play presents the farcical goings-on at the opening night party celebrating the latest work of Wicker's best friend, playwright Peter Austin--an evening that reveals the gross self-absorption of theater people, yet, finally, the extraordinary creative bond that they share which allows them to rise above disappointment and enthusiastically begin work on a new show even before their current flop has closed.

Filled with jokes about the contemporary Broadway scene, but also offering an affectionate portrait of McNally and Coco's past history, the play failed during its Philadelphia try-out, in part due to the miscasting of Geraldine Paige as a ditzy first-time producer. But in 1987 McNally would rewrite Broadway, Broadway as It's Only a Play, in which Coco played opposite a much better suited Christine Baranski. It earned Coco excellent notices, and proved his last stage performance before his death.

Coco served other playwrights equally well. His most daring performance was in Albert Innaurato's The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie (1977), directed by close friend Robert Drivas, in which he played a five hundred pound man, once raped orally by a group of boys on a school playground, who locks himself in an apartment and consumes his own flesh--that is, he literally eats himself to death. The New York Times reported that although Coco "was initially afraid . . . that he might fail and destroy his entire career, his shattering performance elicited superlative reviews"--but, curiously, no Obie Award nomination.

Coco likewise proved an ideal interpreter of playwright Neil Simon, who wrote especially for him The Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969), a comedy about the inept attempts of an overweight, married, middle-aged restaurant owner to join the 1960s sexual revolution. Coco received a Tony Award nomination for his performance in the play, which also starred Doris Roberts and Linda Lavin, and which ran for 706 performances.

Coco would go on to star in three Neil Simon-penned films: Murder by Death (1976), The Cheap Detective (1978), and Only When I Laugh (1981). For the latter, in which he played Marsha Mason's gay best friend, Coco earned the distinction of being one of only two actors to be nominated in the same film for both an Academy Award for best performance, and a Razzie Award for worst performance, by a featured actor. In 1982, Coco would return to the Broadway stage in a revival of Simon's Little Me, a musical based upon Patrick Dennis's fictional memoirs of sexual adventuress Belle Poitrine.

From the late 1960s until the mid-1980s, Coco seemed omnipresent in film and on television. He acted opposite Liza Minelli in Tell Me that You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) and Elaine May and Walter Matthau in A New Leaf (1971), a film written and directed by May, who had directed him on stage in Next three years earlier. He played the hapless, down-to-earth Sancho Panza to Peter O'Toole's Don Quixote and Sophia Loren's Aldonza/Dulcinea in the film version of Man of La Mancha (1972), and starred in a fictional version of silent film actor Fatty Arbuckle's fall from grace, The Wild Party (1975).

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