05/23/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT
He sits on a barren stage, a weathered, graying man in a blue velour jogging suit. The woman next to him, an extraordinary creature in a red angora sweater and Hermès scarf, fastens her violet eyes upon him, just as she has at so many other crucial moments in his life. "There isn't a particle of you that I don't know, remember, and want," Richard Burton tells Elizabeth Taylor. "I'm glad, my sweet," she replies, reading a scene whose resonance now comes less from the writing than from her own extravagant personal melodrama.
It is the opening rehearsal of Private Lives, Noel Coward's 1930 comedy about divorced spouses who meet and rekindle their bickering love, and no man and woman alive could bring to it such a vivid and tumultuous history. "There was a shiver in the theater," recalls producer Zev Bufman, 52. "I myself was teary-eyed hearing them read the lines, but I also felt elated. Listen, this was a moment every gossip columnist in America and many of my colleagues in the business predicted would never happen. They said: 'He drinks, she'll get sick. The odds are impossible.' "
Yet Burton stayed sober, Liz stayed healthy, and last week they opened on Broadway. Thanks to his stars, and his chutzpah, Bufman is now the most talked-about producer in town. "He got Taylor and Burton to work together commercially, which is more than I could ever do," concedes veteran Broadway showman Alexander Cohen. Indeed, nearly everyone on the street has tried, but Bufman, who first lured Taylor onto Broadway in The Little Foxes two years ago, managed to come up with a vehicle insouciant enough to bring about the biggest reunion this side of the Beatles.
Along the way, however, the mood backstage was often more Dostoyevsky than Coward. During the show's pre-Broadway run in Boston, critics were bloodthirsty. Taylor, said the Boston Globe's Kevin Kelly, sounded "like Minnie Mouse," while Burton clumped through the comedy "as dour as Titus Andronicus." Finally, a few days before the move to New York, Bufman fired director Milton Katselas. "The cast," he explains, "showed a strange and united inability to work with him." With the show temporarily leaderless, the prospects for Broadway looked grim. The worried producer, peering almost accusingly at his plate of bay scallops in a Boston restaurant, predicted: "We'll get creamed by the New York critics."
Creamed they got. Most of the show, said Frank Rich in the New York Times, has "all the vitality of a Madame Tussaud's exhibit and all the gaiety of a tax audit." Yet Private Lives had been a sellout in Boston, and more than $3 million in tickets were sold in New York even before the show began its 11-week Broadway run. "This is going to become, in a strange and wonderful way, a lesson that popular entertainment can live despite the critics," predicts Bufman. "We'll frame those notices and hang them in dressing rooms. Private Lives will break box office records."
That prediction may well prove excessive. But Bufman, a quiet man who puts his own money where his mouth is ($600,000 of the $1.2 million invested in Private Lives came from his pocket), has a track record that bespeaks credibility. The Little Foxes grossed $12 million in 50 weeks (Private Lives is expected to earn $15 million in 30), Bufman's musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a long-running Broadway hit, and his production of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge is a critical success that is staying alive at the box office. He also owns eight legitimate theaters, in New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Florida, making him, as he puts it, "a millionaire more than once over."
Yet Bufman has his eye on more than the dollar. He leaves his father, Mordecai, 79, in charge of his Florida operations, and gives his 100-member staff broad latitude in negotiating contracts and handling business details. "I haven't signed a check in 10 years," he says proudly. He prefers to save his energies for the glittery business of attending openings and escorting his stars. His visibility, especially with Taylor, has made the slight, crinkly-haired ("It's not natural—I have it done") Bufman a recognizable figure in his own right. "When I got off my plane in Columbus, Ohio and someone said, 'Aren't you Zev Bufman?' I kept the conversation going for 20 minutes," he admits. "I love all the attention. It's what I always wanted."
Realizing that most of his stars feel the same way, Bufman tends their egos with exquisite care. The Bufman treatment includes endless soothing phone calls, frequent visits backstage and memorable opening-night parties, as well as a wide-open pocketbook. "Broadway is full of nickel-and-dime people," says Alexander Cohen. "Zev is one of the last of the big spenders." Sandy Duncan, who starred in Bufman's 1979 hit Peter Pan, received a valuable six-by-eight-foot antique Chinese screen for her Manhattan apartment. Peggy Lee, who will be appearing on Broadway next fall in a musical based on her life, has been promised a grand piano. When Dustin Hoffman took up shooting pool during Bufman's production of Jimmy Shine in 1968, Zev arranged for a pool table to be hoisted up the side of Hoffman's Philadelphia hotel and deposited in the room adjoining his suite. "You want to please these people," Bufman explains. "Limos, aides, redecorated dressing rooms, flowers and champagne go without saying. It pays off in the end."
Indeed, even the most jaded stars seem impressed. "I love his dedication, enthusiasm and ability to make everyone in the cast feel like family," says Taylor. Agrees singer David Cassidy, currently starring on Broadway in Joseph: "The first time I met him, I was taken with his sensitivity in dealing with me as an artist and not as a piece of meat. Most producers look at you and see dollar signs."
Even by Bufman's expansive standards, he has been inordinately solicitous of the disaster-prone Taylor. "I worry if she coughs," he says. "There is something about her that makes you want to protect her." (Following that impulse, presumably, Bufman has taken out a $3.2 million Lloyd's of London insurance policy covering both Burton and Taylor.) When presents are required to keep Liz contented, he happily heaps on the largesse. "She asked for a carrot to do The Little Foxes in London because the lower ticket prices there meant her salary would be less than in the U.S.," he recalls, so he hurried out and bought her a $135,000 Rolls-Royce. Before the opening of Private Lives, he gave her three gold-and-diamond bracelets to round out her collection. Liz, in turn, has been known to send her limo out in the middle of the night to bring back Zev's favorite ice cream: vanilla mixed with Famous Amos chocolate-chip cookies. And the 18-karat-gold Cartier watch she gave him before the Little Foxes opening is seldom missing from his wrist. Unclasping it, he shows off the inscription: "To Zev, with love and thanks, from Your Fox, May 7, 1981."
Zev—the name means "wolf" in Hebrew—was widely rumored to be Liz's lover during the Little Foxes revival, but it is a liaison he vehemently denies. "Now there's another man in her life," Bufman says of Taylor's new boyfriend, Mexican lawyer Victor Luna, "so we're perceived as having just a producer-star relationship, thank God." Vilma, Bufman's wife of 20 years, was pained by the rumors but tried to be philosophical. "You wouldn't mind if your husband were fooling around if it weren't so public," she says. "But when you're in the supermarket and read about it at the checkout counter..." Leaving that thought unfinished, she adds, "I'm not a jealous person. I did what my mother told me to do. I kept baking the cakes and trying to make it nice for him to come home."
Bufman's first home, in war-torn Palestine, was less serene than his Manhattan penthouse. His grandparents had emigrated from the Ukraine in the 1920s, and his father became a prosperous movie theater owner in Tel Aviv. Zev, like most Israeli boys in those years, was conscripted into the military at age 17. "I spent most of my army time in 120-degree weather in the Negev. I wore a bathing suit, tennis shoes, a machine gun and a Colt .45," he recalls. At 18, he was first lieutenant and commander of the 89th Commando Unit. "We slipped behind enemy lines into Egyptian military camps, threw grenades, and fired at everything in sight," he says. "It was so dangerous that we were told we were volunteers in a suicide unit." Later, after the fighting ended in 1949, Bufman went into a state of shock and was hospitalized for two weeks.
A month later, after his recovery, Zev formed a USO-type entertainment troupe featuring his Danny Kaye imitations. Starstruck even then, he decided to go to Hollywood, though he spoke not a word of English. Later, while studying theater arts at Los Angeles State College, he managed to land countless bit parts in movies, TV and local theater. "I played Hindus, Turks and Albanians because my accent was so thick," he recalls. Conceding finally that he was "a lousy actor," Bufman turned to producing. With a $35,000 investment, he converted the old Hollywood Canteen into a cabaret called Le Grand and was on his way to making his fortune.
Not long afterward Vilma Auld, a striking dancer from Tacoma, Wash., came to a Le Grand opening. "It was one of those 'the look, the touch' things," says Zev. "We started living together right away." At the time Bufman was separated from his first wife, the Israeli mother of his son, Gil, now 25 and a student of electronics at Tel Aviv University. Zev and Vilma married in 1962, shortly after she had appeared in his first two Broadway productions, Vintage 60 and The Egg, both flops. "I retired her from acting," jokes Bufman. "I thought she jinxed the shows."
While Vilma focused her attentions on costume design and later producing, Zev became increasingly involved with the theater in Florida. In 1967 he made his imprint on Broadway by producing an American version of the Royal Shakespeare Company's controversial Marat/ de Sade, noteworthy for its nudity, drooling madmen and onstage lashings. Two years later Bufman persuaded heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, then stripped of his title for refusing to be drafted into the Army, to star in the Broadway musical Buck White. "I was starstruck," admits Bufman. "I bought the superman image. I thought people would buy tickets." They didn't, and the show lost $200,000 in less than a week before closing.
Nothing in Bufman's theatrical past, however, compared to the sensation generated by The Little Foxes. The Taylor-Bufman match began in 1980, when they were seated beside one another at the Washington opening of Zev's revival of Brigadoon. "Why don't you do a Broadway play sometime?" Bufman asked. "Why don't you ask me?" she replied. Now, with Private Lives scheduled to play Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles before ending its run in November, he would welcome a few days' decompression. Instead, he can look forward to four new productions: Peggy Lee's Peg; a new Marvin Hamlisch musical called Smile; The Corn Is Green, starring Cicely Tyson; and Inherit the Wind. The latter two will be presented under the auspices of his new Elizabeth Theatre Group, of which Taylor is co-producer with the understanding that she will star in one show per season.
Buoyed by his success with Taylor and Burton, Bufman is determined to rain new stars on Broadway. He has already made overtures to Sophia Loren, Gregory Peck and Burt Reynolds, and longs for a few words with Marcello Mastroianni. Should these appeals be rewarded, Bufman will, of course, shower his new stars with munificence. Ironically, Zev has little interest in receiving gifts and, in fact, longs for only one unobtainable object: a portable, James Bond-style telephone the size of a watch which he could use anywhere in the world. "That way, Vilma and I could jump off a plane and call someone right away," he explains. Whom would he call first? Liz? Sophia? No, no. Zev would ring up the trusted aide who totals the daily grosses in Bufman's little theatrical kingdom.