“Let’s keep in touch” is a vow we all make, especially at this time of year, and it’s something we regret when we neglect to do it before it’s too late.
That’s how I’m feeling after learning that Grant Richey died on Thanksgiving Day. Grant was an actor and teacher, a natural and fearless comedian, a generous soul and someone who refused to let cancer get him down. He once claimed that I helped launch his career, but the fact is, he did more for me.
Back in 1988, when he was still in his 20s, Grant played the lead in the first thing I wrote for the stage, a little nostalgic/angry/joke-bag vignette called “PK Xmas” that was included in a collection of holiday “memory plays” put on by St. Paul’s History Theatre. He brought a wacky vulnerability to the part and helped turn the little piece into a hit.
The playlet wore sentimentality on its sleeve, and Grant’s dedication to it was so intense that I was stunned on closing night when he broke into tears during his final monologue. I later learned that his father was in the audience.
A year or so later, Grant was the lead in my first full-length play, which turned out to be one of the more notable bombs in the history of History Theatre. Titled “Scum City,” it was supposed to be a madcap comedy about newspaper scalawags in the era of yellow journalism — a Minnesota version of “The Front Page” — but it was one of those awful experiences where actors tried to create antic intensity in the face of stone-cold silence.
Grant refused to let up and, of course, that made me feel even worse about putting actors through such an ordeal. I didn’t have to submit to torture every night, but they did, night after dreary night.
Over the years, I saw Grant all the time, but talked to him less and less. He worked at Park Square, Penumbra, the Children’s Theater, Illusion, and Frank Theatre and, later, with Steppingstone Theater. He turned up in television commercials from time to time and I heard about longer gigs with out-of-town productions of “Triple Espresso” and years of summer stints at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse in Bemidji.
And, of course, there was “Martini & Olive,” the show Grant largely wrote and performed with Judy Heneghan, both portraying perfectly awful lounge entertainers from the 1970s. Launched at Bryant Lake Bowl, it ran for 15 years.
Grant always showed up whenever one of my shows had an opening night, and he was the kind of guy who greeted you with a hug and an assumption that we were all in the same theater club. When he was diagnosed with cancer in 1999, we had a long telephone chat, but it wasn’t heart-wrenching. By then, both he and I had lived long enough to know that cancer is both profound and ordinary. Stick around long enough and you’ll run into it one way or another.
“I just have to be well enough to work,” he said with an actor’s eye on stepping up. He did get well, and he continued to work.
Almost a decade ago, I found out that Grant was directing theater at North High School after he called to tell me that his kids were using “PK Xmas” for a state theater contest. Would I care to see a dress rehearsal and talk to the cast?
I went over and saw the run, along with a group of parents and others. It was a sturdy production, though I remember thinking that I ought to get around to freshening the script. But it was clear that the student actors were having a terrific time and that Grant was an inspiring force in their creative lives. They are a big part of his legacy.
Grant led a good life and, at 49, he died too young. His funeral will take place in a suburb of Kansas City, where other members of his family live. A memorial service is being planned for the Twin Cities, with details available at his Caring Bridge website.