He was the original Mansplainer, one who believed his insights had “well, a great deal of validity.”
The unnamed blowhard in 1977’s Annie Hall prattles on so endlessly about director Federico Fellini and media philosopher Marshall McLuhan that Woody Allen can barely focus on his own squabble with Diane Keaton.
Eventually the loudmouth chases Allen’s narrator through the fourth wall to join him in addressing the audience, only to up face to face with the real McLuhan, who demolishes him with a snorted: “You know nothing of my work.”
Now, the “Man in Theater Line” gets to tell his side of the story, and he reveals that one of the most perfect scenes in movie history was a disaster to shoot.
MEET RUSSELL HORTON
“Part of the reason the scene works is because I am such an a–hole and I actually believe what I’m doing, you know?” says Russell Horton, now 75, a lifelong character actor who is actually nothing like his insufferable Annie Hall character.
He’s boisterous for sure, but also fun and sweet — a laid-back grandfather of four kids, one a newborn less than a month old. The other three call him “GrandDude.”
Hormo nes married to actress Diana Kirkwood and has two daughters. “The older one is a good-guy lawyer at legal aid, who helps abused children,” he says. “And I’ve got a younger daughter who’s in the acting business named Olivia Horton. She had a really nice part as a possessed girl in a movie called Deliver Us from Evil.”
Watching Annie Hall is a right of passage for any movie fan as they grow up, but anyone who was a kid over the past three decades also knows him from another major role.
“You probably grew up with me,” says Horton, who has voiced the Trix Rabbit in breakfast cereal commercials for 35 years. “Trix are for kids…,” he says wistfully. “That’s a gig that put my kids through college, I’ll tell you.”
UPDATE: One kid from that era, who went to school with his daughter Olivia, shared this memory after reading this story:
Back in the 1970s, when Allen’s casting director, Juliet Taylor, selected Horton as the Man in the Theater Line, he was in his mid-30s and a Los Angeles transplant to New York City. “I’m your basic workaday actor. I was doing a lot of TV. I was doing Broadway shows,” he says. “You know, the big problem about being the kind of actor I am, you’re sort of stuck with the way you look, and so I’m always playing professors or nerds.”
He wasn’t sure he got the part until a strange, abrupt encounter with Allen.
“I got a call and they just said, ‘Go meet Mr. Allen,’ and they were shooting on a street in New York,” Horton recalls. “The assistant director brought him over, and he looked at me, up and down, he said, ‘Man in the movie line?’ and the AD said yes, and he walked away. I said, ‘What was that?’ The AD said, ‘Well, that was it. He just wanted to check you out.’ He apparently had great confidence in Juliet Taylor.”
That faith has never wavered – the filmmaker and Taylor are still working together, most recently on last year’s Café Society.
“Now the second thing that’s very strange about him is, at that period, I don’t know if it’s true now, but he never let anybody see the whole script,” Horton says. “I got the scene, but I had no idea where it fit in or how it related to anything that was going on. I didn’t even have the ending.”
As fond of analysis as Allen may be in real life, there was none on set. No deep discussions about the scene, no scraps of background information about the Man in Theater Line’s motivation. Instead, Allen expected the actors to just sort of grasp it intuitively. “He gives you very little direction. He just said, ‘You know what’s going on?’” Horton recalls. “I said, ‘I think so.’ And he said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Horton tried to evoke a little sympathy for the Man in Theater Line (whom he named “David,” even if the script never identifies him). He felt this night out was David’s first date after a long dry spell. He’s trying hard. Too hard. And getting desperate now that his date’s eyes are rolling up like the reels on a slot machine.
‘THE MEDIUM IS THE, UH… LINE, PLEASE?’
The person who wasn’t trying at all: McLuhan. “I guess he didn’t take it terribly seriously because he couldn’t remember his line,” Horton says. “He had one line and he kept blowing it. It was a two-and-a-half-minute take. It was one of the longest, uncut, comedy sequences, up to that time, and Woody wanted it that way because when he pulled [McLuhan] out, he wanted it to be a total shock.”
It wasn’t an easy scene to perform. Horton’s character isn’t supposed to be aware of Alvy and Annie’s conversation as he rambles, but the actor had to be acutely aware of it, getting quieter for their lines and filling the quiet spaces with his own improvised bloviating.
“Some of the stuff I came up with on my own, like there was the word weltanschauung, you know, which means a worldview,” Horton says. “That wasn’t in the script, but they had stopped talking. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do something,’ so I said, ‘It’s a weltanschauung!”
Online versions of the script, which attempt to transcribe the dialogue, never get that line right.
It got to be demoralizing as they did a dozen takes of this complicated verbal dance, only to have it ruined at the end by an ill-prepared McLuhan. “Woody would pull him out and he’d say something like, ‘Well you’re wrong, young man.’ Or, ‘Oh, gee, I don’t know what to say.’”
Even when McLuhan finally got it right … he really didn’t. “We did like 17 or 18 takes, and if you look at it carefully in the movie, McLuhan says, ‘You mean my whole fallacy is wrong,’” Horton says, starting to laugh. “Which makes no sense. How can you have your fallacy wrong?”
They did a few more tries after that, but it never got any better.
In the late academic’s defense, he was actually the understudy for that role. Most of the Man in Theater Line’s dialogue is about the director Federico Fellini, who had agreed to play himself as the icon who emerges from nowhere to stifle this stranger’s pomposity.
When the Italian filmmaker dropped out a few days before shooting, McLuhan was recruited in a scramble. “If you look at the scene, [my dialogue] is essentially all about Fellini, and there’s only one last thing about McLuhan because they suddenly had him,” Horton says.
Horton went on to have roles in Finnegan Begin Again, playing a wisecracking funeral director who leaps out of a casket to spook Mary Tyler Moore, a frightened patient who panics when he sees James Woods light a cigarette in Cat’s Eye, a collection of Stephen King stories, and he has supplied countless voices for radio and TV ads.
MISSING FROM MANHATTAN
He was hired again by Allen two years after Annie Hall to do a scene in 1979’s Manhattan, playing Mariel Hemingway’s father, who is squeamish about his teenage daughter dating a man his own age. Gradually, the father ended up making Allen’s character feel even more uncomfortable.
“I remember [Woody’s character] happened to talk about Joe DiMaggio, and I said, ‘My God! You saw Joe DiMaggio play? Geez, he retired when I was 6! Tell me about it,’” Horton recalls.
But the scene was cut and has never been seen publicly. “I guess, he thought it was already bad enough with the young girl. This just made it worse,” Horton says.
He is seldom recognized for his role in Annie Hall, retaining his anonymity despite being a key component in a scene known to pretty much every film fan.
The pompous and pathetic Man in Theater Line, getting his comeuppance, has endured for a simple reason.
“It’s very human,” Horton says. “There really are people like that.”
Follow @Breznican. For more from Horton, check out the video above.