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The Life and Legacy of Leonard Frey, the Star of The Boys in the Band


In this article, Leonard Frey was an American actor who rose to fame for his roles in the stage and film versions of The Boys in the Band, a groundbreaking play that depicted the lives of gay men in New York City in the late 1960s. Frey was also nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Motel the tailor in the musical film Fiddler on the Roof. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1988, at the age of 49.

leonard frey
leonard frey

Early Life and Career

Frey was born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 4, 1938. He attended James Madison High School and studied art at Cooper Union, with the intention of becoming a painter. However, he switched to acting and enrolled at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where he studied under Sanford Meisner, a renowned acting coach.

Frey made his stage debut in an Off-Broadway production of Little Mary Sunshine in 1959, and his film debut in Passages from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in 1966. He received critical acclaim in 1968 for his portrayal of Harold, the self-proclaimed “Jew fairy”, in The Boys in the Band, written by Mart Crowley and directed by Robert Moore. The play was a sensation, as it was one of the first to openly depict the lives, loves, and struggles of gay men in a realistic and unapologetic way. Frey reprised his role in the 1970 film adaptation, directed by William Friedkin, along with the rest of the original cast.

Fiddler on the Roof and Other Roles

Frey’s most notable role was in the 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Norman Jewison and based on the Broadway musical of the same name. Frey played Motel Kamzoil, the timid tailor who marries Tzeitel, the eldest daughter of Tevye, the Jewish milkman. Frey’s performance of the song “Miracle of Miracles” and his comic timing earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He had previously appeared in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof as Mendel, the rabbi’s son.

Frey continued to work on stage, film, and television throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but he never achieved the same level of success as he did in Fiddler on the Roof. He was nominated for a Tony Award in 1975 for his role in The National Health, a British comedy by Peter Nichols. He also appeared in revivals of The Time of Your Life, Beggar on Horseback, Twelfth Night, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. He played Clare Quilty in the musical Lolita, My Love, which closed before reaching Broadway in 1971.

Some of his other film credits include The Magic Christian, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, Where the Buffalo Roam, Up the Academy, and Tattoo. He also appeared in several television shows, such as Hallmark Hall of Fame, Medical Center, Mission: Impossible, Eight Is Enough, Quincy, M.E., Hart to Hart, Barney Miller, Moonlighting, Murder, She Wrote, and The Magical World of Disney. He was also a panelist on game shows such as Match Game, Body Language, and Super Password.

Personal Life and Death

Frey, who was gay, never married or had children. He was a private person who rarely gave interviews or discussed his personal life. He was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-1980s, and his health deteriorated rapidly. He died on August 24, 1988, in New York City, 11 days before his 50th birthday. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in Central Park.

Legacy and Influence

Frey is remembered as one of the pioneers of gay theater and cinema, as he was part of the cast of The Boys in the Band, a landmark play that paved the way for more honest and diverse representations of gay men in the arts. He is also celebrated for his Oscar-nominated role in Fiddler on the Roof, one of the most beloved musical films of all time. He has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and his performances have been praised by critics and fans alike.

Frey’s life and career have inspired several documentaries, books, and articles, such as Making the Boys, a 2011 film by Crayton Robey that explores the history and impact of The Boys in the Band; Leonard Frey: A Biography, a 2015 book by Marc Eliot that chronicles Frey’s life and work; and The Boys in the Band: Flashpoints of Cinema, History, and Queer Politics, a 2016 book edited by Matt Bell that examines the cultural and political significance of the play and the film.

Frey’s legacy lives on in the works of other gay actors, writers, and directors who have followed in his footsteps and have contributed to the visibility and diversity of the LGBTQ+ community in the arts. In 2018, a Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band, directed by Joe Mantello and produced by Ryan Murphy, featured an all-star cast of openly gay actors, including Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, and Charlie Carver. The revival was a critical and commercial success, and won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. A film version of the revival, also directed by Mantello and starring the same cast, was released on Netflix in 2020.

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