Eric Simonson, when asked whether Vince Lombardi and Studs Terkel had anything in common, didn’t hesitate.
“Charisma,” he said.
Simonson, a Wisconsin native who helped found the Ark Improvisational Theatre in Madison in the early ’80s, has been thinking about Lombardi and Terkel lately.
Simonson has written a play about Lombardi, the legendary Packers coach, that will premiere on Broadway in New York City in the fall. He has also directed a new documentary on Terkel, the radio host and best-selling oral historian from Chicago, that premiered Saturday on HBO2 and will re-air on the network May 24.
Simonson, 49, is originally from Milwaukee. He played touch football on the city streets and then when he was 12 his parents moved to a farm in Waukesha County. Simonson attended Lawrence University in Appleton, and after graduating with a degree in theater, moved to Madison.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” Simonson said Friday from Los Angeles, where he now lives.
Simonson did comedy at the Ark, which also nurtured talents like Joan Cusack and Chris Farley. But he stayed only a year, moving to Chicago, where he eventually became a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble.
The genesis for the Lombardi play came when Simonson read “When Pride Still Mattered,” Madison author David Maraniss’ acclaimed 1999 biography of the coach.
Around that time, Simonson had finished writing a play, with Jeffrey Hatcher, about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. That play, “Work Song,” premiered at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in 2000.
It was well received, and Simonson approached the Milwaukee Rep about the possibility of a Lombardi play. That didn’t go anywhere, but then a few years later, the Madison Rep’s artistic director, Rick Corley, called Hatcher — Simonson’s collaborator on the Wright play — and said he wanted to commission a play based on Maraniss’ Lombardi book.
Hatcher wasn’t interested, but he mentioned Corley’s call to Simonson.
“Jeff,” Simonson said, “I’ve been wanting to do a Lombardi play for years.”
Hatcher put Corley and Simonson together, and the result was “Lombardi/The Only Thing,” which premiered at the Overture Center in Madison in 2007. The play was whimsical — in one scene, Lombardi converses with St. Ignatius. Maraniss loved it, and he and Simonson developed a friendship.
Last spring, two New York producers, Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser, contacted Maraniss and expressed interest in doing a play based on his Lombardi book. What resulted was a restaurant meeting in Chicago that included Maraniss, Simonson and the two producers.
It was agreed that the earlier play was not a good fit for Broadway. Simonson wrote a new play, more biographical, visiting aspects of Lombardi’s life untouched in the earlier work.
Simonson calls the new play a tribute that while capturing Lombardi’s flaws, gets at what made him such an extraordinary coach.
“Lombardi” is scheduled to open in October in Broadway’s Circle in the Square theater. Simonson will travel to New York for the start of rehearsals in late June.
Last week, meanwhile, Simonson was in Chicago for a showing of “Studs Terkel: Listening to America.”
Simonson had known Terkel from his time in Chicago, and first approached HBO with the idea of a Terkel documentary in 2002. “They weren’t interested,” he recalled, but their interest perked up after Simonson won a 2006 Academy Award for best documentary short subject for his film “A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin.”
Simonson interviewed Terkel for the documentary just months before Terkel died in 2008, and called him smart, funny, vibrant and wise.
“He never put anybody down,” Simonson said. “I don’t remember a time when somebody meeting Studs Terkel wasn’t impressed. He was able to change people’s minds. You almost never see that today.”
One might call that charisma, a trait shared by Lombardi and Terkel, though neither would be quick to recognize it. Lombardi once told the writer Bill Heinz that he didn’t even know what charisma meant.
And Terkel? “I’m not a historian,” he insists in the new film. “I just talk to people.”