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Veteran actor Graham Thatcher serves up a historical overview (and some class credit) with his one-man show Clarence Darrow: Crimes, Causes, and the Courtroom.

When the legendary criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow arrived in New Orleans in the spring of 1931, he made two snap predictions and at least one of them warmed native hearts:

1. Prohibition -- the nation's curious 12-year ban on the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages -- would soon be over.

2. Organized religion would inevitably meet the same demise.

"Fear, from which it originated, has bolstered it up," said Darrow of every and all religions, "because standing generations have been too cowardly and ignorant to break with the bonds."

Darrow's contemplation of the spirits -- both liquid and otherwise -- naturally made headlines. His speech, which he would deliver to a packed Municipal Auditorium the following day, was titled "Why I Am An Agnostic." And it followed an even more sensational 1925 appearance when Darrow urged Louisiana to abolish its death penalty.

For more than 30 years, in fact, everything Darrow did was news. Partly this was because he so willingly conspired with courthouse reporters who inevitably portrayed him as a colorful curiosity, a welcome relief from the gray men in gray suits who usually dominate court news. When, for example, was the last time anyone heard a lawyer remark -- in public, that is -- "Everybody is a potential murderer. I've never killed anyone, but I frequently get satisfaction reading the obituary notices"?

"He dressed up his public pronouncements to make them sound shocking, because he enjoyed the notoriety they brought him," argues one of Darrow's biographers, Kevin Tierney, in his 1979 book Darrow: A Biography.

But another reason for Darrow's prominence was his habit of happily embroiling himself in some of the century's most sensational cases; he defended Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold for the murder of l4-year-old Robert Franks in Chicago in 1924 and did the same for John T. Scopes, who was accused of violating Tennessee's state law for teaching evolution the following year.

That trial famously brought Darrow head to head with longtime populist and three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan over the course of a 10-day trial that captivated the nation.

Even Hollywood fell to Darrow's charm: Orson Welles played a sloppy, ponderous Darrow in Compulsion (1959), which is based on the Leopold-Loeb trial; Spencer Tracy delivered a more refined Darrow in Inherit the Wind (1960), a fictionalized account of the Scopes trial. Henry Fonda did his Darrow turn in the l970s with a one-man show on Broadway.

Regardless, Darrow devotees fear that the attorney's real accomplishments as a social reformer and defender of civil rights have been sometimes lost in his legend. Foremost among them is veteran actor Graham Thatcher, who admits that perhaps the primary reason he has so long been entranced with Darrow is that Darrow argued his cases so well.

"In recent years we have gotten this idea that the law will argue itself, that it can all be processed by juries," says Thatcher, who brings his one-man Darrow show to Loyola University on Thursday. "The persuasive and rhetorical arts once on display in courtrooms everywhere have gone out with the bathwater."

Thatcher, 63, first played Darrow in a stage production of Inherit the Wind more than four decades ago when he was 22 years old. "I was a callow kid," he laughs. "The guy who played William Jennings Bryan was 64.

"My wife was in law school and petitioned to do a play instead of a paper in one of her classes," Thatcher continues. "Instead of it being a simple classroom project, it became a full-blown production (in which) we wrote about four of Darrow's most interesting cases as far as the legal aspects are concerned."

Positive feedback encouraged Thatcher to take his act out on the road. The show covers four famous Darrow cases: the Leopold-Loeb and Scopes trials, the McNamara bombing (in which Darrow represented two brothers accused of dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building), and the Sweet case, which saw Darrow secure the acquittal of young African-American Ossian Sweet, who had been accused of killing a white man who was part of a mob in Detroit trying to expel the Sweet family from an all-white neighborhood.

Thatcher admits his admiration for Darrow centers around the lawyer's advocacy for what many contemporaries believed were lost causes. But he remains most mesmerized by Darrow the performer: "He really was a break from the grand oratorical style we associated with most attorneys up to that time.

"His was a more intimate communication that appeals to actors, who were also leaving behind the bombastic theater tradition around the same time," Thatcher continues. "The language is wonderful; he had a great gift for extemporaneous oratory, And, of course, the issues were electric."

click to enlarge 'His was a more intimate communication that appeals to actors,' Graham Thatcher says of the allure of playing legal legend Clarence Darrow. -
  • 'His was a more intimate communication that appeals to actors,' Graham Thatcher says of the allure of playing legal legend Clarence Darrow.


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