For a boy who grew up in rural Wisconsin, actor Jim Detmar could not pick a better role. Political geeks might pluck Fighting Bob LaFollette. Liberace or Harry Houdini would be fun if you're given to scenery chewing. But Detmar, a sports fan from Baldwin, Wis., gets to play Vince Lombardi when History Theatre opens its season with the Broadway play "Lombardi" on Saturday.
"Is there someone else? I don't see it," said Detmar. "Lombardi transcends sports."
Written by Milwaukee native Eric Simonson, who is best known in the Twin Cities as a stage director for Minnesota Opera ("Grapes of Wrath," "Silent Night"), "Lombardi" relates a week of the Green Bay coach's life during the 1965 NFL season. Simonson uses the device of a journalist visiting Green Bay for a profile of the coach. Three players -- Paul Hornung, David Robinson and Jim Taylor -- and the coach's wife, Marie, play key roles in the drama.
"He was in the right place at the right time," Simonson said of a coach who spent only 10 of his 57 years in Wisconsin.
But oh, what years. The 1960s were professional football's glory moment, as the game rushed past baseball to become America's favorite sport: The league was expanding, television was becoming universal and Sunday afternoon games were becoming part of the national water cooler conversation. Riding this swell of popularity, Lombardi built a team that would dominate the decade as no other franchise had before or has since. Even today, the Packers remain one of the NFL's most popular teams.
Larger than football
Success in winning football games certainly introduced the nation to Lombardi, from his cold and modest home in Green Bay. His personality -- formed in a working-class Catholic family in Brooklyn, and then steeled in the military ethos of coach Red Blaik at West Point -- touched something deeper in the national consciousness.
"He got to the core of what it is to be American, or what people think the American spirit is, in terms of trying to succeed and not accepting failure and the cost of that," Simonson said. "He paid for his drive to win -- in his health, his relationship with his family, in stress. He never seemed to be at peace with himself or the world."
Lombardi was a paradox in so many ways. When the Packers traveled, he would not stay in a hotel that excluded his African-American players. At home, white players could not frequent nightclubs that were segregated. Willie Davis, the Hall of Fame defensive end, wrote in his new memoir that "nobody had more impact in creating diversity in the NFL than Coach Lombardi."
Yet he could be brutal with his family. Marie Lombardi can come across as a tragic figure in the Lombardi mythology. Alcohol helped her cope with a volcanic and abusive husband, even as she publicly served as the good-wife archetype that was expected during those "Mad Men" years. Norah Long, who plays Marie in the History Theatre's production, said that she and director Ron Peluso are trying to find the strength of the woman and prevent her from becoming a victim.
"I can only imagine that to have lived amid that much testosterone, that she felt comfortable with it," Long said. "I think she was very capable of standing in that room of men and holding her own."
Finding the drama
Simonson wrote an early version of "Lombardi" in 2007 -- shortly after he and Twin Cities writer Jeff Hatcher had created a play on Frank Lloyd Wright. The piece was based on David Maraniss' "When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi."
After an initial staging in Madison, Wis., Simonson retooled the work, and the NFL put its marketing muscle behind a Broadway run in the fall of 2010. It lasted for six months, with Dan Lauria and Judith Light as Vince and Marie.
Lombardi's two children have seen the play, at different times, Simonson said. Daughter Susan praised it; Vince Jr., who got a law degree at the University of St. Thomas and was a Minnesota state legislator in the 1970s, reportedly saw the show months into the run.
"He kept his distance," Simonson said. "I got the feeling from what I heard that it might have been a little painful."
Detmar, who recognizes the challenge of creating a character who has been seen in countless film and videotape clips, argues that the play hopes to get beneath the public persona.
"He had these things he couldn't figure out," said Detmar, who noted that Lombardi went to mass every day. "He knew he was damaged goods but he couldn't fix it himself."
Those flaws, the success, his obsession with winning and his ruthless dedication to his principles have made Lombardi a mythic presence.
"He is a big guy in Wisconsin folklore," said Simonson. "You can't escape him."
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299