Veteran Boston broadcaster and politician commentator Dick Flavin is a man with a mission. To keep alive the memory of the life and times of the beloved Massachusetts politician and former Speaker of the U.S. House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill.
A decade ago, the Emmy Award-winning Flavin wrote the play, According To Tip, drawing on O’Neill’s own words, the remembrances of his colleagues, and Congressional records. Productions followed in 2008 at New Repertory Theatre and the Stuart Street Playhouse. Both runs starred Tony Award-winning actor Ken Howard as the charismatic Tip. The production received great reviews and picked up an IRNE Award as Best New Play of 2008.
Three years later, ‘Tip” is back, this time starring Flavin himself as O’Neill. Produced by Paul T. Boghosian of HarborsideFilms and filled with history and humor, the one-man show opens June 4 at Lyric Stage Company, and Flavin couldn’t be more proud, especially since, in the midst of the play’s journey to opening, he had to deal with a personal health scare that put the entire project on hold.
Having known Tip personally, Flavin was always fascinated by the politican’s 50 years in office. As he noted recently prior to a rehearsal, “Culturally, [Tip’s] career spanned the whole 20th Century, beginning in the days of street corner rallies and torch light parades and ending up in the age of computerized politics and multimillion dollar campaigns. He dealt with the all the giants of his time, JFK and Reagan and Nixon and LBJ. He was the most colorful individual I ever met in politics. And I thought, this guy’s story is really something and it would be a shame if his memory were allowed to fade.”
While Flavin is very familiar with John A. Farrell’s compelling biography, “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century,” he wanted to capture the essence of the man in a way the written word alone couldn’t.
“You have to kind of show it,” he said of Tip’s colorful, larger-than-life personality. “The way he dealt with people; his wonderful, wonderful people skills; his great blarney and use of humor; and the way he would suddenly break into song.”
Back when he was writing the play, Flavin never saw himself playing the title role. “The idea was always to get a really good actor who could evoke the spirit of Tip O’Neill and go from there.”
Despite the play’s success on its initial run, Flavin faced several obstacles. First, the economy plunged -- hardly the time to invest in a play. And then Ken Howard began to devote more time to the Screen Actors Guild, where he now serves as president. So although momentum was lost, Flavin searched for a way to get things back on track. “Who can we find to work cheap,” he said laughing. “And it turned out to be me.”
That was in 2009. But yet another challenge loomed when Flavin was diagnosed with throat cancer. “I was on the disabled list for all of 2010,” he said, matter of factly. “I had the industrial strength chemo and radiation . . . five operations and all that. Once I started feeling better, we got back to work on it, and thank God the treatment I’ve gotten has been terrific.”
Reflecting on O’Neill, Flavin said, “Tip’s greatest strength was his people skills. He could be tough -- and you’ve gotta be tough -- but he treated people with respect. He understood people. And he was a great seducer of people. He made you love him . . . Everyone was ‘Old Pal’ and the women were ‘Darlin,’ “ he said laughing.
But Flavin picks up on the fact there was one man in particular whom O’Neill had no time for: Newt Gingrich. “The play speaks to that,” Flavin said. “Tip did not have animosity toward a whole lot of people. But he did have great animosity toward Newt Gingrich. He thought that Gingrich was the person who was responsible for poisoning the attitude in Congress.”
As Flavin recalled, Gingrich saw potential in using Special Order times in the House, where, at the end of the day, any member could get up and speak. Very few people remained in the chamber at that time, but it allowed members to get their comments on the record. Gingrich figured out that he could get on C-SPAN, kicking the hell out of Democrats and challenging them to refute him. And they wouldn’t, because there’d be nobody in the chamber. There were all these wild accusations against the Democrats, demonizing the Democrats.”
Tip caught on to what was happening, said Flavin, and it sent him over the edge. “He went down to the well the next day and attacked Gingrich. And his remarks were ruled insulting. In the play, [we use] just about an exact quote of what he said . . . But his remarks were stricken from the record.”
Said Flavin: “Many people say it was a mistake by Tip because it made Gingrich a big guy among the Republicans. And that was the beginning of his ascent to a position of prominence. But Tip never regretted what he said because he meant it. He had no use for Newt Gingrich.”
So what would Tip think of someone like Donald Trump posturing about his own politician ambitions? Flavin laughs at the thought: “Oh, my God. It would be interesting to see how he would react . . . I think he would see through the whole Donald Trump thing; that it’s not serious. Because Donald Trump is not about to . . . open up the books to all the deals he’s been involved in over the years. Again, it’s Donald Trump running around demonizing people -- that whole Obama birth certificate thing. It’s the old saying, ‘If Tip O’Neill were alive today, he’d be rolling over in his grave!’”
While Flavin’s looking forward to the new Boston production, one place where he’d love to present the play is in Dublin. “Tip’s a great hero in Northern Ireland,” he said. “And it speaks to the relationship he had with Reagan. They both thought the other guy was way off base philosophically and they’d fight all day. [But] they had their 6 o’clock rule where they would be friends after six. And because of that . . . he was able to approach Reagan. As [Tip] says in the play, ‘Why don’t you give your friend Maggie Thatcher a call over in London. If she reaches out to the Irish government, maybe they can get something done over there.’”
And that, explained Flavin, is exactly what happened. Reagan contacted Thatcher at Tip’s suggestion. And the result was that “they were able to all work together to get things rolling in the peace process over in Ireland...And to this day, Tip is a great hero in Ireland.”
As he approaches Opening Night, his voice strong and his enthusiasm at its peak, Flavin says, “I feel great, I gotta tell you. I’m really, anxiously, looking forward to this. In the future, if people say ‘Oh, geeze, Flavin was fabulous, he was terrific,” I’ll stay with it. Hopefully I’ll be good enough to keep the thing alive so that we can find someone who can take it over and maximize the possibilities of the thing.”
Speaking as the playwright, he added thoughtfully, “I really think it’s the best work I’ve ever done. It’s historically accurate, and I think it’s entertaining. So I’m just not willing to let it die.”
“According To Tip,” opening June 9 in a limited engagement at Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street in Boston. Tickets: 617-585-5678 or lyricstage.com.
R. J. Donovan is publisher of