Angst-Ridden Humorist


“I think I’m being followed. I don’t know who is after me. I feel the same anxieties everywhere I go—the country, L.A., Europe. It’s a general sense of suspicion, paranoia and fear.”

Woody Allen’s voice breaks and then rattles nervously into a laugh. He is peering over the balcony of his penthouse apartment, 18 acrophobic floors above Fifth Avenue. Two searchlights sweep the Manhattan skyline, an exhilarating view that fills men with visions of grandeur and omnipotence. Allen merely shivers inside his denim workshirt and cinches his baggy jeans tighter around his scrawny waist. “On the surface of things,” he acknowledges, “I have no reason to be this way. I was beaten up the same amount as all the other kids in my neighborhood. With me it’s just a genetic dissatisfaction with everything.”

But while the other kids on his Brooklyn block schlepped into obscurity, it has been Woody Allen’s singular brilliance not to purge his angst but to purvey it. Allen will surely donate his self-lacerating sense of humor to a medical school someday, but already he has given the world a sublimely ridiculous body of work: two hit shows on Broadway; three LPs of nightclub monologues; two best-selling collections of New Yorker and other satires; and, incredibly, seven money-making movies, including last year’s smash Love and Death, all of which Allen wrote, directed and starred in himself.

Now, at 40, Allen is still diversifying. This month he plays his first serious movie role in The Front, a McCarthy-era story of showbiz blacklisting which Woody made for director Martin Ritt “because it seemed like a worthwhile project.” Less nobly, but more visibly, Allen’s consummately klutzy life goes rotogravure next week in a syndicated comic strip titled Inside Woody Allen. Though Woody shrugs it off as “an amusing notion that’s purely exploratory for me,” the strip has already been bought by an unprecedented 180 newspapers.

Allen has friends among the mighty and access to the most privileged. Last year, for example, he escorted Betty Ford to a Martha Graham dance benefit. “We’re just good friends,” he cracked at the time of his date with the President’s wife. (Now he finds Jimmy Carter the “far superior” candidate.)

By any measurement Woody Allen is Walter Mitty, whose fantasies have only to be named to come true. Yet Woody glumly describes himself as “a neurotic personality prone to depressions and anxieties all the time.” After 20 years of Freudian psychoanalysis he has succeeded only in reducing his sessions from five to three a week. “I cannot conceive of living without it,” he groans, “but it hasn’t helped as much as I’d hoped. In the normal things that trouble everybody—meeting new people, crowds, shyness, human relationships—I haven’t made much progress at all.”

Even if Woody’s minuscule self-image is just another shtik, it’s one that no one believes except possibly himself. Allen’s friends are unanimously devoted to him. His acting company has worked for him so often it has become an identifiable ensemble. “The most revealing thing,” says cartoonist Joe Marthen, who draws Allen’s new strip, “is that Woody chooses not to wield the incredible power he has when he works with other people.”

In addition to his self-protective humor (“It keeps me from getting too emotional about things”), Allen’s defenses against a threatening world include a wimpy rain hat he pulls down over his ears, a nebbish’s slouch and a mournful countenance—creating in sum a Chaplinesque getup which has the inevitable effect of attracting more laughs. “It happens all the time,” he says, “when I’m playing clarinet [which he does for relaxation at a Manhattan club] or even when I’m just walking down the street.”

These days Woody is editing his latest film, a yet untitled “funny and engrossing love story” (as he previews it) co-starring his former lover Diane Keaton and, among others, Paul Simon. “I’ll see the film first,” he explains, “and then pick a title.” That may be the only time Woody sees it, since he never watches his movies after editing. “It would only depress me. I’d say, ‘Ohhh, I’ve screwed up a brilliantly funny concept.’ I’d just want to die.”

Success, of course, just increases the burdens of Allen’s gelt-ridden existence. So while he inhabits an understatedly elegant apartment, decorated with Oriental rugs, Picasso prints and leather-bound books, Woody himself is a study in genteel shabbiness. He is (as only the rich can be) blissfully ignorant of finances, claiming “I haven’t cashed a check or been inside a bank in 10 years.” Instead he’s attended by an accountant and a live-in cook, as well as patient friends who keep him in pocket change.

Allen rises at 6 a.m. these days and whirs maniacally into a schedule that includes, in addition to moviemaking, two hours of daily clarinet practice, tennis twice a week and buying sprees at book and record shops (to hunt down albums by jazz favorites like King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton). He neither smokes nor drinks nor drives (relying on a limousine) and is turned off by drugs.

Predictably, Woody’s frenetic routine has burned all but 120 pounds off his emaciated, 5’6″ frame, despite a diet that would throw a sumo wrestler into insulin shock. “I have jelly for breakfast, chocolate bars and cakes with lunch and tons of pie for dinner,” he boasts. “I never gain weight. My skin doesn’t break out either.”

Notwithstanding the remembered agonies of adolescence, Woody is still friends with his parents, a retired jewelry engraver and a bookkeeper, who raised him as Allen Stewart Konigsberg in Brooklyn’s Flatbush district. The real question, of course, is how can Mr. and Mrs. Konigsberg forgive their son for one-liners like these: “I was breast-fed on falsies…When I was kidnapped my parents snapped into action; they rented out my room…They believed equally in God and carpeting…This gold watch was sold to me by my grandfather on his deathbed.” It is, according to Woody, “just funnier to lean on the dismal side of growing up.”

Even as a student “in a school for emotionally disturbed teachers,” Woody began mailing in gags to Walter Winchell for a couple of bucks a week. Eventually he made the credits as a $1,700-a-week TV writer for Sid Caesar, Garry Moore and Jack Paar. His movie career began in 1965 when he wrote and co-starred with Peter Sellers in What’s New, Pussycat? Along the way Allen’s first marriage to a student named Harlene Rosen (she was 17, he was 19) cracked up. Harlene later sued Woody when his nightclub act included such first-wife zingers as “The Museum of Natural History took her shoe and, based on the measurement, they reconstructed a dinosaur.”

Postmarital relations are better between Woody and Louise (Mary Hartman) Lasser, who were divorced in 1969 after 11 years together. They are regularly in touch by phone, and Woody praises Louise as “a formidable girl, witty and intelligent, who I knew would make it, even then.” Likewise he and Diane Keaton still work well after their 1972 decision that “it wasn’t the greatest idea to live together any more.”

Woody will admit now only to “dating around” and living with girls for stretches ranging from “two days to two weeks—if you call that living together.” Could he possibly have mellowed from the days when his movies rated horniness as a human malaise second only to bubonic plague? “I try to have sex only with women I like a lot,” Woody explains solemnly. “Otherwise I find it fairly mechanical.” (He has little interest in family life: “It’s no accomplishment to have or raise kids. Any fool can do it.”)

He goes on: “I’m open-minded about sex. I’m not above reproach; if anything, I’m below reproach. I mean, if I was caught in a love nest with 15 12-year-old girls tomorrow, people would think, yeah, I always knew that about him.” Allen pauses. “Nothing I could come up with would surprise anyone,” he ventures helplessly. “I admit to it all.”

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