By Fred Bernstein
July 09, 1984 12:00 PM

In 1954 when a punchy Marlon Brando said, “I coulduh been a contenduh” in On the Waterfront, he helped make the film a classic and his character, boxer turned stevedore Terry Malloy, the hero of every working stiff who longs for something better.

Another young actor will say those words in a Broadway version of Waterfront next fall, and last month several hundred young men auditioned for the part. No matter that it was hot outside Broadway’s Virginia Theater, where the hopefuls waited to see director Daniel (Butterfield 8) Mann. No matter that a similar audition last year came to naught (the original producers couldn’t raise the $2.5 million needed to open the show). No matter that the showbiz rumor mill already had the role going to Treat Williams or Harry Hamlin. Contenders came from as far away as Chicago. Some were working actors carrying 8×10 glossies. Others had never been onstage before and made do with worn prom photos from their wallets. Some knew little about Brando or the Oscar-winning Water-front (“I hear it could become a movie,” said one construction worker, who auditioned on his lunch break). Others claimed to have memorized every line of Budd Schulberg’s screenplay. Some were desperately hoping to get the part. Others—fat, black or over 40—just wanted to be able to say that they’d tried out.

There were some who wrote it off as just a media event, and so it was, complete with a producer handing out brochures billing Waterfront as “a theatrical event more spectacular perhaps than any play ever produced on Broadway.” But when director Mann insisted that no press be allowed on the bare stage where he was working, he made his serious intentions clear. “I want a chance to talk to each of these guys alone,” he said.

First, producer Myrl Schreibmann screened the candidates for Mann. “When I was an actor,” he recalled, “they’d line you up against a wall and say, ‘You, you, you, you—stay; you, you, you, you, you—go.’ ” Not any more. Schreibmann politely dismissed candidates who were the wrong physical type, then sent the rest to Mann, who asked the actors about their backgrounds, complimented them on their perseverance and always, always, thanked them for showing up. So benign was the process that one rejected candidate said gratefully of Mann, “He’s really a beautiful person.”

Nevertheless, Mann didn’t find his Terry Malloy. “If you’re a conductor and you need strings,” he explained graciously, “the greatest trumpet player in the world can’t help you.” The producers are planning to take another look at several actors they were already considering, in the hopes of finding their choice for Terry by midsummer.

And so the search for a new Brando continues, leaving this day’s hopefuls with, as the Waterfront script bluntly puts it, “a one-way ticket to Palookaville.” And so what? For a moment, at least, every one of them was a contenduh.