Review: The Last Song of Oliver Sipple
Image courtesy King's Head Theatre
Cast and creatives
He saved the life of the President …
Then his country turned against him.
This is the true story of Oliver Sipple, a US marine decorated for his service in Vietnam, who in 1975 intervened as a would-be assassin pulled a gun on President Gerald Ford.
He was hailed as a hero and invited to the White House but, after he was outed as gay in the press, the invitation was revoked.
Oliver had never come out to his family but was now a public figure, hounded by the media and his private life was no longer his own.
30 years after his death, The Last Song of Oliver Sipple tells the story of an American hero tortured by prejudice, media intrusion and the rift created within his own family.
From OFFIE and Kenneth Branagh award nominated writer David Hendon (Banana Crabtree Simon, Eyes to the Wind) and director Peter Taylor (Glitter Punch, WEIRD).
How would you feel if you saved someone's life only to find your own subsequently shredded, with your dearest relationships left in tatters?
That was essentially what happened to Oliver Wellington Sipple (1941 to 1989), a decorated U.S. Marine and Vietnam veteran left disabled by the war.
Living in San Francisco on his army pension, on September 22 1975, Mr Sipple - known to family and friends as Billy - inadvertently came to the public's attention after he wrestled with Sara Jane Moore, as she fired a gun at U.S. President Gerald Ford (while he was attending an event in San Francisco).
Mr Sipple's actions caused the would-be assassin to miss her target, in effect saving the President's life.
However, Mr Sipple was to rue that day when he subsequently became the subject of indiscreet media reports following the incident in which he was
unceremoniously "outed" as gay to the general public, against his specific wishes.
Though he was friends with activist Harvey Milk and was known to the San Francisco gay community, Mr Sipple's family did not know that he was gay.
Harvey Milk apparently saw a political opportunity to show a different side to the nature of gay men, by effectively showing Billy as a hero and informed the press about his sexuality.
But once newspaper reports filtered back to his relations, the matter caused a rift between Billy and his large and religious family, from which the ex-marine never seemed to recover.
Jackson Pentland gives us an emotionally intelligent and sympathetic description of an unassuming, unpretentious and intelligent man who "loved his country", but discovered to his ultimate cost that the feeling was not reciprocated.
During this 50 minute monologue, Mr Pentland provides a captivating and wholly honest portrayal as he takes us through Billy's early life, his discovery about the nature of his sexuality, as well as the events of the fateful day in 1975 and its aftermath.
David Hendon's concise writing lends an authentic autobiographical feel to this one-person show, documenting with considerable clarity, and not a little poignancy, how a once enjoyable and largely unfettered life turned sour given the collision of destructive media interest and gay politics, which Billy was powerless to counter.
Mr Sipple's later years were spent in relative isolation after fighting a failed, nine-year legal battle to get compensation for the media invasion of his privacy.
Sadly, this short but important monologue has now ended its run as part of the King's Head Theatre's Playmill Festival.
But it's well-worth adding to your watch list for any further outings it might have, for this is a story that has powerful resonance and relevance for our own troubled times, since we are all now wrestling with just how private our lives can be given the amount of data we (often voluntarily) supply to big media companies.
Oliver Sipple died alone at the age of just 47 in 1989 - his body being discovered by a friend some 10 days after his death.
Though it's no substitute or replacement for David Hendon's illuminating, thoughtful and rather tragic play, you'll also find an interesting podcast here (from Radiolab) about Mr Sipple's life, and how events played out in the aftermath of the attempted assassination of President Ford back in 1975.
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