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Hamptons Life

Feb 12, 2019 1:33 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

A Tale Of Friendship And Art, Both On And Off Screen

Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston star in 'The Upside.' DAVID LEE
Feb 12, 2019 1:33 PM

On a recent sunny but cold, afternoon, Nick Tarr showed off the many sculptural pieces that he keeps on display both inside and outside his East Hampton home. Made of wood, concrete, fiberglass, bronze or steel, the pieces are varied in style and impressive in stature—and they are all the work of William Tarr, his late father.

Tarr was a prolific artist of note and among his best-known works is a monumental 30-foot sculpture created in the early 1970s to memorialize the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., which is installed near Lincoln Center in New York City. His sculptures have also been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art and are included in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Thanks to New York-based production designer and longtime family friend Mark Friedberg, William Tarr’s sculptures are getting a new lease on life with a cameo appearance in the film “The Upside,” currently in wide release.

The film stars Bryan Cranston as Phillip Lacasse, a billionaire quadriplegic and avid art collector who hires Dell Scott, a recently paroled ex-con played by Kevin Hart, to be his caretaker. Despite his questionable credentials and dubious background, Dell moves into Phillip’s penthouse to care for him, and before long an unlikely friendship develops between the pair. The film is directed by Neil Burger and also stars Nicole Kidman as Yvonne Pendleton, Phillip’s assistant.

“It’s a movie that takes place mostly in one set,” Mr. Friedberg explained in a recent phone interview. “There was a lot of thinking about the main character and who he is, and what kind of art he would have. In the script, he’s artistic, and there’s an art-buying theme.

“This guy is also supposed to be one of the richer people around, so most of the art is pretty meaty,” added Mr. Friedberg, noting that in order to establish the depth of Phillip’s collection, he adorned the apartment set with work (reproductions, of course) by Abstract Expressionists like Cy Twombly and Helen Frankenthaler.

“I also knew I wanted sculpture in the movie, and I love Bill Tarr,” he said. “He was my best friend and one of my main influences growing up. So I reached out to Nicky and asked if it was something he would be interested in.”

It was, indeed. So, in advance of production, Mr. Friedberg came out to East Hampton to visit Mr. Tarr and decide which of Tarr’s sculptures should be rented for the film.

Mr. Friedberg’s initial selection of 25 pieces for “The Upside” was narrowed down to four works—two large floor-standing wooden sculptures and two smaller cast bronzes—all of which appear in the set of Phillip’s New York penthouse, which was actually built for the film in Philadelphia.

“Mark said one of the large pieces anchored the set,” Mr. Tarr said. “My dad would be delighted. This movie is a story of karma, love and friendship, and it goes just beyond the sculptures being props. There’s a whole story behind it.”

That story began back in the mid-1970s, when William Tarr and his wife, cookbook author Yvonne Young Tarr, spent a summer in a friend’s old farmhouse on Springs-Fireplace Road in Springs that had previously belonged to George Sid Miller, a legendary local figure. Within a couple of years, the Tarrs had bought their own home across the road that had also been in the Miller family.

“They eventually made a complete break from the city, sold their studio at 102 Greene Street and came out to live in Springs full time,” Mr. Tarr said. “They were very social and enjoyed it. It was a beautiful place with lots of artists, and the light was delicious. It must have been great.”

As a Springs resident, Tarr gave up his work in advertising and devoted himself full time to his art. Mr. Tarr described his father as a blue-collar artist who enjoyed hard work, heavy materials and watching the smoke rise from his acetylene torch.

“A lot of people are one-material artists, but he really liked to play around with the different materials and was successful at it,” Mr. Tarr said. “My father also embraced the local people. Because he worked with heavy tools, they would go over to his place, and if they had a broken clam rake, he could weld it for them. He was an honorary Bonacker at a time when there were more local people than tourists.”

Mr. Friedberg’s parents, Essie and M. Paul Friedberg, had a summer home in Springs and were friends with the Tarrs. His father, a noted landscape architect, often worked with sculptors and had become acquainted with Tarr and his work early in his career.

“Bill Tarr was my father’s good friend,” Mr. Friedberg explained. “Bill was a cool ’60s guy. He rode a motorcycle and was bald with a beard and said things like ‘Hey, man.’

“On top of that, he had been a real magician, not a birthday magician,” he added. “He welded metal sculpture and made stuff disappear.”

For the young Mr. Friedberg, going up the road to spend time with William Tarr was an escape in every sense of the word.

“Bill was part of my father’s social life, and as I got older, we became friends. He could tell I had the art bug,” Mr. Friedberg said. “I was a disaffected, messed-up kid, and Bill was cool. He wasn’t afraid to talk about my dad and be honest, pro and con.”

He added, “He tried to teach me magic tricks and try as I might I was terrible.

“I was infatuated with him,” he said. “Bill was a big inspiration and kind of like an uncle in a lot of ways.”

In the early 1980s, Mr. Friedberg’s father bought some storefronts at Abrahams Path and Cross Highway in Amagansett. In exchange for helping him renovate the spaces, Mr. Friedberg was offered use of one of the spaces as an art gallery. Among the artists whose work he showed was William Tarr.

In the mid-1990s, the Tarrs left Springs behind and moved to Sarasota, Florida, where Yvonne Tarr died in 2003, and William Tarr died in 2006.

Since his parents’ deaths, Mr. Tarr has become the keeper of his father’s artwork and preservationist of his legacy. It’s a legacy that now includes a starring role in a major motion picture.

Though much has changed over the years, both Mr. Friedberg and Mr. Tarr maintain a strong connection to the East End and the man they called a friend and a father.

“I love that part of the movie had to do with Bill,” said Mr. Friedberg, who bought a place of his own in Springs 20 years ago, which he considers home when he’s not working. “As I got older, I became more appreciative of him. He had great success and gave it up to make art.”

“Mark did something very beautiful,” Mr. Tarr said. “He remembered their friendship and how my father befriended him in difficult times. It’s like the story of Daniel and the lion: The lion gets the thorn pulled out of his paw and remembers it years later.”

“My father was a mentor for Mark, and they were close,” Mr. Tarr added. “Mark never forgot the friendship.”

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