‘This is an incredible story, but hardly anyone is aware of it’

David Hendon's play comes to King's Head Theatre on July 13. Picture: Tai Chengzhe.

David Hendon's play comes to King's Head Theatre on July 13. Picture: Tai Chengzhe. - Credit: Archant

Playwright David Hendon’s latest work is about Oliver Sipple: a Vietnam veteran who found his personal life picked apart in the national press after an instinctive heroic act.

Jackson Pentland in rehearsals for The Last Song of Oliver Sipple.

Jackson Pentland in rehearsals for The Last Song of Oliver Sipple. - Credit: Archant

When Sara Jane Moore opened fire at Gerald Ford on September 22, 1975, it was the second failed attempt on the President's life in 17 days.

Ford's escape was a narrow one. As he departed a hotel in San Francisco and walked towards his waiting car, Moore's first bullet missed his head by five inches. As the former took aim once again, 33-year-old Oliver Sipple grabbed her arm - diverting the next bullet off its intended course - before a melee of police officers piled in.

Sipple's quick-thinking had potentially saved the United States from the turmoil of another assassination. Initially lauded as a hero - saving the President came on top of his honours as a wounded Vietnam veteran - the narrative changed once he was outed in the press as a gay man.

Thirty years on from Sipple's death, the King's Head Theatre are about to stage a new play focusing on his life as part of the Playmill Festival of New Writing.

The play's protagonist is a gay man who rose to prominence after an attempted assassinaton of Gerald

The play's protagonist is a gay man who rose to prominence after an attempted assassinaton of Gerald Ford. - Credit: Archant

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"This is an incredible story but hardly anyone is aware of it," explains David Hendon, writer of The Last Song of Oliver Sipple.

"The play examines the nature of heroism, the right to privacy and how a single random incident can change a life forever."

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Born in Detroit in November 1941, Sipple's time as a US marine in Vietnam was cut short when he suffered shrapnel injuries at the end of 1968. He moved first to New York City and then to San Francisco upon returning to his homeland, becoming close friends with Harvey Milk, the well-known gay politician.

Sipple had settled in the San Francisco gay community but his conservative and religious family back in Michigan didn't know of his sexuality until after that fateful incident in 1975.

"I just thought the story was fascinating," adds Hendon. "I saw the film about Harvey Milk, it had this mention of Oliver Sipple and I read more about him.

"The story has a lot of modern relevance. It's about identity and how we present ourselves to the world. It's about how we see ourselves, how others see us, and the gap between the two.

"He seemed to be the classic American hero; he'd fought for his country, and was invited to the White House. When he was outed, he was uninvited - he didn't fit the mould - and we have these fixed ideas of what a hero looks like, not everyone fits them all.

"What happened to him was very sad. His family turned against him, he lost quite a few friends, and the gay community questioned 'are you ashamed (of who you are)?'"

Hendon's play will premiere at the King's Head on July 13 and 14. It will cover the key events of Sipple's life, including the assassination attempt itself and the colossal impact it would have on his personal life until his death in February 1989, at the age of 47.

The Last Song of Oliver Sipple was written by Hendon 18 months ago, following his OFFIE award nomination for Banana Crabtree Simon; a play written about a man battling dementia who is challenged to remember those three words.

Peter Taylor is the director, and Jackson Pentland plays Sipple as well as the 10 other featured characters.

Hendon says debuting a new play "is obviously quite nerve-wracking - you're never sure how it's going to land - but it's exciting as well.

"I'm open to chatting with people afterwards and seeing what they thought of it. If there's a message to be taken I try and leave it to the audience. Theatre should be about starting a conversation, getting people to think about the play the next day, or the next week."

After the botched assassination attempt, Harvey Milk outed Sipple as he mistakenly believed it to be a great chance to portray the LGBT community in a positive light. The revelation would place a long-term strain on Sipple's relations with his family. He wasn't even invited to his mother's funeral.

"In an interview with Oliver's brother, George, (he says that) when his parents died he reconnected with his siblings; it seemed they talked again but they never really accepted Oliver," continues Hendon.

"Oliver went to see them after the assassination attempt happened and his mother kind of was coming on board. She says 'come and see us Oliver,' but his dad says 'yeah, but don't bring your friends.' In other words, 'you can come and see us, but don't be yourself."

"The play is to honour Sipple's memory. He did something incredibly significant and wasn't treated as he should have been."

The Last Song of Oliver Sipple is on at King's Head Theatre on July 13 and 14. For more details, click here.

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