Midway through the film One True Thing, Meryl Streep surveys her surroundings and laments, “I wish I had redone this kitchen years ago when I had the mind to do it.”
Alas, in the film, Streep’s character, Kate Gulden, is dying of cancer. And the kitchen? That’s actually the domain of Michael Aaron Rockland and Patricia Ard, whose vintage Morristown home was the setting for the 1998 film.
Rockland and Ard purchased the ornate, Queen Anne-style Victorian in 1987. Located in Morristown’s historic district, the 1886 home is just one block from Macculloch Hall Historical Museum and the Thomas Nast Home, a National Historic Landmark where the late-19th-century political cartoonist resided for the last 30 years of his life.
It is only fitting that Rockland should live in an historic home. Now retired, he taught American history at Rutgers for 50 years. He is also the author of 15 books and a longtime contributor to this magazine. Ard, also retired, taught English literature at Ramapo College.
Upon moving into their six-bedroom home, Rockland and Ard began making improvements, expanding the front porch, combining two parlors into one large living room and creating a dramatic entrance to the living room, with a wide archway. They flanked the archway with two sets of twin columns, salvaged by their carpenter from someone else’s rotting porch.
Those fluted columns were destined to play a central role in One True Thing. Director Carl Franklin used them to frame several scenes; at one point early in the film, Streep ducks behind one of the columns as she awaits the arrival of her husband (played by William Hurt) at his surprise party.
The couple were taken by surprise when the art director for One True Thing and his staff came knocking. “There were seven or eight of them,” Ard recalls. They explored, measured and videotaped every part of the house. After some bumpy negotiations, a deal was struck. The homeowners were given a temporary home to inhabit during the shoot, which took more than six months. The production paid them $75,000.
“We were told later that we were totally ripped off,” says Rockland. “They bowled us over with Meryl.”
The contract signed, a crew of 12 moved every stick of furniture from the house. Every room was painted or papered—often in flowery patterns to reflect the fictional Kate Gulden’s fussy taste. Despite the home’s high ceilings, large rooms and oversize doorways, several walls were moved to accommodate certain shots.
Rockland and Ard were allowed to visit the set as they liked, and both of their children, Kate and Josh, appeared as paid extras in some of the outdoor crowd scenes, which were shot in Maplewood. (Rockland has three other children from a previous marriage.)
Interactions with Streep during the shoot were limited. When she wasn’t on camera, she typically retreated to Rockland’s third-floor study where a bed had been installed for her naps. But Streep, who grew up in nearby Basking Ridge and Bernardsville, went out of her way to tell the couple how much she loved their home. “She was as nice as she is talented,” says Rockland.
His experience with Hurt was not as painless. “I called him Bill one time,” says Rockland. “He went nuts.” Hurt insisted on being called William. “I thought, What’s the matter with this guy?” On the other hand, Rockland did discover Hurt reading one of his novels (A Bliss Case, published in 1989) during a break from shooting. That compensated for the actor’s rudeness.
There were bigger difficulties with the producers. Rockland had noticed members of the crew stomping out cigarettes on the home’s precious heart-of-pine floors—despite a stipulation in the contract that there be no smoking in or around the house. Rockland stormed into the production office and declared, “If I see one more cigarette here, I’m going to stop the movie.”
Rockland was reminded that all of the floors were going to be sanded and refinished, but that didn’t stop him from repeating his threat. That’s when things got heavy. One particularly tough member of the team got up in Rockland’s face. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he snarled. For Rockland, it was like a scene out of The Godfather. Needless to say, he backed off.
Finally, the shoot was over and the crew restored Rockland and Ard’s home to its original state. Well, almost.
The kitchen plumbing leaked, paint spotted the floors in some places, and an improperly replaced second-floor bathroom window tumbled from its framing one night with an alarming crash.
Which brings us back to the kitchen. While Rockland was happy to say farewell to the fruit-print tiles and red Formica counters installed for the movie, he coveted the retro-looking tin ceiling the crew had installed. Unprompted, one of the producers asked Rockland if he’d mind if they left the ceiling in place. Bingo!
“That was a tremendous triumph,” says Rockland. “We got the ceiling for free.” What’s more, they used a significant portion of the fee they had received to remodel the kitchen yet again. Kate Gulden, no doubt, would have been pleased.
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