The Best Man is one of only a few stage plays among Gore Vidal’s large body of literary work and probably the most successful. It ran on Broadway for fifteen months, starring Melvyn Douglas as Bill Russell. In 1964, a movie version was made starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson, with Lee Tracy resuming his stage role as Arthur Hockstader. The Best Man appeared at a time when political plays and movies were experiencing a heyday (for example, Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964; The Manchurian Candidate, 1962; and Seven Days in May, 1964) and also at a time when realistic nonmusicals were much more common on the Broadway stage than they later became. The original Broadway production received unanimously positive reviews, and the play enjoyed a revival in 2000.
Vidal has had success as a novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, actor, politician, and controversial celebrity. When he wrote The Best Man, he was extremely well known, appearing frequently on The Tonight Show and elsewhere. At the time of writing the play, Vidal was also in the middle of his unsuccessful run for Congress, in which, as a Democrat in a Republican district, he received more votes than presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Vidal’s association with the Kennedy family and the political scene at the time lent an air of authenticity to the events and dialogue of his play. The play has a clear liberal bent, although it is more about political manipulations and human beings than ideology. Its subject matter proved durable and adaptable through the political scandals of the latter part of the twentieth century.
The aspect of The Best Man most frequently commented on is the resemblance of the characters to certain real political figures. Russell is most frequently viewed as similar to either the intellectual Adlai Stevenson or the charismatic and promiscuous John F. Kennedy, while Cantwell is said to resemble Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, or Joseph McCarthy. Hockstader is arguably modeled on Harry Truman or other old-time Democrats. Vidal himself said that in the screen version, the characters more closely resembled Barry Goldwater and John D. Rockefeller of the 1964 Republican convention than the Democrats that Vidal intended. This guessing game has only increased interest in the play over the years.