I consider myself fortunate to have been able to portray a number of real, historical characters in the different plays I’ve acted in. Right now I’m in the midst of preparing SOLEMN MOCKERIES, playing the notorious, ever-amusing boy Shakespearean forger, William-Henry Ireland. This type of project always appeals to my love of history and always seems to add a special resonance to the challenge and the eventual result.
And while I’d never consider myself a true “researcher,” doing these characters always gives me an excuse to read a few more books and delve into the reality of a character beyond the musings of a playwright.
The first real personage I portrayed was Alan Turing in BREAKING THE CODE by Hugh Whitemore, a role first played by Derek Jacobi and captured later in a PBS video. (I was actually able to see Jacobi do it on Broadway.) Directed by Milt Zoth during the run of shows we did for the late, great City Players, the play told the unbelievable, true story of a young, flamboyantly and openly gay, brilliant mathematician recruited to help break the Nazi U-boat code in the early, frightening days of WWII. The Nazis were blowing ships out of the water, and England was desperate to locate where these silent killers of the sea were. That this team was able to do so was one of the early turning points of the war. Always amusing to me that while our country thought John Wayne won it, one of the real contributors to allied survival and eventual victory was this gay man.
The achievement did not help Turing later in life. While he was part of the work that led to some of the first computers, an unfortunate incident in the early 50’s led to his tragic end. He liked to pick up “rough trade” and bring them home, and one of these boys robbed him. And while police urged him to forget about it, so as not to bring his lifestyle into the public eye, Turing had a strong sense of justice and insisted on prosecution. And with McCarthyism going strong beyond the U.S. as well, the British government was afraid Turing would become an easy blackmail target. They forced him to undergo flawed medical treatment, and in despair, Turing, in imitation of his favorite movie, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES, rolled an apple in cyanide and ate it.
BREAKING THE CODE told this fascinating tale well, and the role gave me the chance to take him from a young boy through his work breaking the Enigma code at Bletchley Park (for which I memorized a three-page mathematical monologue where I had no idea what I was talking about) to his sad end. It was a deserved hit.
And word has it that actor-of-the-moment Benedict Cumberbatch will be playing Turing in an upcoming film.
THE MEANEST MAN – AND GREATEST HITTER – OF ALL TIME
I’m a baseball fan, so it was a labor of love to play Ty Cobb in Lee Blessing’s COBB. (No connection to the Tommy Lee Jones film about Ty.) Again, this was a City Players production, and though Zoth was scheduled to direct, he had to drop out due to illness, and Bill Whitaker took over. He created a marvelous production.
COBB features four characters, three portraying the title role: There was Mr. Cobb, dying of cancer in a hospital, remembering the past, and regretting he was never able to test himself against the Black players of his time, particularly Oscar Charleston, who was known as “the black Ty Cobb,” for his similar playing style to Cobb’s; there was the young Georgia Peach, the raw talent who came out of the Deep South to take the baseball world by storm; and I played the middle-aged Ty, retired, rich (because of his Detroit-connected stock purchases), full of himself and mean as a hornet.
The play used baseball’s color barrier as its center piece, but revealed Cobb’s unique history, fiercely competitive approach to the game and racist, mean-spirited personality in the bargain. I had the opportunity to swing a bat on stage as Cobb (and did it like he did – hands apart, bring the top hand down to pull the ball, moving the bottom hand up to go to the opposite field) and marveled at the stats he piled up in his inaugural class Hall of Fame career. (He stole home plate over 50 times in his career – Lou Brock didn’t do it once.)
And in one of those amazing coincidental post-scripts to the show, Lee Blessing took over the graduate level dramatic writing program at Rutgers University a few years later, and accepted my son, Peter, to the program, becoming one of his valuable mentors along the way.
There’s a lot on this site about the play I wrote, THE BALLAD OF JESSE JAMES. I played brother Frank, and luxuriated in the extensive research I undertook for this show. This included reading everything I could find, plus an inspiring trip to the James Farm in Kearney, MO (with a side trip to Liberty, Mo, site of the James Gang first daylight bank robbery.)
And while this show had a long life, with several revivals, including two performances on the porch of the James Farm, it was several of the small, personal details that are most fondly remembered. Like learning that the boys wore the holster for their Navy Colt revolvers on the left hip for an across the body draw; hearing the folks from the very small, somewhat insular community of Kearney refer to them not as the outlaws or the legends, but as “Mrs. James’ boys”; and using the interior of the James Farm house as our dressing room before a performance – wandering among the kitchen where the Pinkerton bomb killed their brother and the bedroom where Frank died.
But the long life of the show did get it in our bones. It was easy to imagine their lives: from fighting on the ruthless, irregular outskirts of the Civil War; to pulling off a train robbery or not pulling off a bungled bank robbery; to trying to outrun a posse of 1,000 men in the brutal Minnesota woods.
It was a special show. The James (and Youngers) were part of “a solitary race.” They weren’t outlaws, they were terrorists. And it was an honor to try to walk around in their boots.
I found a review of a production of WALT AND ROY in the Hollywood Reporter, and chased down what seemed to be a couple of dream roles for myself and my then-partner Dave Wassilak. When the script by Michael McKinlay arrived, its agent warned us it wasn’t perfect, and we could cut what and where we wanted. We actually cut too little, blinded by the fabulous concept of the play – a drunken, gun-toting Walt and his trying-to-keep-him-and-it-all-together Roy on the night before they were to visit bankers to get a loan to produce the first full-length cartoon, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES (Alan Turing’s favorite.)
Again, you’ll find more info on this site about the show – photos and reviews – but the opportunity to play Walt was a joy. Alternately known as one of the more creative geniuses to ever grace the movie industry as well as Hollywood’s Dark Prince (often referred to as a tyrant at his studio who believed that everyone had one – but only one – good idea), the role gave me the opportunity to explore both sides. And having visited Disney World many times with the family, I felt I had some idea of what paths his mind and creativity took.
It was a fanciful Beethoven I portrayed in Mickle Maher’s brilliant exercise, THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS. As one of a two-man panel discussion (the other Hugo’s fictional Hunchback of Notre Dame) exploring and trying to recreate the famous sound effect in Chekhov’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD, the brilliant conceptual simplicity and intellectual and aesthetic simplicity of the short play helped make it a major critical hit in St. Louis, and garnered us an invitation to perform it at The Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
While here was little historical depth to explore in the character, Maher did exemplify an buyable image and attitude of Beethoven that, along with the hair and his monster jaw, were fun to work towards.
A footnote in the chapters of character portrayals, but a very successful one.
WILD ABOUT HARRY
I was able to portray Harry Truman twice in Samuel Gallu’s one-man GIVE ‘EM HELL, HARRY! Both were to support (in my own way) democratic candidates in elections – Clinton in ’92, and Obama during his first campaign. I was too young for the first effort, but the show was right in my wheelhouse the second time around.
Again, this was a Midnight show, so there’s more to see and read on the Past Productions page, but this role was one of the most comprehensive attacks I’ve ever been able to pull off on a characters. Stemming from great direction and production overview from Sarah Whitney, an excellent and imaginative set, wonderful costumes, expert makeup advice and a wealth of material to review (including recorded speeches and filmed appearances), I was very comfortable in Harry’s two-toned shoes, and relished “giving hell” to the foes and crises he faced.
The Missouri History Museum) was the ideal venue, and we packed the house with a keenly interested audience who could actually remember the man. What a guy! What a president! What fun!
There’s an apocryphal story that pre-WW II, the three most famous figures in the world were Jesse James, Mickey Mouse and Mark Twain. And all three (if you used Walt Disney to represent Mickey) were from Missouri.
I didn’t get to portray Twain (yet), but three of the above –Jesse’s brother, Walt and Truman- were from my home state.