Vene and I talked it over and decided that I should offer a smooth face as well as a hairy one by getting a professional wigmaker to duplicate my beard and then shave off the real one. One of my classmates at Hagen-Berghof suggested very highly regarded Bob Kelly to create a false but convincing-looking beard.
The cost: $150. That’s equal to more than $1,000 as I write this nearly 50 years later. But the result looked great. It wasn’t a complete match, actually, coming in two sections, the beard and the mustache. Joining them with spirit gum, however, completed the illusion.
It looked good in a new array of professional photos taken by Carol Lynley’s brother Daniel Lee, some with my again-naked face, some with the new beard, some with just the mustache. Quite a collection of faces, trying to suggest versatility. A wiser, more mature choice would have been to stick to whatever face best represented who I was. But to do so, I would have had to have a clearer picture of that, something I never pondered, until therapy a few years later.
All those pictures and beards were costly. Yet, Vene had that good job at Cosmopolitan Magazine and still believed my talent would land me plenty of jobs, despite limited success so far. Moreover, the work I had had, including for Nicolo Marionettes and in a few films, meant I qualified for a small amount of unemployment insurance compensation. Plus, the professional expenses would be tax-deductible.
That same year, beardless, I landed a few roles in summer stock at Connecticut’s Sharon Playhouse. Genuine stage acting again at last.
Auditions included singing. The opening show was Rick Besoyan’s off-Broadway hit Little Mary Sunshine, a send-up of Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald-type musicals.
I delivered a deliberately hammy version of “Were Thine That Special Face” from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate trying to milk Alfred Drake’s larger-than-life style. The producers and director howled with laughter.
They asked me if I was a member of Actor’s Equity, sounding as if they thought I must have been. Knowing that if I said “yes” and got an Equity contract, not only would the pay be better, but that contract would be a way of joining the union.
I said “Yes.” I got the contract. I was on my way to earnest professionalism.
Room and board were part of the deal. So was meeting and working with actors who went on to good roles on and off-Broadway, such as Margaret Hall and Jim Oyster, as well as director Edward Payson Call. Call has since had careers with American Conservatory Theatre, the Minneapolis Theatre Company, and the New York Shakespeare Festival.
Not only did I perform as an older man in Little Mary Sunshine, General Oscar Fairfax, but had multiple roles in a stage adaptation of James Thurber’s whimsical fairy tale The Thirteen Clocks. Thurber had lived in nearby Lakeville.
And I got to show off my English accent as one of the husbands in Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels. By then I was feeling as if I were already a regular member of the company. So, during one performance, I thought I’d try to break up the other actors by ad-libbing a couple of goofy lines. Only one person broke up: me. After the performance no one said anything about it.
Each new show ran for one week of evenings; rehearsals for the next show took place during the day, i.e., we were gainfully employed, full time.
During the run of The Thirteen Clocks I was offered a fourth role in Agatha Christie’s Toward Zero. I declined the offer, missing Vene. She was back at home in New York and at work. We had no car, so no way to connect in person.
Turning down another week of work clearly wasn’t the wisest choice. I still had a lot to learn.
Back in New York I continued making the rounds, with my variable face. Once, looking clean-shaven and far younger than 29, I auditioned for the role of a teenager; no doubt I’d been contacted based on the photos I had mailed the producers.
On stage, I read the script full of passion and understanding. The director remarked how impressively mature I sounded; i.e., I was playing my age. A throwback to my Temple U. performance as Romeo when I hadn’t the skill to seem young and foolish enough.
During that time, my clean-shaven face was somewhere in the backgrounds of the TV shows Naked City and The Defenders. But I still wore the beard when it looked like the best choice for specific casting. At one open call, though, the director looked at me and said bluntly, “No beards!” Why waste words? That’s New York. I took it off right there. He looked shocked. I didn’t get to read for him.
With the same fake face, in November 1962, I went to audition for a hit musical from London, scheduled to open on Broadway in January, Oliver! There was an open call for the chorus. I figured my beard would make me look appropriate for a Dickens story.
Standing in a long line with dozens and dozens of other hopefuls outside the Imperial Theater, I wondered which of my prepared songs to sing. Given my seemingly impeccable English accent, I decided to stand and deliver my Sharon, Connecticut, zinger, “Were Thine That Special Face.”
“Next 20 people,” an assistant director called out. Twenty of us walked in, lining up across the stage, facing the unknown deciders of our fate out there in the theater darkness. The A.D. walked the line, like a sergeant in a military drill. “You stay,” he said to someone further to my right. “No, sorry,” he said to the next three. Taking a quick look at me, he said the same thing. He wasted no words or time with anyone. Two people were chosen to audition. We 18 others filed out into the real-life lights of West 45th Street.
“Shit,” one young guy walking beside me said. “They didn’t even give us a chance to audition.”
“They did us a favor,” I replied. “They didn’t think we looked right, saving us a lot of useless time auditioning for something we’d never get.” Remember, I was 29. Mature.
“Come on. Every audition is useful,” he answered. “It’s practice under tension.”
He may have had a point. But the producers of Oliver! weren’t in business to train us. We were expected to do that on our own.
Earlier that fall I got one of the best stage roles I ever had: Shylock (beardless, by the way). Paul Davison had put together an abbreviated version of The Merchant of Venice to tour New York public schools. Paul’s staging was simple and utilitarian, not heavy on costumes or sets. He and I decided that my interpretation would make Shylock as dignified and earnest as possible.
I loved playing such magnificent words. And always will. Once, leaving a school after a performance, I overheard one teenage girl say to another, “Wow! Look how young he is!”
In retrospect, it looks as if 1962 was not a bad year as an actor.
I never ceased to hope that there’d be other Shakespeare roles. It had only been eight years since my Temple/WFIL-TV performances as Romeo and Leartes, although those seemed ages ago. Consequently, when notices appeared in January’s Show Business that Stratford, ON’s, Shakespeare Festival was auditioning for its 1963 season, I burned with ambition, supposing myself within the girdle of those walls.
I applied. An audition was set up in March. Naturally, with as little money as Vene and I had, there was only one option. To drive.
We had a car by then. It was a very used but good 1956 Chevy Bel Air. We’d bought it for $375 in Philadelphia on the advice of Vene’s stepfather, Joe, who really knew cars. It ran exceptionally well and, unlike when I’d been driving back and forth from Philadelphia to Atlantic City in the year that this second car was new, I had also become a better driver. So what if the fender, hood, and roof had three different colors among them?
Researching the route I-87 north to I-90 west to Ontario, I learned that it would take me at least 10 hours. So I packed a big lunch, including my favorite, home-made pork and cornbread meat loaf, and set off north ahead of most morning rush hour traffic, arriving in Stratford by late evening.
I awoke the next morning in my motel to discover that my alarm clock had stopped, not having been sufficiently wound after my long, tiring drive. I panicked. Had I driven all that way and missed my audition? I turned on the TV. It was only 9:20. I still had an hour and 10 minutes before my appointment. After a nervous shower and a quick breakfast, I got there on time.
Needless to say, I was not relaxed when an assistant director asked a few questions about me, despite my résumé in his hands. He was very friendly and polite, making me feel much more at ease.
Finally, I took the stage in that mighty wooden O, thrilled to be there. In ringing tones, resonating throughout the hall, I unleashed my conquering sword, the stirring prologue to Henry V. Then, as a gentle, sweet contrast, I reprised Romeo’s first lines from the Balcony Scene, still alive in my memory, no doubt more full of passion than eight years before. It all felt confident and good.
The A.D. thanked me for coming all that way and told me that many decisions remained about casting but that the Festival would certainly be in touch soon. Actually, he never said anything about call-backs, i.e., when candidates subsequently read for specific roles with other actors.
Not that I noticed. Had I done so, that would have made clear what I later concluded. The audition was a courtesy. They couldn’t very well turn me down in advance by saying, for example, that all roles were cast; that could have been questioned.
Of course, I did get a form letter a few weeks later, telling me something kindly generic about not getting any roles. By then, despite my fractured dream, I was not surprised. Not getting a part was such a regular experience—something all of us actors had to learn if we were to persist.
It wasn’t long thereafter that I discovered that Stratford rarely gave Americans major roles, preferring to foster and support Canadian actors whenever possible. Logical, of course. But I found that American Jake Dengel had had a few good roles. Evidently a rarity.
That summer, 1963, by the way, Vene and I took the long drive together to Stratford to attend performances and were thrilled by John Colicos in Timon of Athens. Our seats were so close to him that, due to backlighting, in one scene, we could see his spittle flying while angrily denouncing his fate from knee-depth in a dirt-arrayed ditch in the stage floor. And we loved William Hutt as Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida. The cast included Douglas Rain as Ulysses; his name stuck with me up to and beyond his voice as HAL in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey five years after seeing him live. FYI: Len Cariou had a small role in Troilus and Cressida.
That year Lee Kalcheim had posted a notice in Backstage, saying that he was forming an improvisational comedy group with plans to start a company in New York and put on productions. He was auditioning candidates, with no immediate promise of money but that he had the experience and ability to train them. I was invited to join five other people for the first workshops, perhaps due to my ability to come up swiftly with character voices and movements to match, as well as my ad-lib skills. Kalcheim had studied with Viola Spolin, founder of Chicago’s Compass Players, from which emerged The Second City company.
He taught us basics and, meeting for two hours once a week for a year, we had a ball.
Lee had planned an off-Broadway opening for December of 1963 when the group fell apart. President Kennedy was killed; the sorrow and confusion made our continuing hard; coming up with funny stuff felt wrong.
One of us went on to a major movie career, Pete Boyle. When hanging out with him over coffee I learned that he was from Philadelphia. “Hey!” I exclaimed to him, “are you connected to Uncle Pete Boyle on KYW-TV?” I had seen some kids’ shows with Uncle Pete as the host around the same time that Ernie Kovacs was starring in his shows on the same station. “He’s my dad,” he smiled happily.
In 1963 there were two more stage roles. The small one was at Equity Library Theatre, producing a farce by Arthur Wing Pinero, The Magistrate; I played a French waiter, Isadore.
That also called for me to sing a song by John Duffy who emerged later as a celebrated, much-awarded composer. The production ran just nine performances, the standard for shows at ELT.
Completely bearded again, I so much resembled stage manager George Wojtasik that several people said they couldn’t tell us apart. George, FYI, went on to become E.L.T’s managing director for 21 years.
Lots of agents were always invited for productions at E. L.T., considered one of New York’s best showcases for emerging talent. It was a way that agents could spot someone whose career they thought might go places, with the agents fostering and promoting such clients, from whose earnings the agents would earn their keep.
After we opened I called those whom I invited. Standard response: “Keep me posted”; i.e., no rush to add me to their rosters.
The bigger role was for the Group of Ancient Drama, Inc., putting together a production of a play by Aristophanes—one I’d never heard of, Plutus. Given my significant off-Broadway experience playing a stumbling old guy for the one-week disaster Lysistrata four years before, I figured I had it made.
And I did. And played somebody near my age. Greek actress Aliki Nord, who had major stage and film credits in her homeland, and her playwright-husband Paul liked my goofy sense of fun (developed playing in Nicolo shows), and they cast me in the comic role of a wise-guy servant named Cario. Paul had written the adaptation.
The pay was Spartan; it was another non-Equity show. Several of us in the cast were in Equity, but Equity waived the rules. I did get to eat free avro lemon soup, stuffed grape leaves, spanakopita, and baklava because we rehearsed above an Eighth Avenue Greek restaurant owned by a friend of the Nords.
Taking the opening night at the Fashion Institute of Technology on West 27th Street, the house was jammed with Greeks and near-Greeks, dressed, of course, in their finest robes. Boisterous enthusiasm. They loved me. I got a standing ovation. So did everyone else. We were a hit.
For one night only, Sunday, April 28th. That was the only scheduled performance. But Aliki and Paul vowed by all the gods that we would come together triumphantly again.
Four months later they hired us for a return engagement, four public (i.e., free) performances presented by the New York City Department of Parks. The place: the East River Park Amphitheatre at South Grand Street and FDR Drive. In August. Good old hot New York August.
The sound of traffic on the Drive and on nearby streets provided a very different sonic environment than April’s had. Our first rehearsals made it clear that we’d never be clear, even those with mighty lungs capable of the kind of projection that actual Greek actors back in Aristophanes’ day didn’t need.
Sound director Michael Landis came up with a solution. Sort of. He rented a sound system, with standing microphones and small speakers, making us audible, I’d say, as far back as the eighth row. It also meant that we had to curtail any physical business that took us out of the microphones’ range. Thus we had to hover near the mikes for our scenes, like radio actors. A lot of the hot cement rows ringing us were unoccupied while kids and locals wandered up and down the aisles, as if actors were just a backdrop to their more interesting self-generated entertainments. We were not a hit.
The producers of Beyond the Fringe, though, had a big hit on their hands. That evening of sketches by a quartet of very clever Englishmen sent up British life and British theatre, starring Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, who both had major movie careers subsequently; Alan Bennett, who became a significant playwright; and Jonathan Miller, soon a very much sought-after stage director.
Towards the end of the show’s first year, the producers wanted to send out a road company. Having called them, using a seemingly convincing English accent, I was invited to audition. I prepared some of my own comedy material, spinning off of Irwin Corey’s act as The World’s Foremost Authority in a lecture I created, making fun of Othello. I could tell that the people in the house were having a good time. They laughed heartily.
“That’s great!” one of them said out beyond the stage lights. “Tell us about yourself.” Talking about my credits, I dropped the accent, trying to show them how skilled I had been to sound English when I wasn’t.
“Thank you very much,” the same voice said. “We appreciate your coming to see us. But we’re only looking for people with authentic accents.” Once again I had made a stupid choice. Would I never learn how to market myself effectively?
For most of that year, actually, I played in puppet shows.
In early 1964, a medical doctor’s secretary named Kathleen Ambrose was able to get a leave of absence to assemble actors to tour nursing homes and mental hospitals performing a one-act play. Her major reason was not to do something meaningful for the sorrowful occupants. She wanted to take a shot at acting, singing, producing, and directing, probably figuring that such audiences wouldn’t be too critical.
She chose Noël Coward’s Red Peppers, a nasty little piece about a couple of married performers, George and Lily Pepper, who not only have a tacky act playing in minor gigs but bicker and insult each other backstage. Kathleen cast herself as Lily and me as George. I had the right accent and my few stage credits certainly looked right. Her NYU undergrad son Bobby had a supporting role.
At times during rehearsals Bobby seemed distracted and kept forgetting his lines; Kathleen charitably forgave him. She privately reassured me that he’d be alright for the performance; he was just having a few medical problems. But, she said, she had been able to help him by providing some of the prescription drugs her doctor-boss had in his office.
We had a major booking: Bellevue Hospital. They don’t come any bigger than that for treating off-the-wall cases.
During our one-and-only performance, which included Lily and George getting partially undressed in the backstage part of the story, the captive audience howled and giggled wildly. They also seemed to enjoy how the married couple kept fighting with each other, shouting encouragement to each of us. An orderly had to come in and quiet them down.
Why Kathleen chose that show, I’ll never know. But it certainly didn’t lead to future such engagements.