I wasn't particularly fond of reading Shakespeare initially. I found being assigned Julius Caesar in high school English rather painful. Still, in the Sixties, I bought all the Signet paperback releases and read the lesser performed ones. The Henrys and Winter's Tale, as well as my faves, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer's Night Dream. My conflicting tastes were still alternating me between Comedy and Tragedy. Horror and Humour. Mad Magazine vs. Macbeth. Olivier as Richard the Third, or Peter Sellers' parody of him in What's New, Pussycat?
So I sent out feelers. I applied to join the Summer Shakespearean companies: Ashland and for some reason, the Utah Shakespeare Festival. 1967, 1968, I believe. Not accepted. On to the next bit.
Around this time I still hadn't done a real Shakespeare production. The closest I had come to Royal Shakespeare Company style quality had been Marat/Sade at Cal State Fullerton. It was enough to keep my appetite whetted. My youthful delusion still veered into David Hemmings territory. I could do Blow-Up, I could do Charge of the Light Brigade, I could do Camelot. Or Terence Stamp. I could do Toby Dammit, I could do Far From the Madding Crowd. Delusions.
There were fine examples of what Shakespeare could be like on film coming from Europe. 1968's Romeo and Juliet is still my favourite. And Tony Richardson's Hamlet with Nicol Williamson and Marianne Faithfull was inspiring.
Flash Forward, 1978-1979. I am auditioning for Tony Richardson's production of Shakespeare's As You Like It in the Hollywood Masonic Temple, the play to be produced in Long Beach. I am an Equity Actor now. Big Deal. Richardson ignores me, his assistant is asking me the questions. Being an Anglophile, I need something to grab the great man's attention. Something to set me apart from the rest of the lowbrow soap opera types, trying to get a job. An obscure reference, methinks, one only a British Master of the Arts would understand. "I consider myself a character actor," I announce to the minion, "along the lines of a Michael Hordern." (This reference to the obscure English actor who Tony has directed will clinch it, I hope. The Masonic Handshake in the Temple of Thespus!) Richardson makes no movement, lost in paperwork. "We'll let you know," says the Kafka-like extra, and I leave The Castle. :)
(Not Shakespeare related, but in an earlier Cattle Call at the same Hollywood Masonic Temple, I submitted my CV to get a job in a Los Angeles production of Oh! Calcutta. No Tony Richardson; no references to obscure character actors, and I didn't have to audition nude.)
1971-1973: These are active years for me theatrically. No actual Shakespeare yet, but I have had a nice part in Moliere. 1972. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, or The Would-Be Gentleman, as it's called for Santa Barbara's Alhecama Players. In a way I feel more comfortable in the Court of Louis XIV than Elizabeth I. (Pourquoi?) The summer's dream to follow that year is a production of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Produced at UCSB, I hope for Hamlet or the Player role, but must settle for just a Tragedian. This is okay. Like Marat/Sade, I like the play and want to be a part. At the time, Stoppard wasn't done locally and just being near it would be rewarding. I couldn't say the same for endless productions of Oklahoma. The year winds up in Cervantes' Spain in Man of La Mancha. The costume period roles keep coming. I am the Captain of the Inquisition.
1973 is a smash. Love Rides the Rails, followed by Nothing is Sacred. Comedy is King Again. And then, finally, the Real Thing comes along. Alhecama Players decides to do King Lear with a Real Pro in the lead: Ford Rainey. This is as close as I'm going to get to working with Peter Hall in Stratford-upon-Avon. Pope Freeman in Santa Barbara. Feeling Foolishly that I've proven myself the most capable comedy/slash/tragedy character actor in The Big Avocado, I intend to play the Fool. I do. Just not on stage.
Long since the days of having the pleasure of working with Ford Rainey, the man pops up regularly in gems of classic television. Four episodes of Perry Mason (one with Barbara Parkins as his daughter), Have Gun-Will Travel, The Outer Limits and Checkmate among an impressive list. He was part of the repertory company for The Richard Boone Show. Of course, in 1973 I'm not as familiar with the man's work and more self-obsessed with adding to my own resume. Oh, yeah. I want to get the part of The Fool.
Well, it's not going to happen. Pope Freeman, despite my futile attempts to impress him that the Comedy Master stands in his midst, has a Concept in his Mind. He wants the actress who is playing Lear's rebellious daughter to also play The Fool. Interesting! A reverse Gender Switch. A comment on Women's Oppression. A twinkle to Shakespeare's day of Males playing the Female parts. This might be something Tilda Swinton would do. I'm disappointed, but being a conceptualist, I acknowledge the attempt. It doesn't work, of course. Dan Sullivan of the Los Angeles Times came up to review the play and said the actress (Kathleen Quillen, another Equity pro) had "missed the mark. To play the Fool this wanly is to suggest Cordelia herself has stolen his clothes."
No signs of outwardly satisfaction from me here :). No Sirrah! I'm just struggling along in my near invisible contribution to this first true entry in the work of the Master. Oh, yeah. I don't get The Fool, but my special abilities are now in the role of The Gentleman. I have a swordfight with the Duke of Cornwall (played by my old friend R. Leo Schreiber, from Love Rides the Rails and Nothing is Sacred). In practice, my right wrist is hit. Off to Cottage Cheese Hospital, no x-ray," just a bruise, put ice on it." It swells and cramps during the night. Off to competing hospital, St. Francis the Talking Mule, x-ray, "it's fractured," into cast. Out of cast as The Gentleman.
But it's not over yet, Folks! No, Sirrah! With arm in cast, I am given role (ironically) of The Doctor! My costume is a beautiful blue Merlin's robe with huge sleeves to hide my cast. Still no lines, my part is to tend to Lear's health shifts, view his sick body, nod looks of Hippocratic nonsense to family members and lead Lear out of harm's way. This is great fun, Folks! It is more fun because for most of the three hour running time, yours truly is in the historic Lobero Theatre Green Room, drinking coffee, taking codeine for my wrist and having smokes. This can turn one's view of The Bard's Masterwork into something a tad goofy.
My "big" scene is to come out, look at Lear's dying body, shake my head and give that hopeless mime moment so well known among members of the AMA. Under the lights, in my surrealist moment, I always wanted to have slugs (shellless snails) in my pocket, and ad-lib the lines: "WAIT! There's hope! Let's bleed him with the leeches!" I would then put the slug on Ford's body, causing him to bolt up, out of character in shock and surprise. "LOOK!" I would shout, "HE LIVES!!! You will get my bill in the morning." And walk off triumphantly, stage right.
"Caffeine, Codeine and Cannabis..." La la, la la, la lah... (*giggles*)
It was once said that my not getting the part of The Fool destroyed my creative soul. Hardly. I've had far greater disappointments and clear visions of the nature of show business and human motives than not getting a part. After King Lear, I had only months later, the satisfaction of doing Abelard and Heloise, another costume character part. I came back to Santa Barbara City College, as an instructor, to direct my play Casanova's Lips. And finally, I worked with my favourite director, Max Whittaker in the new theatre debut of Arsenic and Old Lace. The success of this production was responsible for me being invited by Pope Freeman to revive the show at the Lobero. Because of my full time work in radio, I declined the paying offer (I was Equity then). And I didn't think it would be as good or as fun as it had been with Mr. Whittaker.
If anything, it probably changed my discipline on being a serious stage actor. I hated cold memorization. I took long to remember script if it wasn't connected to the blocking. Remember a line just sitting: tough. Remember it, cause I'm moving this way or doing that: fine. This is probably the writer in me coming out.
I was sorry I couldn't accept the part of the MC in Cabaret at SBCC. That might have fun! :)