My parents were both professional actors. When I was growing up the theatre was our church, our temple, a holy place that you dare not enter unless you were willing to surrender totally to a Divine creation. That's not to say that all talk of the theatre was pious and hushed. On the contrary, the endless anecdotes about plays and actors, and performances that were loudly and eloquently pontificated around my kitchen table were mostly delivered with hilarity and joy. But the endeavor of creating those stories, those comedies, those tragedies, was not to be approached without dedication, hard work, and a willingness to have your spirit transported to a place where humanity is at its most godlike.
For me doing a school play was a combination of joy and stress. Not because it wasn’t going to be fun, but because I knew I’d have to face my parents after the show. When I was in the second grade play, all of the kids around me were being squeezed and photographed and hugged by their adoring parents and grandparents. They were being told how cute they were and that “they were the best one”. It was a little different for me. I got notes.
Honestly, when I was a little boy I was always entertained by the antics of the actors in my family and their actor friends, but I wasn’t necessarily impressed by them. Nor was I star-struck by some of the famous people wandering around my house. I was more focused on getting someone to stop telling stories and make some dinner. But as I look back on it, I think that, almost by osmosis, I was infused by the passion and devotion these zany folks had for their life’s work. They had a calling. They were devoting themselves to a very difficult life that had a magnificent and noble purpose: to create characters that would tell the stories of our shared humanity. That sounds very deep, and I guess it is. But they also got to spend their lives playing. How fun does that sound?
One of my favorite things in the world was to travel with my family when my dad did a play in summer stock. We would pack up and go somewhere on the East coast where my father would perform in a summer theatre. That’s where I first got a taste of the magic that happens backstage. All that time spent hiding in the wings, looking out from the darkness into the bright lights, being in on the illusion, was thrilling to me. I always had an overactive imagination and it seemed like this special place would give me somewhere to go to put my imagination to good use.
Turns out it was. When I was in high school I realized that acting was something I could do, something I was good at. When I was in college I spent pretty much all my time in the theatre. It gave me solace. It gave me structure. It was my sanctuary.
When I graduated from college I went to New York to begin my career. I was fortunate to find work after only a couple of years of doing various blue collar jobs, and have been at it ever since. I remember seeing a billboard on a bus stop one day that said, “Luck is where opportunity meets preparation.” I guess I had been preparing my whole life to be an actor.
And so, there I was, following in the footsteps of my father James, and my sister Tyne.
When my son, Sam, announced that he was going to be an actor I was shocked. Somehow he managed to disguise his passion for acting, so my reaction may not have been as generous as it should have been. I knew that he would feel the constant pain of rejection. I knew that he was embarking upon a life that would be amazingly rewarding but also filled, most likely equally, with disappointment. But I was also very proud and honored that my son was following in the family business. I knew that I would hold him to a high standard just as I would if we were a family of reputable shoemakers, I guess.
And then, my brilliant daughter, Emelyn, announced that after completing her Fulbright scholarship she was going to acting school. I was thinking that maybe I was the carrier of a congenital disease that had infected my unsuspecting children. Yet from the first time I helped her learn her lines I knew that she was good. Like my son, she was able to tap into that creative spirit and tell the true story of another human being. What a gift. And they both had it.
I have since worked with both of my children. It’s hard to express what an honor that is – there is nothing that has filled me with more pride and a profound sense of joy and gratitude to see them work so hard to touch the divine.
My imagination and my curiosity have always been my best asset. When I was a kid I really wanted to be a cowboy, and an astronaut, and a doctor and a lawyer, and a million other people who I was curious about. But at some point I realized that I could never do any of those things properly unless I devoted my entire life to them. So I had a dilemma. Then came the moment when I figured it out and knew my path. I remember a literature class from college where we were assigned to write a short autobiographical poem. I think what I wrote should probably be my epitaph as it sums up my life quite well. I’ll leave you with it….
“What he could not do he pretended to.”