How did you get started in theater?
What was the first play you ever performed in?
There was more than one start. The very first time
I appeared on stage in a play, I was assistant set
designer at a star-package Equity summer theater
in Dayton, Ohio, in the early 60s (I was in my early
20s); and they were desperate. I played the moving
man in FATHER OF THE BRIDE (with movie star
What hooked you? Was it your first school play-movie-first time seeing a Broadway Show? What inspired you to be where you are today? What was the first play you ever saw?
Oh, good grief. Please forgive me in advance for being wordy. I'll try to get at the real answer to this. In a nutshell (I being the nut), I grew up in Abilene, Texas, where my only evidence for the existence of live theater was what I saw in the movies. TV didn't even exist there yet. I was a reclusive nerd, hated sports and horses, read a lot and painted. Loved movies. I must have seen SINGIN' IN THE RAIN a dozen times before it left town. Ditto THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. We moved from Abilene (no loss) to Austin (great town) when I was in high school. There I saw BRIGADOON at the University of Texas and cried all the way through it. Not because it was sad or bad, but because it was beautiful. It was virtually a religious experience. I remember reflecting, as I sat there sniffling in the dark, that art (all of the arts) contributed immeasurably and mysteriously to human life. I knew without question that I wanted, somehow, to create beauty. By then I'd dabbled in all of the related arts: I played piano and cello, I'd won a few junior prizes for my paintings, I'd had a short story published in the school paper, and I'd performed a little: magic shows at parties and stand-up at church camp. I attended the University of Texas after high school and majored in Fine Art (painting). At this time, De Kooning and Pollock and other gibberish doodlers represented the future of the art-gallery world, and my representational work was considered too passé to be eligible for grading. So I quit. The boyhood friend I had done magic shows with, meanwhile, had become a dancer and was in the chorus of a new Equity theater in Fort Worth. Depressed and aimless, I drove upstate to visit him and stumbled into a chorus rehearsal for CAN CAN. The seats had not yet been installed, and the chorus and 26-piece orchestra echoed under a huge geodesic dome. I fell in love with theater all over again, and by the end of the day was a scenic artist there. By the end of the summer, I was chief artist, and after the next season I was resident designer. The first Broadway shows I saw completely confirmed my love of live theater. My first week in New York I saw WEST SIDE STORY and BELLS ARE RINGING (yes, the originals).
Did you study acting?
Yes, but for a round-about reason. I wanted to write plays and screenplays, and I figured I ought to learn the actor's perspective. I studied with Rose Schulman of the Hedgerow School because my sister was studying with her. (Hedgerow was founded by Jasper Deeter, who directed the New York premieres of many of O'Neill's plays.)
What was your first audition?
Skip a decade or two. I stopped designing, started writing, free-lance-edited some magazines, got some books published, had a couple of minor teleplays produced, and a screenplay, but just couldn't make a living as a free-lancer. I took a corporate job as a technical writer on Long Island (the sticks, I thought) and discovered that after writing computer training materials all week, I had no gray cells left for my own writing on the weekends. Rick Heuthe talked me into playing the looney-bin attendant in DRACULA, for which I didn't have to audition; and then . . .
My very first acting audition ever was for ZORBA at Theatre Three in Port Jeff, about 10 years ago. Cold-blooded calculation. I figured they wouldn't cast me in a lead until I had proved myself. I got the minor role of Katopolis (My voluptuous dance partner was Debbie Starker herself); then, during ZORBA, I auditioned for and got what I really wanted: Sir Evelyn in ANYTHING GOES.
How do you choose what play you will audition for? The piece itself, the director, theater, you were pre-cast, etc.?
You ask complicated questions! The piece (and its meaning, value, quality, and potential as emotional fuel, including laughter, for the audience), then the role, the director, the theater, the pay in that order, I guess.
Speaking of pre-casting, tell us how you really feel about the subject.
If I'm pre-cast, it's inevitable. It's the only sure way for a theater to nail down a quality cast and be able to put its best foot forward. If somebody else is pre-cast in my role, it sucks.
What types of parts do you normally play? Do you feel typecast? Looking back on the roles you've been cast in, do you think there's a certain kind of role you get cast in repeatedly? When directors look at a certain role, what do you think they see as a "David Houston" type?
Mature, urbane, a kind of ordinary leading man or character actor (British). So far I've played quite a variety serious to slapstick. E.g. the murderous husband in DIAL M, the half-crazed villain in SUPERMAN, the gentle victimized husband in THE LITTLE FOXES, Uncle Ben in DEATH OF A SALESMAN, the old actor in THE FANTASTICS, the aging Shakespearean in THE DRESSER, and currently an average Californian father of three in ALONE TOGETHER. That's not at all a restrictive pattern.
What is your approach to developing your character?
Depends. More often than not, it's obvious enough to me, and I don't dwell on it apart from deciding on line interpretations. Interesting how working on line options squeezes the overall character into shape. Sometimes, though, it takes dredging up background that isn't in the script, sketching notes about history, behavior, mannerisms, etc. (William Gillette in POSTMORTEM, Toulon in M BUTTERFLY.)
Of all the characters you have portrayed, who is your favorite?
I never met a part I didn't like. Sir in THE DRESSER, I guess.
What do you think were your best roles? Your worst?
Among the best: Sir in THE DRESSER (Steve Parks to the contrary notwithstanding.) I'm too smug to be able to think of a worst.
What roles offered you the greatest challenge and why? How well do you think you met the challenge?
Friar Lawrence in ROMEO AND JULIET was a doozy. Because there's more than one way to imagine him, and because there is always a way to stay fully human in spite of the iambic pentameter and archaic expressions. Frankly (needless to say), I think I done good. I was proud of it.
What role do you wish you could have a second shot at and get it right this time?
Well, I feel that there's more to be unearthed in Friar Lawrence, Sir, Horace in THE LITTLE FOXES (loved that one!), and I don't think I was slimy enough as William Desmond Taylor in MACK AND MABLE.
What roles or types of roles would you most like to play in the future?
I'm getting to be a little long in the tooth as The Master himself would put it but I still hope to play in Noel Coward comedies. BLITHE SPIRIT, PRESENT LAUGHTER, WAITING IN THE WINGS, even DESIGN FOR LIVING and PRIVATE LIVES. Now if only we could match me up with a sufficiently glamorous woman - Phyllis March!
How do you feel when you perform?
Exhilarated, not particularly frightened. My own feelings are, I think, somewhat suspended as I display the feelings of my character. Like an out-of-body experience.
What motivates you to keep on doing what you're doing?
Hmmm. Partly because I love story-telling. I was asked once why I didn't seem nervous onstage, and without dwelling on it, I said, "Well, I'm just up there telling my part of a complicated story." Of course, now that I think about it, that's a damn good reason to be nervous as hell.
During opening night jitters each one of us has said, "Why do I do this to myself?" Why do you do it?
It's Mount Everest again: because it's there. Also, see previous answers.
What is your favorite theater story?
Maybe somebody can refresh my memory here. It has to do with a famous cast doing some comedy. The leading lady (Eve Arden? Tallulah Bankhead?) and her leading man (?) were notorious for their practical jokes aimed at each other. One night, the man bribed the stage manager to ring the telephone at a moment when the woman was standing by the phone. She'd have to answer it and improvise. Ha, ha. (By the way, I completely disapprove of this kind of horseplay at the audience's expense.) There she stood. The phone rang. Skipping hardly a beat, she reached down, picked it up, said, "Hello. . . oh, yes, just a minute", held it out to the actor and said, "It's for you."
Did you ever miss an entrance, drop enough lines for it to be noticeable, crack up on stage?
What was your worst theater experience?
Maybe it's because I consider failings trivial, or maybe it's a gimmick to maintain self-esteem, but I have trouble remembering things like this. Well, in M BUTTERFLY at Theatre Three I went so blank I just spoke in tongues for what seemed an eternity. And I was downstage center facing out. Luckily, I had a glass of champagne in my hand, so I sipped on it till the next line, or a facsimile, came to me. Oh here's one: I was 22 years old, designer for PAJAMA GAME at Phoenix Light Opera. The director was a prick. Babe fell through the platform over a laundry cart during dress rehearsal, and the director screamed at me and fired me on the spot. I was exhausted, angry, hadn't slept for days, and I simply started crying and walked away. The producer hired me back after good reviews for the set, but I couldn't stand to stay, took a bus back to Dallas. Also that night, a (real) juke box fell in my right big toe, and months later, when the nail grew back, it had a fungus on it that lasted 25 years.
What's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you on stage?
Why do you perform at the theaters you do?
I respect their approach and potentials.
Do you think regional theater will continue to grow on L.I.?
With some ups and downs, sure.
Who are some of the actors you've most admired or who have been particularly rewarding to work with?
On Long Island? In no particular order, spelled badly, and with no attempt to be fair or accurate: Rick Heuthe, Mary Ellin Kurtz, Jack Howell, Melanie Waddell, Frank Tangredi, Debbie Starker, Matt Stashin, Evelyne Lune, Ruthie Pincus, the Dufrenoys, Diana Heinlein, Karen Rowan, George Ghossn, Steve Corbellini, Frank Russo, Steven Ayle, Candace Shannon, Suzanne Mason, and others even better who will occur to me tomorrow.
Who's the best (in your opinion) that you've done a show with?
Maybe Sue Ann Dennehy in THE LITTLE FOXES.
Who is your favorite performer? favorite L.I. performer?
Favorite? Performer? Alive in the world today? (We're not necessarily talking most skillful, most versatile, most amazing, most accomplished, just favorite to watch.) Maybe Angela Lansbury. Maybe Kevin Kline. L.I. performer? I can't single one out. Well, maybe Evelyne Lune.
How do you maintain your career and do theater?
I've recently retired from technical writing, and now have fewer conflicts. Theater is now mainly what I do. It used to be quite a juggling act.
Why do you spend so much time toiling in L.I. Theater?
Because it's here. Like Mount Everest again. (I am beginning to drift westward a little more often. I have an audition in the City next week.)
Do you find that your family supports your love of theater?
My mother, two sisters, and two nieces do. Dad didn't, but he's dead. Nobody else out there matters. (My nearest relative is over 1,000 miles away.)
How has performing enriched your life?
As I indicated earlier, the arts are my religion. Getting inside somebody else's rich imagination and collaborating with him/her to touch the souls of scores (out of the hundreds in an audience) with uplifting and clarifying notions and feelings about life. . . what could be more important to me or anybody alive?
What brings you the greatest joy?
What really irks you?
Bad or trivial art masquerading as valuable.
If you won LOTTO tomorrow you would --
Be richer. And happier, probably.
Is it true that you'd really rather be rich than good looking?
Assuming that I don't consider myself either rich or good looking, I'd pick . . . god, I don't know.
What's your favorite word?
Offhand I'd say: epistemology.
When you reach the pearly gates what do you want St. Peter to say?
As sure as tomorrow will have a sunrise, there's no gate and no Peter, but at the end of it all, I wouldn't mind hearing somebody say, "All things considered, not bad."
Do you have any projects on the horizon that you want the readers to be aware of? (Please give details)
My one-man show, THE DICKENS!, an evening of dramatic readings from author Charles, is on the move. It premiered in Queens in January, and for a while, it looked like it would die there. I sent out flyers, opened a web page for it, everything I could think of. Now it has finally been booked for the MINELOA LIBRARY, August 13, 7:00 to 8:30, 195 Marcellus Road in Mineola, (516) 749-8488. Come if you can. Spread the word! The show will be listed for schools on the BOCES web site in the fall. And it's also booked for the OCEANSIDE LIBRARY in December.
Given your choice of parts in plays, which play and role is your heart's desire?
I'd settle for Charles Condomine in BLITHE SPIRIT.