How did you get started in theater?
After a very abortive attempt in my early 20s, I took it up again as a diversion and way of meeting people when my marriage went south. My daughters, Gwen and Shana, had been trying out for shows at Broadhollow and I wound up doing so as well.
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?
It was my father, who was a reporter and as a sideline reviewed plays. He took me to the theater and I saw everything from touring companies of MY FAIR LADY to FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and ANNIE GET YOUR GUN on Broadway. And since he was a reviewer, we always went back stage and met the actors. I saw Ethel Merman in her underwear, an image I'm endeavoring to scour from my mind to this day.
What was the first play you ever saw?
Not sure. I know the first non-musical I ever saw was "The Front Page."
Ever performed in?
Did you study acting? If not, how did you get into it?
I studied it in college, yes.
What was your first audition?
A production of "Harvey." I didn't get in.
How do you choose what play you will audition for? The piece itself, the director, theater, you were pre-cast, etc.
The piece and accessibility; I don't have the time or inclination to drive hours every day to be in a show.
Speaking of pre-casting, tell us how you really feel about the subject.
I think there's nothing wrong with having someone in mind, but you should always keep your mind open to someone who might be better. The obligation is to produce the best show possible, and if you announce that certain roles are off the table, you pass up the chance to find someone better. The only exception should be pure vehicle shows. "Barnum," for instance. If you're going to mount that show, you damn well better have someone in place before you even think of doing it. But don't tell me, "We're producing 'My Fair Lady,' and all parts are open except Higgins, Eliza, Pickering, and Doolittle.'" What fun is that?
What types of parts do you normally play? Do you feel typecast?
Usually I play comedic roles. I don't feel typecast; on the other hand, I'd love to play a total slimebag. Or Captain Hook. But I'd never get cast as Hook. Smee, maybe.
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 "Peter David" type?
The only time a director had a role for me that was "your name here" was when Darren Petronella sandbagged me into playing "Vince Fontaine" in "Grease," and that was only because his Vince couldn't do it. Then again, he was desperate; I suspect anyone's name could have gone in there if they could remember their lines and not bump into the furniture.
What is your approach to developing your character?
I like to think of a backstory that informs who the character is and how he came to be where he is at that moment in time.
Of all the characters you have portrayed, who is your favorite?
Sancho in "Man of La Mancha."
What do you think were your best roles? your worst?
Best was Sancho and also Marryin' Sam in "Li'l Abner." Also right up there was Richard Henry Lee in "1776." What a great part. You come out in scene 2, sing the best song in the show, exit, come back halfway through scene 3 to move that America should be independent, leave to become governor of Virginia, and then relax back stage for an hour and a half and come back for curtain call. I was in an extended production at Bayway and wrote an entire novel in the dressing room while the rest of the cast was sweating in those
damned wigs and jackets. Worst? Probably the Sergeant in "The Unexpected Guest." I hated that damned accent, and also I played it too broadly.
What roles offered you the greatest challenge and why? How well do you think you met the challenge?
Probably Marryin' Sam just because I had four songs. How'd I meet it? Tried not to panic.
What role do you wish you could have a second shot at and get it right this time?
Love to do Sancho again. I don't think I got it wrong the first time, but it was such a short run and I felt that just when I was starting to hit my stride, the show was over.
What roles or types of roles would you most like to play in the future?
Hmm. I've love to play "Snoopy" in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." Like to do Walter Burns in "The Front Page," and either Felix or Oscar in "The Odd Couple." Actually, it'd be fun to switch off every performance. You wind up memorizing the other guy's dialogue anyway. How cool would that be?
How do you feel when you perform?
What motivates you to keep on doing what you're doing?
I dunno. Masochism, I guess.
During opening night jitters each one of us has said, "Why do I do this to myself?" Why do you do it?
Well, I've made a commitment at that point. Second guessing it isn't going to help at that point.
What is your favorite theater story?
I saw "M. Butterfly" on Broadway. During intermission, what happens is that B.D. Wong comes out on stage, still in the geisha makeup, and sits down at a make-up table. Now as luck would have it, my seat was right at the edge of a theater group of blue hairs. So we (along with most of the audience) sat and watched (which the concession people must have hated) as Wong proceeded to--very meticulously--remove the make-up. After about ten minutes, he stood up, shrugged off his kimono to reveal a crisp white shirt and striped pants,
pulled on a suit jacket, turned and faced the audience. Wild applause greeted the transformation, and one of the blue hairs seated nearby me--as she banged her hands together in appreciation--said to her companions in wonderment, "She's amazing! Isn't she amazing?!" Everyone in hearing distance turned and stared at the woman in astonishment. Yes, that's right: She had no clue that "M. Butterfly" was about a man falling in love with
another man pretending to be a geisha, and seeing it right in front of her, she STILL didn't get it.
Did you ever miss an entrance, drop enough lines for it to be noticeable, crack up on stage?
I *almost* lost it during a production of "Li'l Abner," and nearly took the cast down with me. In the scene leading up to "Jubilation T. Cornpone," one of the Dogpatchers is supposed to be about to smack his daughter because she won't stop asking who Jubilation T. Cornpone is. Sam is supposed to say, "Now hold on there, Rufus! Don't you whomp that child! C'mere, Scarlet." And he starts telling the kid who Cornpone was, which takes us into the song.
Well, in this production, Scarlet was played by my teen daughter, Gwen. And one of the things I'd started doing was calling Rufus by different names during rehearsal, because the director kept changing which actor it was. Even though we eventually settled on one actor, I kept calling him something different each time because it amused me, and no one seemed to mind. It also became a challenge to crack up Bill Williams over in the orchestra pit. As
time passed, I got more and more ornate. "Now hold on, Louisville! Don't you slug 'er!" That kind of thing.
One day I was too successful. Inspired at the last moment just before the scene started, we got to that point in the show and I called out, "Now hold on there, Bambi! Don't you thump 'er! C'mere, Scarlet!" I put my arm around Gwen's shoulders to deliver my lines, and felt her shoulders shaking from repressed laughter. Her next line was, "Was he brave?" and she could barely get it out. I started to lose it. "BRAVE!" I shouted, and stamped my foot so hard that pain shot up my leg. In the meantime, the entire cast behind me was dying. They were all looking at each other, trying not to crack up, and of course they'd see each other desperately trying not to laugh and that would just make it worse. When we finally launched into the song, it was the single most energized performance of it we'd ever done, because we were working off the repressed hysteria.
What was your worst theater experience?
I won't say which show it was, but I had a scene with this one actress and she was giving me nothing back. I had to keep a high energy level and I could've gotten more enthusiasm from a two by four. Night after night, it was like acting with a black hole. Not fun.
What's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you on stage?
We were doing "Unexpected Guest," which was only my second show and I made a mistake that only someone inexperienced in stage craft can make. There's a scene where the Inspector is questioning a woman about the time of night that she'd heard a scream. I was standing just to the Inspector's right. Now understand that for long pages of dialogue, the Sergeant (my role) has nothing to do. So I came up with in-character things to keep me in the scene. So the Inspector says to the woman, when she's vague about the time, "Can you get a little closer?" Figuring that the Sergeant misunderstood, I took a step closer to the Inspector. Then she responds with a closer approximation of the time and, "realizing" my mistake, I step back. I did it all through rehearsal. No one said anything. I figured no one cared. I did it for the first three performances. No reaction from audience. Fine. I wasn't expecting one. I wasn't doing it for them. And then, one performance, for some reason-- maybe I made the movement slightly bigger, maybe the actress paused slightly longer and the moment extend--whatever it was, the audience saw it and reacted with an explosive roar of laughter. The whole cast turned and looked at me, and I wanted to crawl under the
furniture. Never did it again.
And then there was the production of "Li'l Abner" where I blew the lyrics of "Jubilation T. Cornpone." I flat-out got mixed up, because the lyrics don't really lead from one to the next, and one night I got them out of order. Since all the choreography was tied to the lyrics, the cast started crashing into each other. It was like a train wreck. Amazingly, the audience didn't notice.
Why do you perform at the theaters you do?
Do you think regional theater will continue to grow on L.I.?
I hope so.
Who are some of the actors you've most admired or who have been particularly rewarding to work with?
Joe Morris, whom I've worked with in several shows. He's just brilliant. Craig Mitchell--the energy that comes off him is just tremendous.
Who's the best (in your opinion) that you've done a show with?
Phyllis March, who was Aldonza in "Man of La Mancha". Utterly fearless actress, and the one major scene we had together was my favorite in the show. Joe and Phyllis.
Who is your favorite performer?
Of all time? I've no idea. I can't pin it down that much.
Favorite L.I. performer?
How do you maintain your career and do theater?
With the cooperation and support of my family.
Why do you spend so much time toiling in L.I. Theater?
Haven't been doing it all that much lately, actually. But I'd like to get back into it more. Mostly I do it to socialize, or because my kids are in in the show.
Do you find that your family supports your love of theater?
How has performing enriched your life?
By getting me out of the house.
What brings you the greatest joy?
The deaths of my enemies and the lamentations of their women. And bowling well.
What really irks you?
People who can't drive.
If you won LOTTO tomorrow you would...
Probably be one of one million people who won the million dollar prize.
Is it true that you'd really rather be rich than good looking?
As it turns out, I am.
What's your favorite word?
No, what's on second.
Assuming that there is a heaven, what do you want to hear when you get there?
"You're Peter David? Wow! You're taller, thinner and have much more hair than I thought..."
Do you have any projects on the horizon that you want the readers to be aware of?
Yes, but I don't want to speak about them prematurely lest I jinx them.
Given your choice of parts in plays, which play and role is your heart's desire?
John Adams in "1776." People think of me as a Franklin, but I'm actually built the way Adams really was, so I'd be historically accurate, and I know I can handle the songs.