An Interview With...Phil Gellis

How did you get started in theater?
I was 13.  My sister was directing a camp show of You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, a show that I knew every line and song from, having bought not only the cast album but the printed script as well.  When Charlie Brown got sick a couple of weeks before the camp show, she asked me to fill in (I wasn't attending the camp but I was the same age as they were). 

What hooked you? What inspired you to be where you are today?
I always loved theater...Broadway Cast Albums were a staple in our record collection grwowing up...but never gave much thought to performing...then I saw Man of La Mancha at Lincoln Center (Beaumont).  At the end of the show, when Richard Kiley came down that
staircase for his curtain call, every person in the theater leapt to his feet and the ovation was overwhelming.  Back in the 70s that kind of ovation wasn't as common as it is now.  Kiley just stood there basking in it, and all I could think was "wow...that must be the greatest feeling in the world!". 

What was the first play you ever saw? 
The first show I saw on Broadway was Fiddler (January 10, 1970--not that it affected me or anything that I still remember the date).  Before that I saw a touring production of Bye Bye Birdie at Westbury Music Fair (more on that later) and several high school shows my older sisters were involved in (Music Man, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls).


What was your first audition?
In school it was our 8th grade musical which was Little Mary Sunshine.  After school, I think my first audition was for "Enter Laughing" with Theater Guild of Oceanside--a show I had done a year or so before in school. 

How do you choose what play you will audition for?  The piece itself, the director, theater, you were pre-cast, etc.
All of the above--After 30 years and more than 80 roles I've reached the point where I don't really like the extended runs most of the Major Theaters out here do.  There are certain directors I will go anywhere for.  But in general the role has to appeal to me on some sort of emotional level.  Whether it's dramatic, comic, whatever...I need to feel like some part of me was moved in the process.  And the role doesn't have to be large.  Some of my most gratifying experiences have been in roles that have one strong scene and then virtually disappear, such as Eddie (the father) in Lost in Yonkers.  I'd wanted to do that role ever
since I saw the play and finally got the chance last fall.   

Speaking of pre-casting, tell us how you really feel about the subject.
I've done my share of directing, and I do understand the need or desire at times to pre-cast.  What I don't appreciate as an actor is when I'm told a role is available when it really isn't.  I still rankle at an audition I gave back in 1986 for a show which shall go nameless at an equally nameless theater.  The lead role in that show was one I'd lusted after for a long
time.  Not only did I give the audition of my life, I was the only person called back for that role.  I didn't get it.  I took a smaller role, and later learned (from the music director) that the role had been pre-cast. I plan my audition piece based on the character I'm interested in playing.  If I know that role's already cast my strategy changes.  The least a director can do is be honest about what's pre-cast.

What types of parts do you normally play?  Do you feel typecast?
I'm very fortunate...I've been cast in a wide variety of roles.  I'm particularly proud of one six-month period where I played in succession Pseudolus, Happy Loman, Sancho Panza and Charlemagne.  I also have fond memories of a production of the musical "My Favorite
Year" where I played two different characters in the same show...and they were very different types.  I'm rarely cast in a 'carry-the-show' type of role, and that's just fine with me.  Let someone else do the heavy lifting.


What is your approach to developing your character?
I'm not a heavy-duty method actor or anything like that.  I try to deliver an intelligent interpretation of the character based on simple common sense.  I also rely heavily on the director's input to find the direction I take the character.

Of all the characters you have portrayed, who is your favorite?
That's easy--Sancho in La Mancha.  Ever since I saw Irving Jacobsen in that Lincoln Center show I knew someday I'd have to play that role. I'm about to do it for the 5th time.  The guy gets to play virtually every emotion in the spectrum over the course of those 2 hours.  And the last 15 minutes of that show never fail to totally drain me emotionally.

What do you think were your best roles?  your worst?
I've mentioned above most of what I consider my best work. As far as my worst work is concerned, that would usually be more a reflection of the unpleasant experience working with a particular cast/actor, director or theater.  I'd just as soon not 'go there.'

What roles offered you the greatest challenge and why?  How well do you think you met the challenge?
For a balding, overweight guy to play the womanizing Happy Loman in Death of a Salesman, you need to have a pretty strong willing suspension of disbelief.  That was definitely the most 'against-type' role I've played, and in all modesty it's also one of my
proudest achievments on stage.

What role do you wish you could have a second shot at and get it right this time?
Oscar Madison.  I was a little too young the first time, and was a little too angry a little too often.  Not to mention we played to extremely small houses.  I'd definitely like to take another crack at him.

What roles or types of roles would you most like to play in the future?
Again, I'm not into too many of the 'carry-the-show' type roles, and I've been pretty fortunate in that I've gotten to play most of my 'dream roles'.  I'd love to play one of the gangsters in Kiss Me Kate...any number of roles in 1776 (especially Thomson the secretary who reads the dispatches)...Herbie in Gypsy...and believe it or not, I think it would be fun to take a shot at Horton the Elephant in Seussical. 


What motivates you to keep on doing what you're doing?
The reaction I get from an audience.  As an actor or director, when I feel the audience responding to what I'm trying to accomplish (whether it's laughter, tension, sadness, whatever) it's one of the greatest highs.  I'm fond of saying that every great play should have at least 1 moment where the audience feels genuinely uncomfortable...those are the moments I live for.

During opening night jitters each one of us has said, "Why do I do this to myself?"  Why do you do it?
Would you believe me if I said I don't get opening night jitters?  I get a strong adrenaline rush, not just opening night but every time I go on stage.  But there's no fear or nerves involved in it.  The day I stop getting that rush is they day I become a permanent audience member.


What is your favorite theater story?
How about the story that taught me the most about theater:  I was in a show in Long Beach.  In one scene, an older couple were walking across the stage from SR to SL.  The man was singing a love song to the woman, ostensibly his wife of many years.  The stage was dark, there was just a needle spot on their faces as they walked across.  As they headed across on this particular night I could see from the wings that he was not traveling horizontally, rather he was heading at an angle and getting perilously close to the foot of the stage.  When they paused to finish the first verse, I could see she was one step away from falling off the stage.  We tried getting his attention from offstage, but he couldn't see us and of course we didn't want to be audible.  Sure enough, one step later she fell about 3 feet to the floor.  She wasn't hurt, just a little shook up.  But he never even looked at her; he looked off into the distance and finished the song, then quickly exited.  After the show my then-girlfriend, who was by no means inexperienced in theater, remarked how effective it was when the the female character dies and he went on with his life.  That's how she interpreted what she
had seen, because of the way he carried it off.  What that taught me, and it's been proven over and over since, is that audiences will accept ANYTHING that happens on stage, so long as you sell it.

Did you ever crack up on stage?
Oh man.  How about the night I was in Hyman Kaplan at Studio Theater, and when the pianist came out from around the piano to take his bow, his pants fell to the floor and there he was in satin black briefs?  We had to help each other off the stage that night...I
distinctly remember one actor crawling on his hands and knees to get back into the dressing room, he was laughing so hard.

What was your most embarrassing experience?
Remember Bye Bye Birdie at Westbury Music Fair (see above)?  I was 5.  I knew every word to every song of that show; it was my favorite cast album.  During the train station scene the girls started singing "We Love you Conrad..."  Near the end of the song they stopped
("When you're not near us, we're blue. Oh Conrad...) well, I thought they'd forgotten the words and finished the verse at the top of my lungs. It got a huge laugh...I was mortified.  I was so upset and embarassed I put my head in my mother's lap and slept through the rest of the show.  And I didn't listen to that album again for years.


Do you think regional theater will continue to grow on L.I.?
To be honest, no.  I think we've reached a saturation point.  It's like expansion in professional sports: The talent pool is finite, and adding more and more shows/theaters just further dilutes that pool.  I can't remember the last time I was involved with a show where we didn't have a great deal of trouble casting at least one role.  Likewise, the potential
audience is limited as well...there are only so many people who can go to so many shows at the same time.  I think we're more likely to see theaters fold in the future than we are to see further expansion.

Who are some of the actors you've most admired or who have been particularly rewarding to work with? Who's the best (in your opinion) that you've done a show with?
I've worked with so many incredibly talented people that I don't dare start naming them lest I leave someone out.  I'd rather answer this way:  My proudest experience in Long Island Theater was being part of Sweeney Todd at the old Plaza Playhouse about 8-9 years go.  Everything about that production was absolutely was an honor to be part of it.


How do you maintain your career and do theater?
to quote Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare in Love, it's a mysyery--no one knows.  Actually there is one major concession I must make to my real job: I don't do mid-week matinees.  I'm always very upfront about that at the auditions, and I don't doubt it's cost me a few

Why do you spend so much time toiling in L.I. Theater?
The honest answer?  Because it's the only aspect of my life that gives me that kind of feeling of accomplishment. 

Do you find that your family supports your love of theater?
Very much so.  My sisters have shlepped from Connecticut to see me several times in shows.  I do try to maintain a balance between family and theater; there is more to life than being on stage.  I missed out on a role a couple of years ago I really wanted because I missed the callback:  I was on vacation with my son, and refused to disrupt those plans.


What brings you the greatest joy?
When I set a goal for myself and succeed.

What really irks you?
I have so many pet peeves, but most of them fall into one large category:  people who don't listen.

If you won LOTTO tomorrow you would...
quit my job, find work that gives me as much pleasure as theater does, move closer to NYC (but not in it), get a season box to both Mets (baseball and opera)...and laugh in my  ex-wife's face.

Is it true that you'd really rather be rich than good looking?
Sure...if you have enough money and really don't like your looks you can buy whatever appearance pleases you.  But I'd rather like the person I see in the mirror than be good-looking OR rich.

What's your favorite word?
This isn't particularly profound or anything, but the word Joy is one of the happiest-sounding words I can think of. 

Assuming that there is a heaven, what do you want to hear when you get there?
Sorry...clerical error.  See you in 20 years.


Do you have any projects on the horizon that you want the readers to be aware of?
I'm very excited about this LaMancha tour with starts March 10 and runs through mid-July.

Given your choice of parts in plays, which play and role is your heart's desire?
Just one?  Tevye.