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Tell us about the play Other Desert Cities and the character you play.
I play Lyman Wyeth, a former actor, former head of the NRC, and former ambassador to an unnamed country. In the play, my novelist daughter comes home at Christmas with news that she is about to publish a memoir dredging up a family tragedy.
What attracted you to this play and role?
It’s a great role for those of us in the “older role” portion of our careers. He is a strong family man who has taken himself out of the public limelight. A rich, opinionated, conservative, caring man who tries to be the conciliator in the family.
Do you share any traits with Lyman?
This production marks your return to Boston theater after nearly 15 years. How does it feel to be back?
Boston has always been a great place to do theater and the opportunity to come back and work on a great play with a great cast was irresistible. The fact that this is the first production of this play here makes it special.
You had a long association with the Huntington Theatre both as an actor and director during Peter Altman’s time as Artistic Director. Tell us a little bit about those years for you.
I did 20 productions over the years so they tend to blend, but working on the great plays of Shakespeare and Stoppard would certainly rank high on the list. While the Huntington didn’t have a company as such they were kind enough to keep me working.
What is interesting to me is that some of my favorite parts were not necessarily the lead roles but some of the tiny parts. You get to create something in miniature that is very satisfying. I remember a small role in The Lady from Maxim’s where I had two lines, both of which were “Yes, dear.” We were at a party. I chose to be the one man who didn’t want to be there and was horrified by the behavior and scandalous dress of the Lady.
At one point my character had to dance with her. So I decided that it distressed him so much that he had a heart attack. None of that was in the script but for some reason the director let me get away with it.
Since that time, you have appeared in theaters around the country, including a stint on Broadway in August: Osage County. Given your impressive resume, is there one Broadway stage experience that was particularly memorable to you so far?
I have been blessed to have many, many opportunities with great plays and great actors and directors to work with. I have been lucky enough to be on Broadway at least once in every decade since the ‘70s (God I’m old!). My first Broadway show was Love For Love directed by Hal Prince. It was also the debut of Glenn Close, Marybeth Hurt, Peter Friedman and others as well. Pretty good company to start out with. The lead actress was let go the day before the opening and Glenn was her understudy and opened the play. Not a bad start. Not sure whatever happened to her after that…
How did you get your start as an actor?
I started professionally at the Weston Playhouse at 17. I think I got $30 per week. The first show I did in Boston was The Proposition, an improvisational show that moved to New York where I was for the next 20 years.
What would you say was the turning point in your career?
Meeting my wife at the Huntington. It was the first show I did there, Sullivan and Gilbert, and she was then a props master. I had known the set designer previously so during the technical rehearsals she would sit with him to take notes. I would sit behind them and dish. She laughed at the first (unrepeatable) joke I told and that sealed it.
Did you have a mentor who helped you along the way?
I have worked with so many brilliant actors and directors who have taught and inspired me. At college (Haverford in Pennsylvania), there was a teacher who directed the plays, Robert Buttman, who had been Christopher Frye’s secretary and was godfather to Laurence Olivier’s son, gave me great roles (including Hamlet, among others) and taught me really why we do plays and the respect that we should accord them.
Who are the actors whose work you admire? Is there someone you have modeled your career after?
We take from so many people along the way- bit of this person or that. However, an actor named John McMartin showed me how to rehearse during my first Broadway show. It was Love For Love and in rehearsal on the second day or so, he did something that was so funny and brilliant, I was bowled over. Then he never did it again during the rehearsals until the final run through. And I realized that he rehearsed the things he didn’t know how to do. So many times we repeat our favorite thing and slough over the other stuff. He showed how to use the rehearsal process.
Is there a role you still long to play?
The next one.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in show business?
Run! Olivier once said if you can do anything else and be happy, do it. But if you can’t you’re stuck.
What are your hobbies when not on the stage?
Are you looking to stay put for a while, or will you soon be back on the road.
I live in Vermont in an area where this no professional theater so if I want (or need) to work, I still have to pack my bags.