I find myself in the hills of Griffith Park, the massive urban park that divides East Hollywood, Los Angeles, and the Valley. I’m not sure of my age; I could be at a Cub Scout outing or attending a hippie love-in during my early college years. I’m on a rough cut hiking path on a steep slope. There are scattered oak trees and chaparral flanking me. I’m running. I’m in control and dodging large rocks, roots, and holes. Suddenly I’m accelerating, going faster. I lose control; it’s as if my legs and gravity have taken over. My heart rate quickens, I can’t catch my breath. As I barrel downhill on the uneven trail I see a coiled rattlesnake thirty yards ahead of me. I can’t stop. I’m going too fast. I use my momentum to vault over the rattler. I never look back. My pounding heart awakens me.
OAKLAND UNIVERSITY WAS CALLED “THE Harvard of the Midwest,” which was a slight exaggeration. But while OU might not have been in the Ivy League, it had one hell of an arts program, a whole lot of wealthy alumni, and a gorgeous professional theater called the Meadow Brook. So those canny Englishmen drew up some paperwork, pulled some strings, and opened up the Academy of Dramatic Art, a two-year acting school helmed by the newly arrived faculty from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. RADA became ADA.
The teachers all lived on the Matilda Dodge Wilson Estate at the forested edge of the Oakland campus. That’s Dodge as in “Dodge cars,” and that’s Dodge cars as in “We have enough money to build a Tudor-style mansion with the largest indoor horse-riding arena in the world.” The university welcomed the RADA gang with open arms and an open pocketbook; they so wanted the Brits to feel at home that they allowed them to convert a stable into a twenty-four-hour pub, complete with a Union Jack flying in front of it.
So at the end of the summer of 1968, Betsy and I packed our things and drove out to Michigan. I was going to be an actor, she was going to be a medical secretary, and it was all a huge adventure into the great unknown. Even though the United States seemed to be falling apart around us—we’re talking the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago—we couldn’t have been happier. When we hit Rochester, I immediately went to work, and after nearly flunking out of a school where I had lost interest in academic theater, ADA was nirvana. The training, the discipline, rehearsing and performing a different classical play every six weeks—it was everything I’d hoped it would be.
One of the first things I realized when I got to Oakland University was that in terms of social life, I’d landed my butt in a tub of butter. At RADA in the UK, I’m sure it would’ve been go to class, go to rehearsal, go home, do it again. But at ADA in Michigan, we went to class, went to rehearsal, then went to the pub and drank and bullshitted with the teachers—and we’re talking teachers who’d mentored the likes of Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, and Alan Bates—into the wee hours. Then back to classes again the next morning, and in the evening we’d go to the Meadow Brook Theatre and work in any capacity, from techie, to spear carrier, to understudy. My first paying job at the Meadow Brook was a combination of understudying a small role in a George Bernard Shaw play, and backstage janitor; even if I was lucky enough to get on the stage, I’d still have to mop it up at the end of the night. But I was becoming a professional in the world that I loved.
ADA was a novel training program and attracted the attention of the country’s most prestigious drama educators. John Houseman, for example, sat in on several classes to pick up concepts and curriculum he could take back to his students at the new Juilliard acting school—the same Juilliard that Kevin Kline, Christopher Reeve, Robin Williams, and Patty LuPone would attend the following year.
Inspired by the artistic aura of the place, I thrived on the discipline. Every morning, I would train by myself before class: voice work, ballet exercises, memorization. Meanwhile, the teachers—these fifty- and sixtysomethings who’d been theater professionals for their entire adult lives—began embracing the culture of sixties America, most notably marijuana and the new independent cinema. There we were, eager students, trying to sound like Laurence Olivier, and there they were, all falling in love with Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, and Thai stick. It was the ultimate in weird role reversal, but it certainly made our trips to the pub that much more interesting. Once they’d tipped a few gin and tonics, our tutors became quite expansive with their storytelling, regaling us with tales about hanging out on Broadway with a very young Julie Andrews, and performing Shakespeare with Richard Burton, and Albert Finney’s notorious talents as a cocksman. It was an utterly romantic and magical time.
LATE SPRING BETWEEN MY first and second years at ADA, I made my first pilgrimage to New York City to audition for summer stock theater; nobody was at the Academy during July and August, and I wasn’t about to sit around Middle-of-Nowhere, Michigan, twiddling my thumbs. I showed up at my first New York audition looking like a Dickensian street urchin, clad in a John Lennon cap, a scarf, tight jeans, Beatle boots, and a peacoat. Despite my outfit, many of the casting people seemed to like me, specifically the fine folks from the Penn State Summer Theater, who offered me small parts in a couple of plays. Four hours later, I went to a second audition, this one for the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland, and they offered me even bigger roles. Two auditions, two offers. It wasn’t Broadway, but it’d do.
Afterward, I met up with an old friend from junior high school, Gary Tigerman, who had become a working actor and lived in Greenwich Village. (Gary had scripted my infamous pigeon performance at the high school fashion show, and starred as Mark Antony in our Nazi-centric production of Julius Caesar.) This was my first time in the Village, and it blew me away. Every other shop sold psychedelic gear, and there was some infamous jazz club every few blocks, such as the Village Gate or Slugs. I thought that Gary, who was starring on Broadway, was the luckiest guy in the world.
We went back to his place, which was a dumbbell apartment—i.e., two big-ish rooms connected by a long, skinny hall. He gave me the grand tour (such as it was), which concluded in his bedroom, where, on a giant water bed that covered two-thirds of the room, lay his girlfriend, an actress named Janice Fisher. Jan, who was recovering from surgery, looked vaguely familiar to me. She, however, immediately recognized me as the actor who’d played Pinocchio in the Teenage Drama Workshop, the kid whom she’d had a crush on that summer long ago. It’s a small world after all.
Jan climbed out of her sickbed—or sick water bed, more accurately—because she decided that it was her mission to show me Manhattan. For the next several weeks, it was Fellini movie premieres, and watching Katharine Hepburn on Broadway from the wings, and postperformance drinks with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Meanwhile, my friends from Michigan and I were taking in Broadway plays, most memorably the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, a musical that I considered so far ahead of its time that it put so-called radical works such as Hair to shame. I thought of myself as a “classical” actor now, an Anglophile, and somewhat of a theater snob, but this modern American musical rocked my world. I realized art could be contemporary, meaningful, and popular, all at the same time.
As the week progressed, it became evident that Jan and I had a connection. We didn’t kiss. We didn’t sleep together. All we did was walk the streets of Manhattan and talk, talk, talk. We formed a bond, but nothing could happen romantically because I was married, and she was living with one of my oldest friends. Sounds like the plot of a corny Broadway musical.
And this was all in ten days.
I ARRIVED BACK IN Michigan full of big-city culture, with a summer job at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in my back pocket, and right away things got rolling. I earned my Equity card and appeared in play after play after play, and I started making some real, honest-to-goodness money. Meanwhile, my wife, Betsy, was getting politicized; she’d helped organize a nurses’ union at the hospital where she worked. Our worlds were radically different: she was involved and altruistic, and I was insulated in the fantasy world of the theater. We were still very much in love, but it’s possible that she looked at me as somebody who was more self-indulgent than he should’ve been. It might not have been the best time to leave her in Detroit and go down to Cleveland to work on my Shakespearean chops, but I had to follow the work.
Rather than room with other actors in Ohio, I rented my own apartment in the hopes that Betsy would come and join me for a few weeks later in the season. Since I was on my own, I immersed myself in the work and drew from my ADA training and discipline. When Betsy did finally come down for a visit and saw how hard I was working, and how serious I was about my profession, it finally dawned on her that this might be our life together: me in a different city every couple of months, focusing the majority of my energy on my craft. I think she wondered then if that kind of life would make her happy.
After an exhilarating season in Cleveland, it was back to Michigan, where I continued my studies and was invited to join the repertory company at the Meadow Brook Theatre. I also became a member of the faculty and taught an adjunct class in stage combat and period technique, where I demonstrated how to properly faint (it goes knees, hips, elbows), throw a convincing punch (it’s all in the eyes), and how to remain butch while wearing a wig and mincing about in tights and high heels (don’t ask). I was busy, but I was also hungry, and I wanted more.
Toward the end of the season—a season in which I thought I’d gone above and beyond the call of duty, professionally speaking, at one point playing six different roles in a single play—I was promised a crack at the lead role in our final show, The Glass Menagerie. I coveted that role, probably more than any other role in my short career. The part ended up going to the director’s boy toy, some actor from Lincoln Center, and I felt entirely betrayed. I had no idea (or maybe I’d chosen not to believe) that politics were involved in this sort of thing. I always thought of the theater as a pure place. Wrong. Lesson learned. I graduated ADA with honors, and it was time to move on.
THE FOLLOWING SUMMER, I went back to Cleveland to do some more Shakespeare, but I stumbled into a couple of other projects, most notably the musical Godspell. It was a huge hit, standing room only. I played Judas, and people noticed. Especially the girls.
Soon after the show opened, there was a party in Cleveland to celebrate the release of the Godspell soundtrack, and even though we weren’t on the album, the principals in our cast were invited. In true record industry fashion, some … shall we say, ladies of the evening were invited, all of whom were available to Jesus and his disciples at no charge. These working girls looked like the Supremes. I’d never been with a Motown diva and I succumbed. I mean, how many times do you get the opportunity to do a Supreme?
For the first time, I had groupies. I met more than one novice nun from a local convent who wanted to sacrifice her virginity to Judas. Turns out even nuns want the bad boy. Once I mentioned during a radio interview that I liked Michelob, and the next night a couple young ladies left three cases of beer on my doorstep. There were flowers and love letters and poems and drawings. It was stardom on a small scale—pretty heady stuff, which I embraced, most notably the hedonistic side … all while my wife was up in Michigan.
Betsy and I had fallen in love in high school and married young, but now we were in our midtwenties, and we weren’t anything like the people we were when we first met, so when she met me in Cleveland, things felt a bit off-kilter. But the love was still there, so when I was invited to join Godspell off-Broadway, I turned it down, opting instead to return to Michigan for another season at Meadow Brook. I was still smarting from The Glass Menagerie disappointment and wasn’t happy with the season in general, but I sucked it up, did three plays, taught a few classes, and tried my best to salvage my marriage.
One night I was doing some channel surfing, and I happened across a movie called Boxcar Bertha. Boxcar was Martin Scorsese’s directorial debut, starred Barbara Hershey and David Carradine, and was produced by Hollywood’s most savvy schlockmeister, Roger Corman. It was a good enough film, but what I noticed were the closing credits: it seemed as though half the crew and a few bit players had been my compadres back at Cal State and at Théâtre Intime.
So there I am, sitting in Bumfuck, Michigan, snow up to my ass, frustrated with the whole Meadow Brook scene, spending more time teaching than acting, navigating the rocks with Betsy, and it hit me—if I was going to deal with the bullshit politics of acting, I might as well do it in Hollywood, where at least the pay is better. My romance with the world of classical theater had faded. It was hard for me to acknowledge my naïve notion that the theater was a sacred temple of art. And my thinking was that if my college friends had made peace with commercial Hollyweird, I could too. It was time to go home.
I drove west with two of my Academy buddies, which was an adventure in and of itself. When we got to Reno, one of my traveling partners—who considered himself somewhat of a cardshark—took a chunk of our gas money and hit the blackjack tables. For a starving actor like me, a guy who was saving all his money to rent an apartment for him and his wife, this was blasphemy. But the guy won big. We treated ourselves to Bloody Marys and gorged on filet mignon, eggs, orange juice, and hash browns. This first real meal we’d had in a week gave us the energy to make it to Los Angeles without stopping.
We rolled into my parents’ driveway at midnight, completely exhausted. I banged on the door, surprised the hell out of Mom and Dad, and just like that a new chapter of my life began.