Saturday, April 10, 2010

Behind The Curtain

Were I to die and go to heaven and find it populated by actors, I would not be unhappy.

Ben Hecht
This entry is about the actor and the hillbilly.
Strage as it may seem to you there are still people in this land who are so prejudiced and ignorant they think actors are people who are going straight to hell. I have heard preachers praying against the devil's workshop known as "show business." I remember a group of young theology students going around a college campus and praying for this and that and when they got to the Theatre Department mounted a prayer vigil to protect those students from being tempted any further by the drama devil. I received a post card at work one day from someone who said he was praying for my "immortal soul." He didn't say why, but I could guess.

Why should Theatre, one of the oldest and grandest art forms in the history of humanity, be treated with scorn, intolerance, hatred and fear? Simple minded ignorance is why, and a religious belief based on a bucket of mud.

Every month the actors union, Actors Equity, publishes a news letter, and in it is an obituary column under the title "Final Curtain." The names of the actors who have recently passed on are listed in alphabetical order, the famous next to the unknown.
One of the names posted these days is that of Douglas Campbell who died last October and was on his way to heaven and not the other place. I knew Douglas and I have a story about him that no one else knows.

Douglas was born in Scotland in 1922. He became an actor in England and eventually moved to Canada. He had a long and varied career. In 2001 he came here to Pennsylvania to play a very difficult role in "The Dresser" by Ronald Harwood. Douglas was 83 at the time and had a bad knee. He was unsure about whether he would be able to sustain the run of the show in his condition so the theatre hired me to be his understudy.

He asked me one day if I wanted to play the role. He would have allowed me to go on for a matinee performance now and then. And even though I was ready to go on at a moments notice I said no, that I wanted him to play every performance. They were coming to see Douglas; they shouldn't be disappointed. He did play every one of them.

Because I was his understudy we became buddies. I stuck close, monitoring his health from day to day. After rehearsals and performances we would sit in the King George Bar, where he drank wine while I drank beer and we would talk, tell stories and jokes.

Since he had difficulty walking, the theatre management loaned him a Cadillac to drive back and forth to work. One day he asked me if I would like to drive out to Atlantic City with him. I guessed he was fairly lonely. His wife, also in theatre, was off doing some other show somewhere else. So I agreed.

It was still Winter so there wasn't much beach activity in Atlantic City but we watched the Atlantic Ocean coming in and walked along the boardwalk seeing the sights.

On the way back a strange light appeared on the dashboard of the car and after a while the car started to die. So Douglas pulled over to the side of the highway. The police soon came and called a wrecker truck. When the truck arrived the mechanic saw immediately what the problem was, hoisted the car up on his truck and took us to an auto body shop somewhere in the New Jersey meadows. A belt needed to be replaced. It was quickly done and we were on our way.

But while we were there Douglas asked the mechanic where he came from since he didn't sound like he was from around there. The mechanic told us he was from West Virginia but that he moved to New Jersey to be where his wife came from.

Now, being a character actor, I have always been a student of accents and dialects. My ears were tingling listening to these two men talk to each other: a Canadian actor who grew up in England and a New Jersey mechanic who grew up in Appalachia. It was the same English language but the sounds they made and the words they used were so different. They understood each other just fine. And when the mechanic found out we were actors he was very agreeable. No prayers or prejudice there.

I'll always treasure the day when I got to hear the Englishman and the Hillbilly talk to each other in a New Jersey meadow.

DB - The Vagabond


One item is missing from each of the lists below.
What is it?

1 right answer so far

Baton Rouge
Crson City
Saint Paul
Santa Fe

Good luck


Gerry said...

The movie made from the play has long been a favorite of mine and Raymond's with Albert Finney in the main role and Tom is it Courtenay as The Dresser. That was such a well made movie with Albert Finney in one of his best roles. I can just hear the conversation that must have taken place with two such totally different people speaking the King's English to one another. I swear in southern Utah back when each town was so isolated by bad or non existent roads, a town only 60 miles away would develop such a unique brogue it was sometimes hard to understand! Funnee

DB said...

Don't tell me about Albert Finney. Douglas played it on the STAGE, in pain, when he was 83, every night for weeks. There is no comparison.

Liz said...

The prejudice and ignorance of some people will never be strange to me.
That it is in every profession including the clergy is no surprise to me.
I widen your question to "why should any form of 'education for the emotions' (ART) be treated with scorn, intolerance, hatred and fear?" The most powerful word you used is fear.
Perhaps the answer is some people are unable through fear to come to terms with their own emotions and are therefore incapable of learning.

What a wonderful memory you have of a great actor. Thank you for sharing this.
Your performed more than your role as understudy perfectly, as I am sure you would have performed on stage at short notice if it had been necessary.
The stage is a demanding master. 'Film' actors have no idea of the sheer grit required to continue the performance when physically or mentally the actor is nearing the end of his/ her strength.Film is cut, spliced and joined together in a seemingly seamless performance.
Perhaps that is why theatre will always transmit more live emotion to those that seek to learn from the experience.

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

The Final Curtain, that is a great name.

Love the story of the Englishman and the Hillbilly.

I am sure your friendship meant a lot to him.

Lori said...

Great story!

Janice said...

I enjoyed the story. I tried to solve the puzzle but I got a headache so had to stop.