By RORY LANCE
In the spring of 1981, a friend of a friend told me a prospective Shakespeare study group was looking for members. I was, as they used to say, "between engagements" (unemployed), and thought this might be a good use of my time at liberty. He gave me the contact info of the man who was organizing the group, John Fiedler. Hmmm: that was the name of one of America's most respected character actors. The Odd Couple, The Bob Newhart Show, and the original Broadway and film productions of A Raisin In The Sun were just a few of his stage, film and television credits. Could this actually be “the” John Fiedler? After all, there might be a John Fiedler who did not play poker once a week at Oscar Madison’s Upper West Side apartment. I asked him if this was the actor from The Odd Couple, and he replied, “I don’t know.” Evidently he hadn’t spent as much time in front of a TV over the previous thirty years as I had.
The next day, the voice on the phone was unmistakably that of “the” John Fiedler. “Great," he said, "we were hoping to interest some younger actors. I’m assuming you're young: you sound young.” “I’m twenty-seven.” “That’s young!” He gave me the details and I told him how much I'd enjoyed his work over the years. “That’s very kind of you to tell me. You may be pleasantly surprised when you come to class next week.” I was tempted to ask, “What do you mean by 'pleasantly surprised'?” But I figured it was best to shut up and find out for myself.
On Monday, I went for my first class at the Harlequin Rehearsal Studio, then in an upper floor in the building right next to the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. Walking up the long staircase to the studio, no matter whether it was day or night, winter or summer, rainy or sunny, you were hit with the strong smell of urine. You felt certain that that smell had permeated those stairs long before Lunt ever met Fontanne. Old pros knew that for an open call at Harlequin you never wanted to be one of the first actors on line, having to stand on the staircase holding your breath or gasping for air till the doors opened. Everyone else got to stand outside and breathe the nice fresh air of West 46th Street.
So I was holding my breath running up the stairs to Harlequin. I walked down the hallway to the assigned space, opened the door, and could not believe my eyes. In addition to John Fiedler, the room was filled with familiar faces from my early TV watching. There was Brett Somers from The Odd Couple, fishing through her purse. Ann Morgan Guilbert (Millie Helper from The Dick Van Dyke Show) was chatting with her husband. By now she was Ann Morgan Raymond, and her husband Guy was one of the most prolific actors on television after more than two hundred character roles. I especially remembered him as Pastey, the burlesque stage manager, in the film version of Gypsy. There were also a few other icons of my childhood. It was as if I had walked into every TV sitcom town from New Rochelle to Hooterville.
Our group, sort of a theatre cooperative, had collectively retained Sidney Blake. She had taught and directed all over the British Isles and had recently settled in New York. She definitely had willing and enthusiastic students. Most of my classmates felt that their long careers as comic character actors excluded them from ever being considered for more serious parts, particularly from the classic stage. They wanted to explore the kinds of roles that had been denied them professionally. It was wonderful to watch people who could easily be categorized as comic geniuses challenge themselves in substantial classic works.
Sidney definitely knew her stuff. She showed us how to scan the text and use the rhythm, not act against it, to employ the challenging language as a tool, not an obstacle. She seemed impressed with Americans' propensity for discovering subtext. Many American teachers and directors were continuing to explore some form of Stanislavsky's Method, and these actors had worked with some of the greatest. In Shakespeare, motivation can often be plain because so many of a character’s thoughts are stated outright. The poetic rhythms, the language, and most importantly the choice of sounds, all add to the actor’s ability to create a character. I watched Brett Somers from The Match Game perform Mad Queen Margaret, and let me tell you, she was incredible.
My classmates' faces were as familiar to me as family, but in almost no time they each came down off the television screen and became my friends. They were all so kind, so down to earth, such regular people. They had worked steadily for years, yet as with all actors they were each still concerned where the next job was going to come from. They continually reached out to me with encouragement and support. Once after class I came out as Brett and Ann Morgan were getting into a cab. Suddenly, Brett called out, “Do you need us to drop you anywhere?” I told her I was just walking to the subway to get back home to Brooklyn. “It’s late, it’s dark, we’ll drop you at the train.” So I got into a taxi with Blanche Madison and Millie Helper. I told Ann Morgan that when I was a kid my bedtime was 9 pm except Wednesdays when it was 9:30 pm so the whole family could watch The Dick Van Dyke Show together. “You’re going to make me cry. Good times.” As I got out of the much-too-brief taxi ride, Brett said, “You did well tonight. Keep up the good work. You’ll get your shot.” This was just one of a million taxi rides for these two ladies, but for me it was an experience that I will never forget.
Studying with this incredible group was a delight, but the real treat was when we would unwind after class at one of the theatrical spots along West 45th Street like Barrymore’s or Charlie’s. This is where the stories were told, and John Fiedler was the master storyteller. His film debut was as Juror No. 2 in Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men. Talk about being overwhelmed: he said he felt like he had walked into the Complete Works of Arthur Miller -- for around that table was E. G. Marshall, who created the role of Reverend Hale in The Crucible; Ed Begley, the original Joe Keller in All My Sons; and sitting right next to him for the duration of the shoot, playing Juror No. 3, was the original Willy Loman, Lee J. Cobb. “This was one set where you didn’t want to ever be unprepared," he said. "I made sure to know every moment of that day’s scene, and I have been just as prepared for every job I get ever since.” His fondest memory of being in A Raisin In The Sun was the opening night in New York. He said he had never experienced a more electric evening in the theatre. The applause would not stop and the screaming for the author was ceaseless, so Sidney Poitier literally jumped from the stage to the aisle, ran to the seat where Lorraine Hansberry was sitting, swooped her up in his arms, and carried her to the stage.
The story I found the most interesting was John's experience working on Montgomery Clift’s return to the New York stage in The Seagull. Remember, Clift spent ten years on the Broadway stage before ever setting foot in Hollywood. He played major roles in plays by Tennessee Williams and Robert Sherwood, in addition to originating the role of Henry Antrobus in Thornton Wilder's The Skin Of Our Teeth. But by the time he returned for The Seagull, Clift had been acting only for cameras and microphones for seven years. This, combined with the influence of his acting coach Mira Rostova, who happened to be playing the role of Nina, caused a very serious problem: Clift couldn’t be heard. Throughout the final rehearsals and early previews, some of the most influential greats of the American theatre offered feedback. At one preview, Thornton Wilder came running backstage during intermission and said, “You know, when an audience can’t hear you, they get very angry. This audience is very, very angry.” After another preview, Arthur Miller addressed the cast with notebook in hand and told them, “There are three things wrong with this production. 1. The audience can’t hear you. 2. The audience can’t hear you. And lastly, 3. The audience can’t hear you.” When you see a group of actors chatting it up in the corner of a showbiz bar, these are the types of things they are talking about, and it was wonderful to be part of it.
At the time John Fiedler was living in Brooklyn Heights, and frequently he would offer to take me into Brooklyn in his cab to cut my subway ride in half. I always took him up on the offer, but not to lessen the length of my subway ride. The fifteen minutes I was in the taxi with him gave me more time to ask questions about his amazing career. During those taxi rides, I was given some of the best advice about pursuing a life as an actor I ever received. Here are some of the most important lessons I remember:
On fame: “I never looked for fame, I only looked for work. Whatever celebrity I might have, and it’s minimal, is only valuable because it allows me to be made aware that people enjoy my work. I have known people who are truly, truly famous, and let me tell you, there is an awful lot of baggage that has to be juggled with that sort of fame and there is no easy way to do it.”
On success: “There are over 100,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild and only about 400 of them live in mansions. Most of the rest of the membership is concerned about paying the rent. To me a good definition of success is knowing I am getting a check from Disney that will ensure my healthcare coverage is taken care of for the next year.”
On work: “I have been in plays and movies by some of the greatest writers that ever lived, but most of my work has been in television of a much different quality. My rule has always been to treat all the work the same. I come prepared and I respect the script no matter what. If they are paying you, they are paying you for your best work, and that is what I’ve always tried my best to give them.”
When you are young, you often do not recognize how special the opportunities you encounter really are. Over the years, I have often thought about all the questions I should have asked this wonderful group of experienced and beloved American actors. I hope these recollections prove that at least I was wise enough to ask some of them.
Rory Lance is the stage and pen name of Player Rory Schwartz. He is an accomplished character actor on both the musical and dramatic stages and in numerous film and television projects. He has also spent much of his career teaching and introducing young people to the joys and challenges of the theatre.