The Dangers of Living with an Actor

I may have mentioned once or twice that I’m married to an actor. What I may have not mentioned is I’m married to a really good actor. This is an actor who’s plied his trade for the past sixty-five years, accumulating over twenty Broadway credits and twenty-nine off-Broadway,  has worked all over the country in regional theaters from The Mark Taper Forum in our home town, to the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, the Globe Theatre in San Diego, to Yale Rep. IMG_6046He’s gotten around, most recently, performing as Nagg in Center Theatre Group’s production of Endgame at the Kirk Douglas, in May 2016. He was one of three performers who were ninety years old when the play opened.





But perhaps his most convincing performance has been in the role of aging actor. Years ago, he played the 100-year-old man on the final “Centennial” episode of Las Vegas. The episode aired in 2005, so Jimmie was a spritely seventy-eight. He came home from his day on the set and told me that the mayor of Las Vegas had remarked to him after they shot their scene:

Hey, this acting business is tiring.

What Jimmie looked like in 2005

For the episode of Las Vegas, they applied extensive prosthetics to achieve the 100-year-old character. I remember looking at him in his makeup and thinking

I’m going to stick around – you look damn good for 100!

But in fact, at the age of ninety, Jimmie looks decades better than he might (if the makeup artist was accurate) at 100. Now that’s talent.

I’d bet that you can’t tell which of the photos below is from 2015 and which is from 2016?

So this is how I know he’s a really good actor. Forget the convincing performances on stage and screen. He does an incredible stand-to-stasis moment when he gets up from the couch. He pulls himself up, then stands still for a moment, teeters precariously just long enough to engender a skosh of empathy from the audience (me) before he moves toward his walker. Once there, he trots away toward the bathroom. I’m pretty convinced that he doesn’t do it that way when I’m not there to witness it. But he eschewed the Nest Cam, so I won’t know for sure.

Other incredibly convincing acting techniques include the amount of time he takes to get into bed. The way he pulls his legs up and really slowly eases his toes under the sheets as though they might damage his legs – wow – it’s breath-taking.

I laugh sometimes when I see student actors struggling to convey age. They bend at the waist, use a cane; makes me want to cry out –

It’s all about the knees!

Jimmie’s use of hero props like his walker, hearing aids, and his enthusiastic insistence on the daily bottle of Ensure are foils against my incredulity about his aging.

He’s mastered his scooter for whizzing around the neighborhood, so you might lose sight of the fact that the same journey six months ago without the scooter would have taken five to six times the amount of time it takes now.

What gives him away as an actor, though, is when he lets his performance slip – shows his sharp recall of facts from the past, or launches into a brief but youthful invective against the current political situation in Washington. Or when we play Scrabble and he takes me with words like sycophant or xylophone.

The other night we had dinner with Hal Holbrook and the two of them were gossiping like teens. Talk about recall of events! Hal remembered a specific moment in a rehearsal at Lincoln Center during his put in for After the Fall. And Jimmie similarly about rehearsing a scene during The Changeling with Lanna Saunders where Elia Kazan struck him across the face to demonstrate to her how she should slap him. Twice. You can’t make this stuff up. Come on guys! You’ve gotta do better than that to convince us you’re getting older!

clone tag: 2708580395601700474
L to R. James Greene, Els Collins, Rich Costabile, Randy Wilcox, Joyce Cohen, Hal Holbrook

When Jimmie and I first began dating, one of the things we liked to do was run after each other around Central Park. Actually, I usually ran after him. As an ex-marathoner, he kept me well in his rear-view mirror. That was okay with me – I liked the scenery with him in front of me. Now, I can just about believe that he was an ex-marathoner. His backstory is convincing when he plays the lack of knees in that stand-to-stasis moment.

But right now, while he pores over the New York Times, his new Nike eyewear in place, he looks only a tad bit older than when we tied the knot almost thirty-three years ago. I won’t let him know that his acting technique is failing him. He’s very proud to be an actor. It will be our little secret, okay? Unless you want to lobby to have him added to this list where he definitely belongs.

Dinner with Hal Holbrook- Talk about a Life In The Theatre!

Dinner with Hal Holbrook

Approximately eighteen years ago (gulp) , I had the honor of ASMIng on a national tour of Death of a Salesman starring Hal Holbrook and Elizabeth Franz, and many other talented actors, including Eve Rossen, Hal’s daughter.Hal Holbrook

I was initially contacted by the PSM of the tour, Rich Costabile, a NY based stage manager. I remember getting the call right after I had returned from an aborted assignment in San Francisco at ACT. While there, my body had gone into major systems failure, resulting in the ultimate removal of some major reproductive organs.

The squeamish among you are thinking – “Wow, this suddenly went somewhere I sure didn’t want it to go.” But such is life, and I remember that the call with the job offer came around the same time that my mother had come out to Los Angeles to support me post op, while I lay in the fold out bed in the living room, so I could watch TV while recuperating. I remember being grateful for her help, though at the time, her insistent wails from the kitchen about the location of things felt almost onerous – “this is help?” My memory is that I had just finished sobbing to my mother about  my lost reproductive faculties, to which she responded with helpless empathy, “Oh, Elsbeth, don’t do that.” Not because she reproved of my expressing my loss, but because she herself couldn’t bear my pain. The timing of Rich’s call may be gently corroded by the passage of so much time.

I do rememberer receiving that wonderful life affirming call completely out of the blue, and telling Rich that I was recovering from major surgery. His was an unexpected response, laughter, as  he recounted his own recent minor surgery. Never having met, we bonded in that instant about how the two wounded stage managers would be useless to Hal out on the road. About six weeks later when we met, we did bond tightly, working in concert to support a masterful production of Miller’s play, directed by Jerry Freedman and starring one of the true gentlemen of the American Theatre, Hal Holbrook.

Rich and I laughed a lot on the road with Hal, too. It was a magical 6 weeks, as we zigged and zagged across the country, starting at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida, and traveling  to Cerritos, and Boston, Nashville and Memphis. Foggy memory prevents me from detailing all the stops, but highlightspeabody hotel like watching the ducks at the Peabody Hotel make their way to the fountain in the lobby are vivid.

It was the first and almost last time I had toured, and leaving my husband and young son at home was wrenching, but as anyone well-worn by time will tell you, 6 weeks is a mere flutter of the eyelid in a life, and six weeks on the road ain’t nothing when you’re Hal Holbrook.

Earlier this weekend, my cell phone lit up with Rich’s name, and I was happy  to hear that he and Randy, his husband, were back out in Los Angeles, on another leg of the tour of “Mark Twain Tonight”, a job that Rich has been doing for about ten years. For Hal, it is a fifty year life journey which is beautifully captured in the documentary: “Holbrook/Twain:An American Odyssey,” which Jimmie and I saw last summer at its premiere screening during the LA Film Festival.

Rich had a generous offer. “Would you and Jimmie like to have dinner with Randy and me, Hal and Joyce on Monday night?”

“I would be thrilled,” I said, and so was Jimmie. Later we firmed up the plan to meet at Hal’s home for dinner. Joyce is Hal’s wonderful and longtime assistant; for 27 years she has supported his work and travels. I had also met her while on tour back in 1997.

Jimmie and Hal go way back. My six weeks pales in comparison with the experiences shared by these two theatre veterans. Both worked at Lincoln Center Repertory Company headed by Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead. And over our dinner that night, they shared many funny and poignant stories about their experiences. It was fascinating to see that they shared a perception of the company as being an inhospitable environment for actors. Hal described it in architectural terms, by the long gray cement hallway leading to the dressing rooms, where one was not greeted by the others, and how he shared a dressing room with an actor who insisted on the cone of silence. Jimmie described it in more emotional terms: how he had bridled at having to check the other actors’ tights due to an added ASM duty to his contract. Hal and Jimmie,  and all of us at the table were rapt with the details of the legendary National Theatre that had been attempted at Lincoln Center.

Hal is a masterful story teller. Anyone who’s seen his Mark Twain, Tonight can attest to that. His eyes filled with tears of emotion several times during the dinner as he and Jimmie strolled down memory lane. He dabbed at them unapologetically with the French country patterned linen napkin.

I reminded him that during our time on the tour in Nashville, we had done a few student matinees. I think they were 9:00am shows. Brutal. “Death of A salesman” for 14-18 year olds at 9:00 Am on a Tuesday. Just take us outside and put us out of our misery. But this one show, we had heard the distinct cry of a newborn in the house. Hal had been really annoyed,  and asked us to check with the house manager about the crying baby, insisting that the little squawler be escorted out of the theatre. After a bit, the crying stopped and later, somewhat sheepishly, the house manager reported back that the baby had been animatronic, programmed to cry at random intervals. A student had received conflicting assignments: in health class to tend to the baby for 24 hours, and in English, to attend the performance at this ungodly hour when he should have been baby sitting. When the baby erupted with cries, the student had exited the auditorium and shoved the baby into a locker in the lobby. So much for Parenting 101. Hal leaned his head back and roared.

The evening was lovely. The table held many vases filled with yellow long stem roses, and ivory tapers infused the peach walls and our animated faces with a flattering glow. The food was wonderful, healthy and plentiful, though I felt guilty as our questions slowed Hal from eating. We all were enjoying ourselves so much.

Good news- for fans of Hal, he has been writing a book. First you have the treat of this upcoming documentary which is in the festival circuit now. It is the most important film I have seen about the life of an itinerant actor. Brutally honest and as I said to Hal, “it should be required viewing for all student actors.” And now, news of a possible book- we have so much to look forward to.

And Hal, with 11 more engagements on this year’s schedule, at nigh on ninety years of youth, shows no signs of withholding his generous tales. Thank you, Rich, for allowing us to pass the time with such an great group of folks.