I Had a Way About Me Then
by Raymond J. Barry
— originally published in The Florida Review, Volume 39, Numbers 1 & 2, 2015
I had a way about me then, often sitting idly to fill the time in a rented Tenth Street storefront with the low murmur of cars beyond its bay window. Thank God I was capable of thought. Some mechanism within that dome of mine functioned well enough to think. I certainly had leisure time to think. It was not as if I had to work. There was little requirement on that front. My needs were simple—a mattress on the floor to sleep upon, a small sink for washing, a toilet in the back. Food was available often enough without planning in this rich country of ours. Thought was the commodity I valued, not food. Thinking was the activity held in such high esteem, not filling my stomach. The cutting of logs was part of the daily routine, large ones that weighed half a ton.
Carving wood was a religious ritual. That storefront studio was an altar upon which I said my prayers every day. Woodchips covered its floor. Chopping one-ton walnut logs for the life of me, my back was to the wall. I wasn’t timid about chopping those huge chunks of wood that symbolized the largeness of my ache. Or was it my heart? Something was larger in me, some bigness that needed to be expressed; my desire to impress perhaps. That was big, my need to cry out for people to notice me. Yes, that was big. There was no reservation when it came to throwing my soul out in front of people. I wasn’t shy about that, not at all shy about that. If it came to large chunks of wood or small chunks of wood, I would choose large. My heart was in it, to chop away at those huge hunks of walnut. Their hugeness balanced the smallness of my self-image, the humble impression of me that could never be guessed by appearances. Everything I represented appeared big, my sculpture, my shoulders and thickened hands, not to overlook the intensity of my persona that pierced through space as I stared confusedly at the busy world outside. Big was everything to me. Size was the standard, and weight, much heavy weight. Those were my criteria of worth.
I glanced outside my studio occasionally at people passing by. They seemed busy, walking with such purpose, hustling about like ants. It was not in the cards that I could be one of them, scurrying along the street. I was an unpaid log-cutter by trade and that was solitary activity suited only for those who could handle mallet and chisel, an endeavor that was not for the faint of heart, carving logs into shapes that suited my sensibility. At night I carried on with part-time jobs—waiter, longshoreman, busboy, plumber, dishwasher, bouncer at a bar—anything that required the most rudimentary training and simultaneously paid the rent. Depression was part of the experience, a deep one that lasted too long and took me on a ride I shall never forget. I am not one to complain. It was all a learning experience. I would take whatever goodness came of my situation and forget the rest— willingly, almost stupidly.
Part-time jobs taught important lessons about people and me. I washed dishes in a Mexican restaurant with an open kitchen, wearing rubber gloves and making seven bucks an hour. One night a familiar voice called in back of me, “Ray?” I turned around and found my old school chum, Frank Monahan, a fellow student from Brown University, puzzled at the image of me washing dishes. Not that he said anything. He merely looked at me pitifully, as if I had fallen to the depths of despair. I did not explain myself as I removed my rubber glove to shake his hand. Frank was dressed in a power suit with a power tie and looked like a million dollars, obviously making big money on the stock market. An economics major, having studied the subtleties of finance at Brown, my old friend was doing very well. Contrarily, I had been a philosophy major, an alleged “thinker,” well versed in the writings of Aristotle and Plato, and earned a living washing dishes, which provided ample time for deep thought. Our stations in life had taken radically different directions, a fact clearly registered in his bewildered expression, a cross between wonderment and shock, although he did not express his dismay at my lowly station in life. On the contrary, Frank offered a warm, albeit uncomfortable handshake with lots of chatter, “How ya doing? You look great!” He ignored his highly visible disbelief with awkward but lively small talk that had undercurrents of a man lost without a future, an anomaly for a Brown graduate, a dishwasher, no less, at the age of twenty-six.
I played along as if nothing was unusual. Washing dishes was dignified work, after all, like childbirth. It cannot be explained, unless an artist lives it. My dishwashing work provided enough income to pay my storefront rent and ample time for chopping walnut logs. Nothing could be simpler. I was a sculptor and that was all there was to it. A sculptor survives in whatever way possible, even if it means washing dishes for a living.
Few understood a grown man burrowing holes into the bark surface of logs. I certainly was not interested in their opinion, hard enough on myself as I was. Criticism abounded at every turn, no matter what my thoughts. Every log I carved represented another passage of time, but little changed internally. I was anxious about something invisible and saw fear when I looked into a mirror; the deepened lines on my face, the flushed complexion, ears that stuck out too far; everything put together awkwardly with little consideration for the person inside. Sculpture was a secondary result to what really was going on. I hadn’t the energy to pay attention to a career. Oh, yes, there were gallery shows occasionally and a few pieces sold, but doing well never entered my mind. That meant thinking of the future, which I never did. Everything good in my life was a side effect.
One day an acquaintance told me about a workshop of actors that met to experiment with approaches to theater. Experimentation usually implied that one did not necessarily have to be skillful. That certainly appealed to me. Various failed attempts at reading my bumbled poetry within the confines of my lonely storefront confirmed that I knew nothing about acting. According to the woman, the group needed men, and, since I looked like one, they might welcome me if I did not take up too much space. I was busy sculpting walnut logs at the time, but the solitary stand I had taken was weighing heavily on me. I was lonely. Relationships were few. I could not handle them. Something had snapped in me. The notion of sharing a life with anyone who buried me with affection was impossible. My feelings were tender, beneath the hardness; that veneer so impenetrable, so rigid, so cemented into the fabric of my life. I was frightened of people, hard and brittle, easily smashed into unrecognizable pieces, out of control in a state of control. It was not possible, I thought, to change.
Contact with people had been held to a minimum with the exception of a beautiful German woman who had walked by chance into my studio and seemed to show mercy for my humble circumstance. She shared the mattress on that storefront floor more than once. That was enough to bond us for a brief interlude, if only for her bravery, until firmer commitments could be made by her; a dear person she. Most partners were passing fancies I loved briefly and then who knows where they went? Some married and that was the end of it. Others just moved away. One moved down south and opened a dress shop. She was a sensitive girl but a bit cruel. We are all a bit cruel when things are not working well.
Regardless of the hours needed to bore holes into logs, I took a night off and showed up at the workshop, seeking human company to help bear the burden of another lonely week with my walnut logs.
They seemed a benign bunch, aspiring actors, while I was unable to present an occupational definition they might deem satisfactory. Categories that described any suitable profession escaped me. “Porter” was my title at the time, or, better described, a combined dishwasher/janitor, the man who cleaned the dirty crockery, took the garbage out, and washed the floors when the bar closed. Plainly I was not an actor as my colleagues were. They had studied the craft, and, in some cases, actually earned their livings by doing theater or television or whatever actors did for pay. I was a voyeur among professionals, who, at their young ages were searching for the “truth.” These people mentioned that “truth” word repeatedly and seemed earnestly involved in seeking it out, while I sought little more than friendly company for a few hours to forget the tediousness of carving walnut logs.
At the time, I wished very much to hide, feeling that I wasn’t part of humanity’s plan, which worked so well for those allied with the system. Taking my exit from that workshop was a constant subtext, back to the storefront with its mattress and tiny washbasin. God knows what kept me from retreating to that dark hole. Vanity, I suppose. The prospect of sleeping in a real bed had not crept into my consciousness yet. The actors, on the other hand, all had beds. I was sure of it from their general scrubbed look, not to mention a subtle fragrance in the air, a saccharine aroma that suggested access not only to regular baths but also to a fresh supply of cologne every day. In my way of looking at things, that luxury alone was something worth the hours spent with the group. Their smell brought me back to civilization, if only to draw into my lungs the odor of their abundance. I had been cleaning unmentionable orifices with the assistance of my little storefront sink, so I passed muster mingling among them, I suspect.
Our leader, Lee, was a lovely human being, who, I sensed, had her own set of problems. Problems abounded in that room. I was sure of that, not to make too much of it. I did not see it as a time for problems. There was fun to be had on those workshop nights. Lee was a kind woman, very alert to the needs of the group. Actors tend to be a mean bunch, sort of ravenous, with an overwhelming need to gain favor from strangers. At the time, I needed attention. My need to mingle with humanity served to balance the lonely days.
The one night each week I spent in that workshop was little more than a social event for me, a time to hold hands and talk; the touchy, feely exercises were the best. I did not talk much, but that did not matter. Politeness and obedience got me by in a pinch. The exercises suggested by Lee could be executed by anyone, guaranteeing that my lack of skill would not be discovered. I was a charlatan, could not act to save myself, but I could easily move with the others and make odd guttural sounds that resembled the utterances one might hear in some faraway jungle, various “uggs” and “oohs” and “ahhs” that anyone with the barest of training could execute with a minimum of talent.
As Er as movement was concerned I did what the others did. Following was always my proclivity, down any path that met Lee’s fancy, such as extending our arms like human airplanes and gliding through space until we gently collided with a wall and crumpled to the ground. I followed their repertoire when they insouciantly leaped or pranced like horses, as if they were little children. Something liberating about the exercise calmed me. There was always a suggestion of the beast within our behavior, whether in the realm of the sounds we made or our movements. A child again, I played freely with the other children and was not particularly interested in the meaning of it all. I never quite comprehended the message of these bizarre behaviors, but that did not bother me. The girls were pretty and no one asked me what I was doing there. For all they knew, I could have been an actor.
Still, the work seemed designed for some higher purpose that our leader Lee had in mind. Unlike me, the others seemed to be aware of that purpose. The vocal gymnastics, otherwise known as grunting, was not true communication. We had been reduced to the level of primordial beings devoid of social graces. If we had been on the street we surely would have been arrested, but thoughts of imprisonment did not bother me. I lacked the courage to harm anyone or to steal anything. There was nothing I wanted, and therefore nothing to steal and no one I wished to injure—that is, aside from myself at random moments. I was generally benevolent, but lacked the resources to do anyone much good.
Storytelling was usually the last part of each workshop, and the actors told personal stories, imaginative accounts of hair-raising events, often embellished with artificial and definitely avant-garde vocal sounds. But the actors’ skill was extraordinary, their grace exemplary as they passionately related secret events from their lives. Some even cried. I could never do that. Telling a story was impossible. It was a victory merely to breathe in a world so complex. Thinking clearly in front of a group was beyond the capability of my overwrought condition, a tenuous cross between high ambition with one foot in the loony bin, wracked with self-doubt and fear of forgetting my lines.
There were numerous lurid tales I could have related to a very close friend, but not to a group, and definitely not to a group of strangers. Audiences at large frightened me. I’ve always been afraid of being a laughing stock in the public eye. And yet I realized that a story based upon a personal event, even though embellished, could not be challenged. My story would be my story, improvised by its owner for public view. What could be simpler? There would be no words to memorize and no threat of forgetting. My life could not be forgotten after all, and better if it were, considering the numerous travesties I had brought upon myself, my storefront living quarters, for one.
But I was there to fill a void in my life, not to tell secrets that would raise hairs on backs. I was a voyeur and not so much a participant. Voyeurism suited me just fine, listening to my comrades reveal their darkest secrets in the hope that they would become better actors. I carved walnut logs in my storefront to fill my time and washed dishes for a living. That was enough to satisfy me. Acting was not my ambition, and yet, my retreat from the limelight was a performance unto itself, well aware, as I was, that the actors watched me closely while I lingered in the shadows of the back row.
The actors’ willingness to put themselves through a maze of personal tribulation for Lee’s approval was both impressive and frightening. It took a certain degree of courage I didn’t have. My mind did not fully grasp the purpose of it either. I would have jumped through hoops for our teacher, but the threat of performing boggled my mind and ruined my digestion. Every Wednesday night, I was a mess after an hour of sitting helplessly in the rear, separate from the rest.
As weeks passed, I listened to elaborate accounts of their private lives and all was hunky-dory. But one evening as I attempted to ease myself out of the workshop before the inevitable might happen, Lee stopped me and asked me to tell a story like the others had done. I was mortified.
What story to tell? Something from my childhood, an anecdote about sucking my mother’s breast at a tender age? No, that wouldn’t do. There might be something in the area of politics. Vietnam was raging at the time, but except for Mai Lai—a horrific massacre that affected me deeply—I was unconnected to the brutality of that war. Still, war was a risky subject. I have been known to come to tears at awkward moments and would not risk such vulnerability in front of that group of professionals. It would be better to relate something nice, but nothing seemed particularly nice. My general state of disappointment could be a suitable subject, dealt as penance for my sins and derived from the wrath of, let us say, some long forgotten Assyrian God. My original perfect state at birth never lasted. That first moment of life was the best of it. Afterwards I was forced to duck and writhe from a deluge of compromises. “We are not who we wished to be in the beginning” could be the theme. But I’d never wished to be anything. They would know I was lying.
Lee asked everyone to be quiet. Some of the real actors had skillfully related three or four stories by then. I was there to spend time with people and then go back to carving walnut logs and working part-time jobs. Yet I wished to excel. That was a definite flaw in my character, wishing to win a contest that was not clearly defined, getting applause perhaps, or being the most imaginative in the group. My thoughts were running away with me. I wanted to beat everyone else.
I was before them, about to tell a personal story. Living through this story would be enough. Forget greatness. Poignant stage fright forced me to perceive what I had never seen before. I was open to impressions, unguarded, insurmountably vulnerable. Innocence came with helplessness that I hid from the real actors. I looked in wonderment at my audience. Cause and effect no longer made sense. But I connected intuitively, struggling to maintain equilibrium in a haunting world of performing. People must not discover what I was experiencing. I would be strong. I would boldly tell my story. I reminded myself not to try to please my numerous judges. I began to speak with a new sense of purpose.
My mouth had trouble forming the words at first. “I. . . I was nervous,” I said, as if my condition were past tense. I paused, feeling the fool and quite unsure of myself, but there seemed no alternative but to get on with it. The group seemed riveted to something on stage. It could not possibly be me, although they stared in my direction. I managed to articulate words from a body that was separate from
me, describing an unkempt, somewhat scruffy looking boy. Another pause ensued. I sneaked a glimpse to see if they were still there. They were there and waiting for more. Someone mumbled under his breath. God knows how I appeared to them—a failed actor or simply an overwrought, writhing fool. Or was I simply one of them, doing my best to express myself? There had to be something brilliant inside, I reasoned, if only I could locate its whereabouts. The tension in my delivery, the labored pronunciation of each word surely left my colleagues wondering what I was trying to say. That, of course, was not clear to me.
Stage fright left me barely able to whisper. The audience inched forward, if only to hear. My clumsy delivery did nothing to enhance the message of my vapid prose. I paused for breath. Some of the real actors interjected a few kind utterances of support. Or was it pity? Hard to tell, and I must not dwell upon the question since the moment had passed. My delivery stumbled at times, but the words continued despite my embarrassment. My voice cracked more than once. I almost shed a tear in front of them. I was terrified, but I plunged forward into the abyss. Why did I dare reveal such a personal memory? Surely that was not me describing a boy’s softness, his affectionate tendencies, and the sensitivity of feelings. What on earth had I dared to expose about myself? Couldn’t I have presented a more manly stance? All of it was true and in violation of the masculine pose I had feigned for weeks.
The story was not nice, and it was not planned, and it wasn’t the best story told. It wasn’t even a story, but rather a paroxysm, the subject of which had bound me within is grip for years to the point where sleeping on a mattress on a storefront floor seemed my natural fate. All beds had been taken by professionals who had studied their craft.
I almost fled but did not; I ended my story and thanked the audience before sitting down in the back row. Lee complimented me, and I left for my storefront convinced I was more adapted to be a sculptor, like Brancusi had been in his day.
Out in the streets, I was enveloped by dusk, that familiar urban blanket of azure when shadow replaces light and the yellow glare from store windows spilled glowing shafts onto the sidewalks. Spanish bodegas gave Avenue C a cool webbing of crisscrossed neon beams, as if an aerial light show were entertaining each passerby. The city roared with expectancy, screamed in defiance, wailed a night sound. Anything could happen. It was Friday night and the locals would dress up, gather in crowds, flaunt their sexuality and sleep with each other through the early morning hours. Over festering Tompkins Square Park the velvet night emitted faint clouds of steam as I shivered in the early evening cold. All was in harmony. I passed crowds of street people hovering between lamp posts, murmuring in deep, throaty tones, broken by an occasional piercing scream as if from a herd of some primordial, horned species. They were cornered, trapped, and I was one of them, loping from street to avenue, from coffee house to bar until I reached my studio. There I would at last be alone—a place to think, a place to listen to the city’s percussive symphony with its bombastic blare of car horns and shrill shouts of children playing.
Somewhere in the mix of it all, an overwhelming desire to be public came upon me. Carving logs in the confines of the little storefront kept me hidden from view. That was the nature of the space, private, shielded from the blaring sirens. After my brief stint in the limelight of Lee’s workshop, what seemed to nourish me was unequivocal approval from strangers. My wretched state during the bungled birth of an unlikely acting career is enough to mention without explaining. An analysis of my motivation would be a self-indulgent. I shall simply stick to the facts. Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brand° were mythological figures. In my state of hubris, I assumed that I could be one of them.
A magnetic force pulled me toward the invisible “them.” Applause represented clear public approval. Approval was more important than art. Swaggering and posing in front of crowds was more attractive than carving sculpture, a lonely pursuit compared to the adrenaline burst of working in front of an audience. I was a whore at heart, and turned away from sculpture for the sake of love generated from audiences. It was a fickle, unrequited love, an addiction to public approval that became a blessed albatross upon my back, “blessed” only because the theater has provided, in its odd fashion, the privacy I desired in the beginning. Audiences only appeared to rob me of privacy. I discovered another kind of privacy in the struggle to be my own man—to be different by avoiding the commercial and tawdry.
I almost managed it. A personality that was plainly not my own became my trademark. Having an “interesting” presence became my obsession. A brooding stance with puckered lips and loosely dangling cigarette became my favorite rebellious pose. My costume featured heavy motorcycle boots with tight Levis. I walked with an unmitigated swagger. I cultivated a slightly English lilt. Women’s clothing became another favorite. I’m not sure why, aside from the theatricality they offered, as well as their association with my mother. “She wore dresses. Why shouldn’t I?” was my logic. Ranting for hours about “me” became a habit as well within social circles where my infamous reputation forfeited my welcome. I believed that if only mankind could be blessed with my undiscovered talents, then everyone would love me.
A few parts came and went, mostly soldiers in plays that expressed anti-war sentiments and needed background people in military uniforms to hold guns. My part in Berthold Brecht’s Man Is Man demanded that I stand with my gun in hand and appear mean, as any soldier would. I performed “meanness” well, being blessed with a face malleable enough to twist into a furious frown, but often, while daydreaming on stage, my weighty gun, made of hard wood and steel, would drop upon my big toe. My piercing cry would follow, much to the dismay of the cast. Limping in the aftermath was the best of it, gimping about the stage with a sore big toe for the remaining two hours of performance. Audiences were very concerned about a poor lad with a swollen toe, applauding vigorously in my direction at the final curtain. I was their unsung hero for the night.
Once I understood the audience reaction to an oversized gun falling on a toe, I imitated the action with great skill night after night, drawing upon the cleverness acquired years before in the dark corners of my crib, where I’d beaten my rattle for attention from my unsuspecting mother. She believed I was helpless. Little did she suspect my need for an audience.
Occasionally I had a few lines. “There’s the train,” was my line in the Brecht play. Thank God the playwright had been dead for a decade. The man probably rolled over in his grave any time I yelled the line at the top of my lungs. Anyone could say the line as ineffectively as I did, and I never picked up my cue, which angered the cast immeasurably. They tired of waiting for me to speak so the play could continue. Every night I earnestly refused to deliver the line on cue, until it was clear that I actually heard the train. I was so very responsible to the idea of “reality.”
I considered myself a devotee of the Method approach without really knowing what that meant. How could I know? I was impervious to suggestions of any sort, overcome with ambition to succeed. I didn’t have a clue. Everything was too important then, the art of acting, the craft of it and so-called honesty, a term I’d heard often in acting class. Any trace of sensitivity to events on stage was beyond me.
In my misguided understanding, the Method meant feeling a line before I spoke. The silence before I said, “There’s the train,” sometimes lasted a half a minute in a vacuum of nothingness before I actually “felt” the train was present. Every performance of the line took longer and sounded more wooden than the night before. The cast hated my indulgence, though they seldom showed it, except once, when a portly performer directed a comment about “insufferably long pauses” pointedly at me. As he spoke I stared off innocently into space, pretending to be deaf; wearing my “mean- soldier” expression to protect myself from bodily assault.
My alleged acting career seemed about to meet a natural death.
God knows how I managed it, but in 1963, at age twenty-seven, I landed a job at McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, two small roles in a production of Julius Caesar that mercifully required only a few moments on stage. Thank God the playwright was dead, although Shakespeare probably suffered posthumous humiliation from the inadequacy of my performance. My acting talent wasn’t the reason they hired me. Perhaps they liked my full head of hair, or my physique that resembled a cross between a ballet dancer and a weight lifter, or the affected speech patterns that characterized my audition. I performed the Henry the Fifth prologue for the director, butchering it with a sufficient number of rolled r’s to leave the impression that I was classically trained.
Since I had spent the greater part of my life in a state of willful silence, my tongue lacked dexterity. I tried to rehabilitate it by reciting passages of Shakespeare for an hour each day with a thermos cork in my mouth, an exercise that was a sight to behold and resulted in barely-human utterances. Still, only that kind of determined effort made me dare to walk upon the stage, as if a single solution would allow me to speak like the others. Alas, more than a cork would be necessary for mastering Shakespeare. The will to communicate would have helped, but that took another ten to twenty years.
Every night I made my first entrance as a Roman plebeian, dressed in a leopard skin created by a costume designer who no doubt had a fetish for taut male thighs. My oversized muscles were the crux of what I had to offer on stage. The entire package gave the impression that I was a leftover Cro-Magnon wandering through the streets of Rome.
Forget the joy of creativity. My approach was rigid, dutifully memorizing and drilling Shakespeare’s words to the point of killing the freedom required for spontaneity. My focus on effort limited any possibility of discovery. Effort served as an earnest substitute for creativity, about which I hadn’t a clue. “See how hard I am working,” seemed the whole point of my performance.
In my state of youthful earnestness, I swaggered across the boards nightly in my leopard skin without realizing something was amiss, even the night of my clumsy pratfall while running across the stage towards Mark Anthony during his “Friends, Romans, countrymen “speech. Without realizing that the fall had partially torn my false beard off, I stood and dutifully listened to Mark Anthony. Together with the designer leopard skin, that pathetic-looking piece of facial hair hanging by a few strands caused both the cast and the audience to titter. I kept a fixed, earnest expression on my face, as if I believed my own impression of myself.
The sixty-five year old actor playing twenty-year-old Mark Anthony was furious at me for weeks afterward for ruining his alleged “brilliant performance.” In his defense, I was his understudy. Thank the goodness of the Gods he never took sick. Had I played the part, it surely would have been the end.
And then there was my second part in the play, my portrayal of Titinius, whose single monologue eulogizes Cassius’s death. To prepare for each performance, I climbed the stairs to the fifth floor of a tower adjacent to the main stage and presented Titinius’s speech with a colorful array of vocal effects that included intermittent inflections of fake crying. Sufficiently convinced that repetition was the proper ingredient for a thespian’s preparation, every night in the belfry of that tower I recited the speech five times toward a brick wall with what I thought to be full emotion. In fact I was merely loud. My leopard skin, of course, had been replaced by a Roman tunic suitable for Titinius’s military stature. I was quite full of myself, strutting about in that tower with my cardboard sword and tunic and bare, hairy, knock-kneed legs. After this private ritual, the strategy was to descend to the stage and imitate each sound and gesture exactly as I had performed them to the wall. I was an optimistic young fellow then.
Titinius commits suicide by plunging a cardboard sword into his breast after finding his beloved general, Cassius, dead. I stabbed myself nightly with that flimsy prop and died convincingly, I would say. Unfortunately, the monologue had to be delivered first, and that I mangled in an over-wrought fashion with raging gesticulations and passionately false vocal tones. In front of an audience, tension and fear of being myself impeded my delivery. The prospect of simply communicating was foreign Co me. It was never enough to be normal. I was compelled to impress the invisible “them” with phony accents, exaggerated posturing, and cascades of voluminous vocal effects. I thought that a worried expression would convince the sea of faces in front of me that I meant every word. I could barely comprehend Shakespeare’s verse, much less know the character’s intention. Any gimmick to win an audience’s favor I used amply. Trembling my lower lip, as if about to cry, was one of my favorites. As weeks passed, performances became increasingly strident.
Everything I presented on stage was geared toward proving “more” to the world. “More” was all I would accept of myself.
A fine actor, Gwillem Evens, played Cassius. He was extremely talented and bald, and served the bard well. Still, I reasoned that without hair, Mr. Evens would not have a chance at movie stardom. My thick mane of brown hair meant I was destined for Hollywood, while Gwillem did not stand a chance. Before I made my entrance every night, while changing from my leopard skin into my Roman tunic, Gwillem Evens and another fine actor who played Brutus, brilliantly performed the scene between Brutus and Cassius in the tent, shaking my confidence. At such times, my full head of hair did little to assuage my doubt. Vanity seldom did much in a pinch.
Exactly what made an artist was still a mystery to me. Hair was only part of it, I suspected. But I was not sure. Artistry was something mysteriously projected from the talented actors playing Cassius and Brutus. I had not the vaguest notion of what allowed their skill to shine night after night, although I did notice that they enjoyed themselves. Could that possibly be the ingredient that would enhance relaxation on stage? Perhaps so, but enjoyment for one’s work was an unattainable concept for a young man obsessed with results to the point of blindness.
On one fateful night, as Cassius lay dead on the floor, I accidentally stepped on his finger with the full weight of my body. The actor grimaced in pain, but if I removed my large foot from his finger, I would surely forget my lines. I hadn’t practiced stepping upon Gwillem’s finger during my warm up in the tower. How could I possibly handle such an unexpected event? I stood inept, unerringly stupefied before Cassius’s body, unable to speak, and only vaguely aware of what Cassius’s death meant to me. My lover, my friend, my general. I wished I could stab myself with a real knife, but the cardboard number would have to do.
Silence in the theater was deafening, the audience aware that something was awry. Silence crushed me. I fell to the floor, as if I were wounded, to disguise that I had forgotten my lines, as if an invisible spear aimed from the wings had found its mark in my flank. Another actor helped me escape to the theater’s lonely basement where Titinius’s shame could be negotiated in privacy.
At the risk of boasting, I suspect Titinius’s exit convinced the audience that a wounded Roman soldier was being carried off, perhaps to one of their famous Roman baths where he might heal his wounds. At least the audience’s sympathy accompanied his exit. Of that I am sure. Five decades have passed since then, and in my subsequent assessment of the situation, I have surmised that forgetting my lines was the single most interesting event of the evening, much more so than the four and one-half hours of Shakespeare’s play, which, in spite of its wonderfully rich characters, is a bit lengthy and much too predictable. I inadvertently added a note of spontaneity to the evening, for which the audience might have been most grateful.
Years later I received a phone call from Frank Monahan, the fellow who had last seen me washing dishes, inviting me to a Brown University Varsity Football reunion. My acting career had become visible by then. During our conversation he mentioned how impressed he was, and gave a litany of various films he’d seen me in. My work in John Grisham’s The Chamber had impressed him to no end and Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth ofJuly held me in good stead, as did Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking. He mentioned other films, too. By then, film success seemed to justify my dishwashing excursion. Theater is something else, not as visible, not as glamorous. During the course of our conversation, he even asked how much money I was paid for each film. Unsure of what to say, I threw out a number. “One hundred and fifty grand; I proudly said, which was the amount I had been paid for the The Chamber. The sum seemed adequate enough, judging from his reaction. He ended that line of questioning satisfied.
By then, we were both age seventy-two, at which time I appeared in a play that I also directed and wrote, Awake in a World That Encourages Sleep. He inadvertently heard about the production through a mutual friend and purchased tickets. Frank offered a warm greeting afterwards. God knows what he thought of the play’s anti-war, anti-corporate theme, but that wasn’t the point to either of us. We were old men. My tenacity balanced equally his hard-earned fortune.
Originally a log cutter turned thespian, I am today the personification of a family man with four children and a dear wife, Robyn. Given the personal trials my career has endured, it is with a certain degree of humbleness that I list some of the films that have come to define me as a professional: Born on the Fourth ofJuly, Dead Man Walking, Interview with the Assassin, Walk Hard, Falling Down, The Ref, and Flubber. My recent four-year stint on the TV series Justified carried me through my vulnerable early- to mid-seventies when an acting career is usually on the wane.
My forte seems to be playing fathers whose children have been raped, murdered, or paralyzed from the waist down by the perils of combat in war. I have an equal aptitude for playing menacing gangsters or killers of presidents, pathological men with that “thousand mile stare,” who have a propensity for injuring people or bullying them unmercifully in order to have their way. Those are my proudest portrayals, not to mention neurotic poets and half-crazed artist painters hopelessly in love, who carry a weight so great that accommodating the requirements of the normal world is not an option. Those characters are, of course, similar to how I was during brief periods, pushed, as they are, by forces beyond normalcy.
My acting career originated from the suspicion that I did not quite belong. Today, the goodness of my existence is palpable. My failures have been my education, the platform upon which is built an undaunted stubbornness that has established a willful, although somewhat blind, longevity in my profession. If only audiences knew the whole of it. If only they knew of walnut logs in a Tenth Street storefront and a mattress on its floor to sleep upon at night. But only I could possibly recall that rich and innocent period of my youth.