BWW Interviews: Philly Native Robert Picardo Visits Totem Pole Playhouse
Robert Picardo has one of the steadiest careers in the industry. Starring in the Vienna performances of Leonard Bernstein's MASS (filmed by PBS and aired several times) while at Yale, he was in his second major Broadway part by age 24 - and the young man whose mother was told by Bernstein to let her son take up acting has never looked back. He's been Dick Richards on ABC's CHINA BEACH - while at the same time being Coach Cutlip on THE WONDER YEARS. He spent seven years as STAR TREK: VOYAGER'S popular Emergency Medical Hologram. His character Richard Woolsey has been on three different STARGATE series. In film, he's distinguished himself in several Joe Dante films, notably THE HOWLING, has worked with Ridley Scott, but has also played in several films requiring not taking oneself too seriously (976-EVIL, among others).
Few actors have worked more, or as steadily, or had so many television franchises for which they've become beloved by audiences. But he's chosen to look back to the stage now, and in so doing has heeded the call of director John Putch to come to Totem Pole Playhouse outside Fayetteville, PA (in Caledonia State Park) to star in the Neil Simon classic, THE SUNSHINE BOYS, with Broadway legend Lee Wilkof (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS).
We caught up with Mr. Picardo just before rehearsals started for THE SUNSHINE BOYS and had time to ask a few questions about the Pennsylvania native's career and his return to the state for the summer.
BW: You're a Philadelphia boy. Welcome back to Pennsylvania! Is this your first time in the middle of the state?
RP: It's my first time in the area. I've been in Pittsburgh, and I've been up and down the eastern side of the state, but this is my first trip to the Caledonia area. In school, I did the obligatory trips to Gettysburg and Hershey. Then it was just exciting to get out of school for the day - now it's exciting to be here in these places. I've heard this is a very beautiful part of the state.
BW: We know you went to Yale, but you didn't do Yale Drama School, did you?
RP: No. I was a biology major most of my time there; I acted for fun. I went to the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, where I had a teacher really named Edward Shakespeare. He was a very influential figure in my childhood - I acted in high school a few times, but Mr. Shakespeare got me to lead in THE CRUCIBLE; I played John Proctor. At Yale, I got to be in Bernstein's MASS shortly after its premiere; we got the non-professional rights. It was a bit of a sensation at school, and I had a lead role in it. Bernstein saw it. He was very kind and supportive to me.
Bernstein said I had real energy, not phony Broadway energy. Of course, I have phony Broadway energy too - you'll see that in THE SUNSHINE BOYS!
My mother had hoped I'd be a doctor, but Bernstein broke the news to her that he thought I had some talent. He was important enough for her to listen to. We decided I had five years or it was medical school for me, and in four years I was in my second Broadway lead.
BW: You were in GEMINI on Broadway shortly after Yale. An Italian boy from Philly goes on Broadway in a play about Italians from South Philly. Is that pure coincidence? Is it art imitating life, life imitating art, or both?
RP: My family was pretty solidly middle-class. We had a furniture store out near Connie Mack Stadium, and when Dad died, my mom took it over. The characters in GEMINI were more foul-mouthed, working-class types - when my family came to see it, they tried to convince themselves that we were from a finer stock of immigrant family.
The Yale Dramat shared a stage with the Drama School, and the playwright [Albert Innaurato, also author of the James Coco Off-Broadway vehicle THE TRANSFIGURATION OF BENNO BLIMPIE which won him an Obie] had seen me there. That gave me a leg up when they needed to re-cast it when it moved from Playwrights Horizons to Circle Rep, before we took it to Broadway.
BW: Many people don't realize you're a fairly accomplished singer, yet you starred in the Vienna production of MASS.
RP: It was a great experience. Bernstein called me The Great Picardo for fun. I didn't have the singing skills for The Celebrant as I'm not a trained singer - I don't have the head notes. But there I was at 19 singing at the Vienna Concert House. It was the only time of my life I had groupies. Science fiction fans are great but they just aren't the same as groupies. The Doctor [from VOYAGER] just wasn't sexy.
BW: You played Coach Cutlip on THE WONDER YEARS and Dr. Dick Richard on CHINA BEACH. Most actors would be proud to have been in either show - but not only were you in both, but at the same time.
RP: I was hired for the guest star in THE WONDER YEARS when I was cast in CHINA BEACH. First THE WONDER YEARS hade me read for the dad, then the narrator - and then they put me in the gym coach role. It was fun to do - but I got CHINA BEACH after I shot the pilot for that. The head of the network called and made a plea to the CHINA BEACH producers for cooperation to make me available when the coach was needed. It wouldn't have worked back then if the shows had been on different networks. It was also fun to be this leading man on CHINA BEACH and in a fun small part on the other. It was me and Heather Locklear doing the two-show shuffle back then.
BW: Then there's your TV science fiction trifecta: VOYAGER, STARGATE SG-1 and STARGATE ATLANTIS.
RP: No - I'd have to have been in a STAR WARS role to make the real trifecta. I was trying to get a voiceover on THE CLONE WARS animated STAR WARS series to seal the deal, but it didn't work. But it's been fun. The Doctor saved lives, and the general tone of SG-1 and ATLANTIS, as set by Richard Dean Anderson, was, "we're going to save the world in 43 minutes."
Science fiction's been good to me. The fans are the most loyal fans in the world. I'll be making an appearance at a comic book store on my day off to meet fans. I'm important to them, you know - I'm not just a science fiction character, I'm an action figure and a Christmas ornament, too!
BW: But what those of us familiar with your work really want to know is... is MEGASHARK VERSUS CROCASAURUS the highlight of your film career?
RP: I have my agent to blame for MEGASHARK! He went to school with one of the principals at Asylum. I deeply believe I am not the worst thing in a bad movie. But I may have taken the science fiction thing too far with that one.
BW: Lee Wilkof is a Broadway legend. Have you worked with him before?
RP: No. Lee and I have met a number of times over the years, even though I missed him in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. He opened the West Coast production, too, and I missed him in that, too - but we've been in the hall together when we've been auditioning. I've known him forever, since the first audition at the same time. And my theatre friends who work with Lee spoke highly of him to me.
BW: Have you done THE SUNSHINE BOYS before? What about doing Neil Simon speaks to you?
RP: Neil Simon - there are certain of his shows that are classics, and this is one of them. It's so funny that you laugh while you're reading it. I worked with Jack Lemmon too, and I was privileged to get to be with him and Walter Matthau together. My big decision in playing this is, what percentage of Walter Matthau am I allowed?
I'm on the young end for THE SUNSHINE BOYS. I'm in my 60's and the character is in his 70's, so I hope I'll be doing this play for a few years. I'd like to get back to more stage work. I did a reading in the past of SAME TIME NEXT YEAR in New York. I don't get to do as much stage work as I'd like. I did Herr Schultz recently in CABARET in California and that was well-received. But my last major part was a few years ago in a late work of Arthur Miller's, BROKEN GLASS, which is about Kristallnacht.
If I can do that, I figured I could learn THE SUNSHINE BOYS in two weeks.
I have to say, I adored Matthau - not just as an actor. He was such a great person. Playing his part in this show, I think I'm allowed a tiny bit of homage to him.
THE SUNSHINE BOYS runs from July 9 through July 21 at Totem Pole Playhouse near Fayetteville. Visit www.totempoleplayhouse.org for more information.
Photo courtesy of Totem Pole Playhouse