BWW Interview: Listen to Your Captain! Gavin MacLeod Sounds Off About ON THE AIR Benefit for Dezart Performs
Stage and Television stars Gavin MacLeod, Joyce Bulifant and G.W. Bailey lead a cast of twenty professional actors and singers in Dezart Performs fundraising gala, "ON THE AIR! An Evening of Live Radio Show Classics," on Thursday, March 13, 2014 at The Camelot Theatres in Palm Springs. The live show with post-performance VIP reception will take the audience back in time to radio's golden age of the 1940s and 1950s with all of the stage gimmicks in tact including sound effects created right on stage, applause signs-and even commercials with original jingles for the modern-day companies sponsoring the special event. The radio shows to be vividly recreated are "The Bickersons," "Sherlock Holmes," and "My Favorite Husband." I had the chance to chat with MacLeod about his life and career and participating in the ON THE AIR benefit. Here are a few excerpts from the conversation.
DG: I know you recently received a star on The Palm Springs Walk of Stars. What was that day and event like?
GM: That was an awesome day, and I think it's the kind of day every living human being should have. Everybody should have a star on The Palm Springs Walk of Stars. You know, if you live to be fifty years old you deserve something on the sidewalk. (He laughs) It was really one of those days you don't forget, because to have Carol Channing start off the speakers - it doesn't get any better than that.
DG: So, tell me just a little bit about your recent book, "This Is Your Captain Speaking".
GM: Well, the book is the story of my life, basically, you know - I start it off with a preface of how, as a young actor, coming to the West Coast after doing "A Hatful Of Rain" with Shelley Winters and Ben Gazzara - I was the first replacement in that show in New York City way back in the fifties. That was an Actor's Studio project called "Johnny Had A Yo-Yo" and eventually it came to New York as "A Hatful Of Rain". So, I was with that for a year and a half, and one of the places we played after we went on the road, eventually, was Los Angeles. It was called The Huntington Hartford Theatre. We played there and I had an offer - 'cause I was playing a drug pusher - to do a movie. And I couldn't do it. Because I was under contract and I couldn't leave the show. We closed in Boston and I went home to New York and I told my wife, I said "I think there's some action for me on the West Coast". So we knew one guy who knew somebody out here - an agent called Lew Irwin who handled The Ritz Brothers and people like that. A lot of show business entertainers, not actors necessarily. But he set up an interview with me - so, I came out to the West Coast, 1957, and who do I meet in the office? Ted Knight. And that was in 1957, and we eventually did the Mary Tyler Moore show together in 1970 - but he and I became very good friends. Consequently, I got some work and all that jazz. And then I start telling about how I was born in a little town in upstate New York - how my Dad died when he was 39 years old - my dream of being an actor when I was in the kindergarten - my first play and when I heard the applause what it did for me. And that was the beginning of it all - and then getting a scholarship to college - and then going to New York and working at The Radio City Music Hall as an usher - and then getting my first hairpiece, which was second hand. I bought a second hand hairpiece because that's all I could afford and as a result I got my first Broadway play - that play with Shelley Winters. And I got engaged to a Rockette with that second hand hairpiece. I try to recap a lot of stuff in the book - I'm not sure I did a very good job right now.
DG: Your sure did. So, out of your many career accomplishments, is there one that stands out as perhaps your proudest accomplishment?
GM: Yeah. Ah ... I think there's about two. When I did Gigi, at The Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey, I did the Maurice Chevalier role and when I did that - I entered in a hot air balloon and it was such a joyous experience for me. It was just a beautiful, beautiful show. The reviewer in The New York Post said - when we opened there in New Jersey - I'll never forget it - it had a picture of me - it said "the best Broadway musical isn't on Broadway. Heck, it isn't even in New York. It's in New Jersey". I loved playing that character. (He sings) "Thank Heaven For Little Girls" - he sings that, you know. And one of our young little girls - maybe six or seven years old - in New Jersey was that actress that won the supporting actress Oscar last year for Les Mis - Anne Hathaway. Yeah. What a kick, huh? I can't wait to see her some day -- meet her -- and say "we were in the same show together". Yeah, so I did that and ... I don't know ... I've done so many theatre projects, it's so hard to single one or two out. The theatre is the most exciting form for me. I've been blessed. I've been very fortunate in my career. Jessica Tandy used to say as an actor you'll take what you think is your liability and it'll be your asset. Well, being bald when I was young has turned into a major asset. Thank God for "what's his name's" second hand hairpiece.
DG: What advice would you give young actors who were interested in pursuing a career in professional theatre?
GM: Not to give up. If you have a passion for it, stick with it, 'cause you never know what's going to happen.
DG: Tell me about Dezart Perform's ON THE AIR production this week.
GM: Oh. I can't wait. Its gonna be just terrific. I'm just telling everybody about it. I think it's a very special thing. A lot of people my age know what radio is about. It was prior to television and we knew how they made sound effects, we knew - they could take you anyplace on radio -- and then television came along and they had to show you. We've got a wonderful diversity - we're gonna do "The Bickersons" which is hysterical. We're gonna do "Sherlock Holmes" and we're gonna do one of Lucy's things called "My Favorite Husband" with one of my favorite actresses Joyce Bulifant, who played my wife on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. We've got some wonderful, wonderful people in each of the shows. When I was this young kid I would buy this radio magazine -- Radio Mirror magazine - and they would have pictures of the actors who were playing these parts and a lot of them were so different from what their voices were like and the image you had in your mind for them, you know. A lot of people worked on radio who were not - how do I say this - were not pretty movie stars, They were just wonderful actors. There was a whole group of actors who would do most of the shows. They could do things with their voices. Anyway, that's what this is all about - it's going to be a great evening for people. And the thing I like - Jess Oppenheimer wrote - together with those two other fabulous writers - wrote "My Favorite Husband", the one Joyce and I are doing, and his son Greg is directing it. And I like that idea.
DG: One final question - what's something unique or unusual about you that no one would know about you by reading your professional resume?
GM: (He laughs long and loud) Oh gee, Golly, I guess you should ask my wife. Let me see, well ... I was offered an art scholarship when I was a young, young boy. So, I had an interesting talent. I have all my paints and some canvases in storage. I used to do an awful lot of that. When we lived in Cape Cod, I did a lot of painting up there. Nobody knows anything about that. My kids know. And my friends know who have them, but nobody else really knows that.
DG: Well, now the entire Broadway World knows.
GM; (He laughs) If they even care.
Limited tickets are still available for "ON THE AIR An Evening of Live Radio Show Classics," benefiting Dezart Performs. Dezart Performs is a Palm Springs-based performing arts non-profit whose distinction is showcasing the work of established and emerging playwrights from across the country for Coachella Valley audiences. The current season has included two West Coast premieres of original works, "Exquisite Potential" and "Invasion of Privacy." The season ends with Dezart Performs' signature Play Reading Series, from April 11 through 19, which will be staged at the Pearl McManus Theater in downtown Palm Springs. For more information about Dezart Performs, "ON THE AIR An Evening of Live Radio Show Classics," and other offerings of the 2013-14 season, call (800) 838-3006 or go to www.dezartperforms.com.