'Hey Dude, It's Ben Curtis!' - A visit with one of the stars of Off-Broadway's JOY

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Everyone is familiar with the Maytag Repairman--one of television marketing's most famous characters. Mature television viewers will also recall Madge the Manicurist, the Doublemint Twins, the Breck Girl, Rosie the Waitress and Molly Goldberg, who leaned out her window and proclaimed that her neighbors should use SOS scouring pads because, "with soap, it's loaded!" And who could forget the Taster's Choice lovebirds? Younger viewers will add to the list The Dell Dude who represented Dell Computers and made "Dude, you're getting a Dell" an oft-mimicked catchphrase.

The public hasn't forgotten Steve, The Dell Dude. Anyone who thinks otherwise should amble into the Actor's Playhouse where Ben Curtis, the actor who played the hyper energetic pitchman, is appearing in the cast of John Fisher's romantic comedy JOY. As members of the audience realize who the actor on stage is, they nudge each other and whisper, "that's him" or "that's the Dell guy!" Very few people realize that Curtis is a serious actor who not only studied mime and the cherished Italian tradition of commedia dell'arte but has studied with Lee Strasburg and at the Tisch School of the Arts. He has performed at the Edinburgh Festival and the Amsterdam Street Theater. None of this is the kind of background one would conjure for a young man who made a splash representing a computer company on television and in print.

Sitting down for a meal with Ben Curtis proved to be an fascinating experience. The young actor is extremely amiable and his blue eyes sparkled as he spoke freely of the achievements and disappointments of his career. Curtis was quick to praise his teachers, especially Robert Clark, Bill Balzac and Steve Wangh-each of whom influenced him greatly in different ways. Yet he wasn't afraid to express his opinions on controversial subjects either. Time flew so quickly that the stage manager had to phone him with a reminder there was a show to do that evening.

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the actor is the son of an Episcopal minister and a devoted schoolteacher. The actor charts his interest in show business to the time he met magician David Copperfield. Curtis was only four years old and Copperfield was about to perform one of his illusions and was soliciting volunteers for a specific illusion and requested that Curtis join them. The youngster was too shy to take part in the proceedings. However, he did get to meet Copperfield and that moment sparked a keen interest in the lad who went on to get a magic kit and perform his magic tricks whenever people came to visit. He became a performer at birthday parties and at thirteen he started his own business. He even went on to become a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society of American Magicians, "I performed for all ages at all events and participated in competitions all around the USA. I studied with some of the greatest people in the world and learned about showmanship, technique, versatility and imagination. That really changed my life. I used magic as a platform to create all kinds of theater because I learned to create my own style of theater as well."

When asked whether he had ever given consideration to creating a theater piece which employed elements of magic the way illusionist Doug Henning did many years ago, Curtis responded, "Absolutely. In fact, when I was seventeen I did that. I combined the story of my life, acting, music I had written, ideas I had written, as well as mime and dance into a full-scale show. It was called TWILIGHT and it brought audiences into me and I developed a lot of stories." Once he got cast in the Dell commercials all of that ended because his commitment to the computer company was so time consuming. He flew all over the country making personal appearances and even showed up on QVC-the television shopping channel-representing the computer company.

How, exactly, did Curtis become involved with those commercials? It was a job he auditioned for and "the only criteria I was given was to 'dress young'. I got there and I was the only one auditioning who didn't have his mom with him. I was 19 about to turn 20. There were all different sizes, shapes, all colors in the room, so I knew they company didn't exactly know what they wanted. I just had to OWN it and do what I do. Of course I knew how to manipulate parents (what teenager doesn't?), and the audition was a kid's wish-list for Christmas that he was putting on video. It was obvious all he wanted was a computer and I just had to think about what could be the greatest thing that anyone could get for a gift? What was the feeling it gave you? I really put that into the audition and played it with a lot of high energy. I had fun with it. What came out ended up being exactly the character from then on. "Steven" was supposed to be a 16 or 17 year old kid and as I got older I kept playing the same character. It was obvious to me that I was outgrowing it but Dell was still writing it the same way and because I said 'dude' I think everyone just immediately assumed that the character was a stoner, what with the quirkiness and all. Actually I played him as a very straight-edge, a bit pent-up and eccentric, but really the boy-next-door."

The character of Steven lasted for two years and it was almost overplayed. "People either loved it or were completely sick of it. They'd switch channels and it would still be there. It was hard. I wasn't expecting that level of fame. It's odd to have your anonymity taken away while you're in college and just trying to make a difference in the world-especially after 9/11, when I was just a couple of blocks away and trapped underground-well, there are more important things in life than TV and Dell computers. I never became an actor to make money and fame is something which is overrated, I think. It's more important to figure out how you can make a difference in the small time you have. Still, the Dell experience was nice."

After two years of being the personification of Dell computers, Ben Curtis was arrested on the corner of Ludlow and Rivington Streets in New York City for possession of marijuana. On February 10, 2003, an undercover cop spotted him making a small purchase from a known dealer. "It ended my relationship with them. I didn't get arrested on purpose and they didn't want to let me go, but it was a company policy and I respect that. I'm not proud of what happened, but it was definitely important in my learning processes. I was a college-aged kid experimenting with drugs--which can be both good and bad. It turned out to be one of the greatest learning lessons I've had. My recollection of going to jail keeps me from ever wanting to go back I was in custody for eighteen hours and handcuffed to a wheelchair in the Bellevue Psychiatric Ward because I was on medication and that was the only place I could get it. Certainly it was very degrading but everything is a learning experience which I can use it in my acting. At that point I was on a downward spiral, so the arrest helped me to go back to school and really re-think my life. Hopefully my fans have forgiven me."

Since that incident, Curtis has been auditioning for roles in both film and theater. It's a little known fact that he auditioned for Richard Greenburg's TAKE ME OUT and came very close to being cast as Shane Mungitt, the role that was ultimately played by Frederick Weller. "I just looked too young when standing next to the other actors, so they went with someone else." He also filmed an independent movie called RACCOON which should be going into distribution this fall. He has appeared in THE INDIAN WANTS THE BRONX at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and it was there that he met his current girlfriend.

However, now he is prominently featured in the Off-Broadway production of JOY and he claims it's the greatest part of his career. "It's amazing. I look forward to going to work every day because the cast is incredible. I love them and they love me. We really love each other and are very supportive. I love the producer. I love the director. I love everyone who works in the theater. To be paid for what I went to school for and dreamed about for most of my life no matter what the content is incredible, but keeping a political mind, keeping art and the world in mind and having a gay father, it's really a blessing to me to be in a play that deals with sexuality; especially since that topic became such an issue in the last election."

A gay father?

"Yeah, my father is now openly gay. My sister actually came out before my Dad did, but she is really bi-sexual. My father announced to me when my parents separated that he was also bi-sexual but in no way did I doubt his commitment to my mother because I know, just from growing up with him. He's really my best friend and I like him more and more every day I'm alive. He would never be in something he wasn't committed to. They had a beautiful marriage for a while and it fell apart. They're both happier now. It was difficult for me because I was trying to figure out my sexuality then and it made it confusing all the way up to this day. But growing up in Tennessee if you're anything but homophobic when you're a teenager then you're considered gay. Thanks to the passion and sensitivity my parents raised me with, I was able to accept people for who they were and this play has made me more comfortable with my sexuality because I have to deal with it eight times a week. People are really caught up with 'sexual preference' yet I think there are so many other things to worry about.

"As far as my father, his congregation reacted very positively and it is no secret that the Episcopal Church accepts everyone. There were many people in the congregation who were also gay. It was an inspiration for most and for the bitter elders, a wake up call - things have changed. That's the difference between the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church turns down no one despite their beliefs, their race, their sex, their background, or their sexuality. Priests in the Catholic Church have had to stay closeted because of the narrow-minded conservatism of its practice, which could explain why there have been so many issues for the Catholics and abuse of sexuality lately. My father's retired now and he's a really incredible painter and interior designer and I'm very proud of him."

The enthusiasm that Ben Curtis has for his current gig is very evident in his performance. His droll timing and physical language make his character one of the play's highlights. As Christian, a San Francisco college student with whom a male professor becomes enamored, Curtis is able to turn terse phrases into comic gems. Somehow he even manages to look appealing in Biblical togs in one of the play's party scenes. Quite evidently the theater and Ben Curtis are perfectly matched. Yet there's no denying that the spectre of the Dell Dude will always be with him. Even as he entered the theater for that evening's performance, people on the sidewalk turned their heads for a second look at Curtis.

"These days, when someone comes up to me on the street or in a supermarket remembering me from the Dell Commercials, it makes me feel great. It just re-affirms how great that campaign was and lets me know that I obviously have an impact on people. Furthermore, people are much more respectful these days as it has obviously been a while since the commercials last aired. If you saw me today, you'd know that I am definitely not 'Steven'. Moreover, when they ask me what I'm doing now, I am thrilled to say 'my first Off-Broadway show! JOY!' "

All of this leaves one to ponder whether the Maytag Repairman can make a similar claim when he appears in public. Hmmm...

Theater: Actors' Playhouse Theatre - 100 7th Avenue South
Schedule: Monday: 8:00 PM - Wednesday: 8:00 PM - Thursday: 8:00 PM - Friday: 8:00 PM - Saturday: 3:00 PM, 8:00 PM - Sunday: 3:00 PM, 7:00 PM
Running Time: 2 hours including one intermission
Price: $65.00
For more information, and to purchase tickets - click here.

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From This Author Joseph F. Panarello