There were two fortuitous elements in my early days which inspired me, filled my mind with stories and history, and showed me the path that I would choose to follow for my entire life. One was simply the fact of living in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, combined with having parents who loved going to the theater, and took me with them as often as possible. The other was simultaneously attending St. Bernard’s, a school which not only offered an astoundingly broad and deep overall education, but which also took very seriously its teaching of public speaking, poetry memorization and recitation, singing, whistling . . . and acting, in operettas, skits, and revues; and in plays -- most notably, but not exclusively, those by William Shakespeare.
Because of these two huge influences, by the age of 13, I knew beyond the slightest doubt that I wanted to be -- that I would be -- an actor. At St. Bernard’s, I had sung the soprano ingenue in Mozart’s Bastien and Bastienne and played Maid Marian in a musical based on Robin Hood in 4th grade (and there was never, even way back then, the slightest stigma or fun-making about the fact the we boys played the women’s roles), portrayed Peter in J. M. Barrie’s original stage version of Peter Pan in 5th grade, appeared as a Spirit in The Tempest in 6th, acted in a full-length Pierrot Show and played The Boy in Henry V in 7th, and murdered a bunch of my friends while playing the title role in Macbeth in 8th, which in those days was the graduating class. Our 1960 eighth grade was honored by Mr. Westgate, the headmaster, to be the first ever to have a commencement ceremony.
Edward Musgrove Strange, born in 1898 in the Cricklewood section of London, near Hampstead Heath, was the director of the Shakespeare plays, the writer, director, and musical director of the Pierrot Show, and the pump-organist and pianist for the entire school assemblies and morning prayers. In his seventh-grade homeroom, he taught mathematics, geography, and English. He invited his boys to the rooms on the school’s upper floor where he lived, and made us tea while allowing us to listen to his recordings of Flanders & Swann, the great British duo of musical satirists. And he prepared his class for their following year’s Shakespeare play by having them read through the script aloud again and again, each boy playing every part at least once. He introduced us to the history of the Elizabethan stage, to Shakespeare’s life and other works, and he explained the meanings of all the references in the text – linguistic, historical, mythological, even sexual and psychological; the puns, the metaphors, the characters and their subtexts and inner lives. On the last day of school, roles were cast, and lines were learned during the three-month break. When we reconvened to start every-afternoon rehearsals in the fall, Mr. Strange now taught us stagecraft, how to project our voices (“There’s a little old man with an ear-trumpet in the back row of the balcony. He must hear – and understand – every single word!”), how to deal fluidly with the iambic pentameter, and how to put on a lively performance for the audience.
When I appeared in my first Broadway show, twelve years after graduating from St. Bernard’s, Mr. Strange, now retired from teaching, came to see it. We had dinner afterwards, and he told me quite bluntly that he had not been impressed in the least by the play (the musical Pippin), but he had felt proud (and took justifiable credit for the fact!) that he had been able to hear – and understand – every word I had spoken and sung -- this in the days before actors wore microphones!
My years at St. Bernard’s, with the other great masters like Mr. Phelan, Mr. McClung, and Mr. Fry, gave me everything I needed to march forward into my high school years, into college, and from there into a demanding and most often insecure profession, with relative confidence, and the feeling that I knew what to do. Of my five children, of which four are sons, one lucky lad, Michael, got to be a St. Bernard’s boy, too. And he even had dear, irascible Mr. McClung as his fifth-grade teacher, and got to hear him read H. Rider Haggard’s She aloud to the class, as I had, 27 years earlier! Oh, and Mike became an actor as well. His play (then in the new ninth grade!), with Mr. King-Wood, was Twelfth Night!
I have the great good fortune to now be in my 55th year as a professional actor. I have shown up in a number of films and a ton of television shows, some noteworthy, some pretty awful – but I’m always grateful for the job. I have had my childhood dream of acting on Broadway come true over and over, most recently playing Grandpa Joe in the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I have also had a second career as a composer, orchestrator, and conductor of film and TV scores; and a third as a director; and a fourth as a teacher and director of theater at NYU, UCLA, and USC. I have worked with, and learned massively from, hundreds of directors, writers, other actors, musicians, teachers, and students. But whenever I am asked to expound on how or why or when or where I “got my real start,” or “actually learned the tools of my trade” . . . the answer, inevitably and always, begins with three words: “St. Bernard’s School.”