In the vestibule of a Lyndhurst house less than two weeks ago, two brothers stood chuckling. It was opening weekend of “How To Succeed…” and even before the curtain rose Hal’s review came in:

“You know,” said H, ‘You’re really not acting.”
(More chortles as our laughter grew louder).
“Yeah, ” I roared, “I do the same thing every play.”
(And we laughed some more).

It’s true though. After more than a score of roles post-divorce, I can objectively and without a hint of false modesty affirm that what my brother proclaims with penultimate love is in fact spot-on true: I cannot act. This truism I stand by and frankly, it’s a source of great strength.

It is also why, when you cut to the chase, I am cast so often.

Why else would I score comedy parts like Harry McAfee (“Bye Bye Birdie”) and Murray The Cop (“The Odd Couple”) and pop up with inexplicably sizable roles in musicals (Uncle Max, “The Sound Of Music” or Mushnik the Shopkeeper, “Little Shop Of Horrors”)?

It’s because what you see is what you get.

Time after time I sit in auditions and watch these actors. Brick-faced, clearly with more talent than this cowboy, they sing…NO, they croon. But they stand there serious as heart attacks; they bring their sheet music (and attitudes) and wait to be discovered. Me? Who’m I trying to impress. My best singing’s in the shower so I say Screw the Great White Way! I vocalize nonsense (most recently Jerry Lewis’s “The Navy Gets The Gravy”) and with attitude alone I warn musical directors that if they like how I can’t sing they’ll love how I can’t dance. (Indeed, years ago at Chagrin Valley’s Theater, sensing an immediate connection I told one to place me in the front row of the chorus so I couldn’t kick anyone else in the kalooms).

So I play myself. It’s so much easier. I try out for character roles where voice doesn’t count, weight doesn’t matter and, (as my brother so aptly notes), acting is just not a prerequisite.

I portray myself better, perhaps, on stage than in real life.

I enjoy myself. (How could I not dealing poker to Oscar and Felix or, for that matter, singing a college fight song as I did last weekend?)

There hasn’t been a show where the director didn’t at some point pull the cast aside and remind it to have fun. They’re all so serious, these wannabe actors…so afraid of not being perfect. Tense and insecure, they remind me of the uncoordinated kids in Little League that didn’t want to be there in the first place.

The fact is that no one plays me better than me. It’s a role I’ve had for years, but one that, frankly, I’ve only in recent years begun to embrace.

I like playing me. I like not having to stretch. Could I, if I really strained, be someone else? Who cares?

I like being comfortable. I like being dependable. That comes only, I have learned, from staying within my game…from not trying to be what I’m not.

So sometimes I go too far and say the wrong thing. (I’m trying to get better). And sometimes I’ll not be as funny as I think I am. (I’m a work-in-progress). Rest assured, though, that I’m staying real. And reasonably happy.

My director thanked me last week: “The audience can see you’re having fun.”
“That’s ’cause I’m not acting, Harlan. I wish I could.”
Smiling, he gazed at me, tapping my shoulder. An honorable man in his early 80’s– one of those guys that looks like he’s forgotten more than most ever learn— he smiled again.  Knowingly.
“No you don’t,” he said.  “No you don’t.”

4 Responses to “MAN IN THE MIRROR”

  1. bob says:

    You sell yourself short. You do act well. You are a character actor. And boy are you a character. I think you and Walter Brennan (he of many John Wayne westerns and the Real Mccoys) as two of a kind. Not meant to be the star but the one who is necessary for the success of the production.

  2. Stuart says:

    I like you just the way you are. Wasn’t Richard Crenna in the Real McCoys? Little Luke. But Bob is correct…you are quite a character.

  3. JS says:

    You have been acting like a 15 year old for years

  4. Aunt Helen says:

    I just wish you would act nicer towards me.

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