I had a lot of boy friends in college. Not boyfriends. But boy friends. And they…challenged me. I’m sure I also challenged them, but in much subtler ways. Anyhoo, an example of this type of “challenging” occurred one afternoon while I sat in my apartment “studying”. I received a phone call from my friend Patrick who said (without a hello), “Quick. The man who played the boss in Mrs. Doubtfire.” And I said, “Robert Prosky.” And Patrick said, “Damn.” And hung up.
Victory – me.
So anyhoo, I’d like to dedicate this post to the late Robert Prosky (and Patrick, who is not late, but always on time.)
I first bumped into Robert Prosky whilst attending Camp Superkids at Camp Libbey in Defiance, Ohio. The staff gathered up all the campers to watch The Great Outdoors where I promptly lied and said that I wasn’t allowed to watch The Great Outdoors because of all the swearing. Which wasn’t true at all. My Mom had just popped in Meatballs the week before to get me excited about camp. I ended up bawling in the kitchen over some minor infraction committed by Bill Murray. I was a weird kid. Anyway, in The Great Outdoors Robert Prosky plays the lovable curmudgeon innkeeper of a North Woods lodge. Much like he plays a loveable curmudgeon in Mrs. Doubtfire. And a loveable curmudgeon in Miracle on 34th street, and also takes a turn as a loveable curmudgeon in Far and Away.
He’s the consumate cranky grandfather. The one who will let you climb onto his lap and mess with his wristwatch as long as he has a glass of scotch to help him through the experience. He’s a bullshitter. He’s a man’s man. I know several boys who probably hope to be just like him when they are old.
My personal favorite appearance of his is when he appears magically from behind the front desk of a lodge in the North Woods as “Wally” the innkeeper/bartender/and all around helluva guy wearing a tshirt that say something like “Somebody loves me in Wichita and all I got was this tshirt.” When asked what is wrong with his dog, Wormer’s, face he replies: Porcupine quills. Hates people, loves porcupines. She’s in heat too. Too bad you’re not a dog. What can I do ya for?
He also is responsible for my Irish dialect “launch” (a phrase I use to begin speaking with a dialect) from Far and Away, “There’s a gin and bitters in the rhodadendron.” (Sometimes I use, “Jesus Mary and Joseph!” For Scottish I use, “Ya great yella lummock!”)
There is very little available on the internet I find, be it picture or video, that truly highlights my favorite Prosky moments. So, rather that describe, I’ve included this pic from his theatre days:
I’d like to close with an excerpt of his speech when he accepted the American Express Tribute Award:
Many years later, I was being interviewed and was asked what it was like to be an actor for so long a time. My answer was that on the first day of rehearsal faced with a new script, a bare stage, and the whole panoply of theater surrounding me, the thought would occur that “I don’t know how to do this; I don’t even know where to start.” But, start we would and in the rehearsal process of four or five weeks, I would add a little bit of this or that, a note from the director, a look from another actor, an idea from the subtext, etc. and then the play would open to some success or even failure, but at least I’d gotten thru it. Then the thought would occur, “Aha, I’ve fooled them again! They haven’t found out yet that I don’t know how to do this.” Rex Harrison once said, “I have now gotten to the age when i must prove that I’m just as good as I never was.”
I love actors and by extension, the theater. I love the minutia that surrounds them both. I love listening and telling Green Room war stories. I love the onstage triumphs and yes, I love even the disasters. They make for better war stories. I love the adrenaline that shoots thru every actor onstage when something goes wrong, and the relief that sweeps thru when some heroic actor saves the day. And even though it still scares me, I love performance. That time when the human beings onstage interact with the human beings in the audience and together they create the event of performance. It’s one of life’s most civilized experiences.
And I love the curtain calls. I know it is not considered cool to admit that, but I’m too old to be cool. Even when I’m not in the play, I enoy sitting backstage and hearing the call on the monitor, and then watch the actors sweep thru to their dressing rooms from the stage. They are raucous and loud, talking about what went wrong and what went right, was it a good or bad audience and whose costume ripped down the middle. They carry with them as they come offstage – heat – the heat of performance.
It has been said that an actor must have the hide of a rhinoceros, the courage and audacity of a lion and most importantly, the fragile vulnerability of an egg. It has also been said and I’m not sure by whom, that the moment of not knowing is the moment that has the greatest potential for creativity. The professional and private lives of most actors are filled to the brim with moments of not knowing.
It’s tough to be an actor. But actors will do it anyway. They are survivors and will continue to strive because they have the need to celebrate, in performance, that sacred communion between actor and audience.
*What is a movie hero? An un or under-sung member of the filmmaking community who deserves more of the spotlight. And yet lack of such a spotlight often adds to their charm.