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A Talk With Tony Randall

By Richard O. Jones
Journal-News - Hamilton, Ohio
April, 1996

Most men his age have long given up their professional lives, but Tony Randall just keeps going, shows no sign of slowing down.

There''s no need to, really. There''s still a bounce in his step as he enters Miami University''s Studio 88. His shortcropped hair looks a little mussed from the drive from the Greater Cincinnati Airport, but otherwise he looks crisp and sharp in his navy blazer and tastefully striped tie -- and nearly three decades younger than his 76 years.

His deep, resonant voice, while not quite booming, fills the room with authority as he tells a group of theater students about the craft of acting.

``Acting isn''t about emotion,'''' he tells them. ``You don''t come on to feel something, you come on to do something.

``To act is to do, not pretend.''''

He tells them that he can''t give them any advice about pursuing a career because so much as changed from when he was a young actor. At the time, Broadway was doing 200 new plays a year, but now the system is such a wreck that it''s very difficult for actors to find meaningful work.

Not enough attention is being paid to classic theater, he says, and he got tired of waiting for someone in New York to put together a group that would concentrate on the classics, so he assembled the National Actors Theatre, where Randall is currently serving as the understudy for George C. Scott in ``Inherit the Wind.''''

The executive producer of the National Actors Theatre is Manny Kladitis, 1969 Miami University graduate, who arranged to bring Randall to Oxford earlier this week to spend a day as artistinresidence, culminating with a peformane of Camille SaintSaens'' ``The Carnival of the Animals.''''

Randall accompanied the Miami University Symphony by reciting Ogden Nash''s supplementing verse, and afterwards gave a short speech in support of the National Endowment of the Arts.

But what left people gasping was not the verse where in a bit on Australian cuisine ``boomerang'''' is rhymed with ``kangaroomeringue'''' nor his eloquent defense of the NEA, but the revelation of his age.

But it adds up. You see him in the old movies on television and most of the people he worked with are either dead or long out of show business. He starred with Wally Cox in ``Mr. Peepers,'''' a pioneering television show.

He begins his speech by proclaiming 60 years in the business (He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1920) and later sits down for a little one-on-one.


Where did your first acting jobs come from, television, theater or movies?

I got little jobs around Tulsa when I was still in high school. And then when I was 18 I had my first job when I was away from home and earning my own living. That was in the Catskills. They used to have over 100 hotels, but people don''t go to the Catskills anymore for their vacations. You can go to Europe so cheaply now. Every one of them had a staff to entertain the guests. We had an opera singer two, a man and a woman a pop singer, a tap dancer, a comedian, and I was the allpurpose. I had to do everything. I got ten dollars a week and board and room. It was 10 weeks work and I saved 90 dollars and bought an overcoat.

When did you make your first movie?

I didn''t make my first movie until I was 38. I had been a stage actor all that time.

You''re known mostly as a comedic actor. Do you see yourself as one, or is acting acting?

Acting''s acting. I consider myself a character actor.

We don''t have a record of all the plays you''ve done, but we do see you in the movies. Are there any that stand out in your mind or make you grimace?

I didn''t like most of them. I like three or four. I made 40. You always begin with high hopes. You begin with a script that reads very well. You think, `Oh, this is good material.'' Then somehow by the time it''s up there on the screen, it''s lousy. You don''t begin with a bad script, or one you think is bad. I thought ``The Mating Game'''' turned out good. ``Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter.'''' The three with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, they all turned out good. A movie I made for television called ``Sidney Shore,'''' turned out good. We made it into a series called ``Love, Sidney.'''' That''s about it.

Really?

`Seven Faces of Dr. Lao'' turned out good for me, but I didn''t think it was a good movie. The book is good, and my part of the movie is the book. Then they added a love story and they added this and added that, and none of it was convincing.

You told the student actors that there was something terribly wrong with the theater system. What is wrong?

Our commercial theater has shrunk drastically. We used to do 200 shows a year on Broadway, we now do three or four. The reasons are primarily economic. As costs have gone up and ticket prices have gone up, we''ve eliminated most of our audience. The average New Yorker can''t afford to go to the theater. Tickets are 65 dollars apiece. How can he take his wife and children? It''s not family entertainment anymore. So it''s become an entertainment for tourists who don''t care what they spend. They''re there to have a good time.

And may not even care what they see.

They don''t. If they can sit through ``Miss Saigon'''' and ``Sunset Boulevard'''' and ``Cats,'''' they clearly don''t care what they see. They just want a big, splashy Broadway show. They''re not critical; they''re having a good time. So that''s all we do, these big, splashy empty musicals for tourists and serious theater has suffered. We never do important plays anymore, good plays. The theater that brought us ``A Streetcar Named Desire'''' and ``Death of a Salesman'''' doesn''t exist anymore. That''s what''s wrong. At the same time, the other arts in America are flourishing as never before. When I was growing up there wasn''t such a thing as a ballet company in America. None. There are now 50. Symphony orchestras, opera companies, everything. The arts has simply boomed. Someday a doctoral thesis will written about it. It''s all because of the National Endowment of the Arts with those matching grants. It''s been a howling success. But not theater. We don''t think of theater as art. We think of theater as commercial. Supposed ot make money. And it does, occasionally. You don''t expect a ballet company to make money. So we support it. And even with the National Endowment way down, we''ll continue to support them. We''ll find a way. Because people love them and want them. They mean so much to business and they''ve saved many a downtown from utter desolation. And that''s what''s wrong with the system. We must learn to think of theater as an art. We''re too big a country for a national theater like every other country has. Every state should have a theater. We should have 50 doing the classics, just as those ballet companies do ``The Nutcracker'''' and ``Swan Lake'''' theater should be doing all the great plays people. People should grow up seeing them. It''s a part of their heritage.

Do you also think that television has put a few nails in the coffin?

Yeah. In a way it''s been very good for America. In ways it''s been terrible. I blame TV for our illiteracy. It''s our national tragedy. On the other hand, millions of people have seen the opera at the Met. Sometimes it''s pretty wonderful. Sometimes not, but that''s OK.

There''s going to be a whole generation of people who will know you just from your appearances on David Letterman''s show.

I know it, all the kids.

How did that come about?

I live five minutes away, so they know they can get me. They need someone they call. I can''t say no because they send a car. It works out fine. It''s never rehearsed.

My favorite was during Woodstock. You came in covered with mud.

Four days in a row. It was a terrible experience. The mud was ice cold, and he keeps that place freezing.

Do you mind that being known for it?

I love it, it''s fun. And it keeps me alive in show business.