Monday, January 25, 2010

On Michael Moriarty...

When I was long about 17, I decided I would be a professional actor. I grew up in a small town in Missouri and to aspire to something so odd was, well, odd. But I was very lucky because I had this really genuine drama teacher in High School by the name of Doug Allbritton. He wasn't your typical High School drama teacher. He had actually been a professional actor in NY for a time and had made a cognizant decision to give it up for a teaching position and a family life. That decision informed the trajectory of my life. So there I was in small town Missouri playing roles like Ben in The Little Foxes and Charley in Where's Charley, all under a very sure and experienced hand. He and his late wife, Nancy, fed me books and films and music that otherwise I simply would not have had contact. Very fortunate for me, indeed.

So there I was at 17 keeping a journal about acting. One night around this time Doug and Nancy had me over to watch a film called Bang the Drum Slowly. A movie with Robert DeNiro (which is why I wanted to see it) and a guy named Michael Moriarty (whom I had never heard of). I still have that very pretentious journal written in scribbly, self-important handwriting from 1978. The entry for that night reads, "Saw Bang the Drum Slow (sic) tonight. DeNiro is very good. But there's another actor, Michael Moriarty, that I can't take my eyes off. He's amazing. Hopefully we'll work together someday." As God is my witness, that's exactly what I wrote.

Skip ahead to 1985. I had been in NYC for a few months and couldn't get arrested. Couldn't even get my foot in the door anywhere. I was bartending at a restaurant in the basement of the Empire State Building. Working the day shift and its really slow and so I'm sitting there one day skimming through Backstage (that's the actor's trade paper for NY) and tucked away on a back page in the paper is this little square in the corner that says simply, "Michael Moriarty Teaches Acting" with a number to call attached.

Could this be THE Michael Moriarty, I was thinking? I called the number. Some girl said, yeah, be there at seven on Wednesday night at blankety-blank address. So I wrote it down. Now, mind you, up to this time I had taken classes all over NY trying to find someone I really connected with as an actor. HB Studios, Uta Hagen, Stella Adler, Circle Rep, many others. None of it was enlightening for me, all just a bunch of yapping, an unfortunate extension of the worst of academia. Nobody was actually teaching ACTING.

So Wednesday rolls around and I go to the address. Turns out its IN Michael's actual apartment. So for whatever reason, I thought the time for the class was six instead of seven. I arrived an hour early. The doorman gave me a quizzical glance, but buzzed me up anyway. The door was ajar and I heard piano music wafting out of the apartment. I later found out Michael is a world-class jazz pianist. I knocked lightly on the door and when no on answered, simply walked in (I was from Missouri, what did I know?). Down the long hallway and into the huge living room. There sat Michael Moriarty playing some Duke Ellington, swaying slightly, eyes shut. I cleared my throat and he looked up. Of course, he was the very picture of kindness, even though I was way early. Invited me to sit and brought me some cookies and hot tea. I was simply stunned. He asked about my career (of which I had no answer cause I didn't HAVE a career). We chatted, I told him I was a big fan and had enjoyed his work since I was 17. I remember asking him what it was like to work with Robert DeNiro, a question I'm sure he'd fielded before. He said, "I have no idea. I didn't ever get to know him. He never came on set as himself, he never broke character." I thought that was neat.

Anyway, actors began to drift in...Charlie Sheen, Jo Anderson, Brad Greenquist, working actors all. To say I was intimidated would be the understatement of the century. We gathered in another huge room in Michael's apartment and everyone started working on monologues and scenes and poetry and screenplays and one person even sang a song. I sat in the back transfixed. Finally, after about three hours, Michael looked at me and said, "Chris (I didn't have the courage to correct him), got anything for us?"

It is important to understand that I had already learned more about acting in one night than I had in the previous five years of classes. Here I was, working for an actor, one of the best in the world, that already had two Tony Awards, two Emmy Awards, two NY Film Critic Awards, Three SAG Awards, several Golden Globes and a ton of others too numerous to mention. Here I was, about to show my stuff to a guy that Frank Rich had called, upon seeing his Richard III at Lincoln Center, "the most riveting actor on the NY stage since Brando."

So I got up and did a monologue. And there was silence. After a few moments, Michael said, "Uh, ya got anything else?" So I did another one. More silence. He said, "Got something comedic?" I did another one. Silence. "Got a Shakespeare?" I did one. More resounding silence. "Got any character pieces?" I did another. Silence. "You got one with an accent?" I did it. I think I ended up, remarkably, doing eight monologues for Michael, back to back, without a single comment on any of them. When I finally finished the last one, he said simply, "See me after class, Chris." I was devastated. I had done my best, it wasn't good enough, and he was going to refer me elsewhere. Perhaps to some Special Olympics class.

Around eleven o'clock everyone started filtering out. I shuffled around until it was just us again. Michael said, "Thanks for sticking around. Listen, you don't need to be in this class." My stomach flipped. "I teach a very small master class on Thursday. This class is gravy for you, you're way beyond what I do here. I'll see you on Thursday." My feet didn't touch the sidewalk as I skipped to the N train. One of the top ten or twelve actors in the WORLD had just told me I was too good for a normal class, that I needed to be in his "Master" class. I don't remember exactly, but I think I actually wept a bit. Maybe I COULD do this after all.

That night was one of three or four hallmark moments in my life. Paradigm shifts. Everything changed. I embarked on Frost's "road less travelled." And it was about to make all the difference.

Michael Moriarty taught me more about the craft of acting over the next five years than I had thought possible. He teaches the actor how to ACT not how to PREPARE to act. He is one of a handful of bonafide geniuses I have ever met. In addition, for whatever reason, he chose me to be one of his proteges. He took a personal interest in my career. And eventually, he even learned my first name.

You wanna see some brilliant work? Go to your local Blockbuster, or look through your Netflix and pick up a mini-series from the late seventies called HOLOCAUST. It stars Michael Moriarty, Meryl Streep, James Woods, Rosemary Harris and Fritz Weaver. Watch Michael in it. Because it really doesn't get any better than that. He is the finest actor I have ever seen or personally met, even now, twenty four years later.

See you tomorrow.