Edward Herrmann Dons Pope’s Garb in New Play

by Kay Bourne

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday March 11, 2009

Over a long and meritorious career, Edward Herrmann's performances have superceded his celebrity.

He earned Best Actor Emmy nominations for his portrayal of American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the made-for-TV movie, "Eleanor and Franklin" (1976) and the sequel "Eleanor and Franklin, the White House Years" (1977) (he also appeared as Roosevelt in the movie version of the musical "Annie" (1982)). Other Emmy nominations came his way for guest appearances in a six episode story arc on "The Practice" (1999) and for his guest starring role as Father Joseph McCabe on "St. Elsewhere" (both of which are set in Boston). He also played Tobias Beecher's father on "Oz," which aired on HBO from 2000 to 2007, and is familiar to younger audiences for portraying Richard Gilmore on the CW's "Gilmore Girls."

Ubiquitous, Herrmann has had an equally productive film career, beginning with playing Robert Redford's partner in "The Great Waldo Pepper" with some highlights along the way of the piano-playing Klipspringer in "The Great Gatsby," playing opposite Sir. Laurence Olivier in "The Betsy," and Goldie Hawn's rich husband in "Overboard." Fans of the cult vampire film "The Lost Boys" will remember him as Max, the mild-mannered vampire who terrorizes a cast of Brat Pack actors.

On Broadway he starred in such varied plays as George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession," David Hare's "Plenty," and Michael Weller's "Moon Children."

You know his voice too from "The History Channel" (where Herrmann, a well known automotive enthusiast who restores classic automobiles also hosts the television show Automobiles) and various PBS specials, and, as well, he's been the "voice of Dodge" for twelve years. He's recorded dozens of audio books, including Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged, and won Audies for this work.

A Great American Character Actor

He is, in short, one of America’s great character actors.

In Boston native, historian Richard N. Goodwin’s "Two Men of Florence," which runs through April 5 at the Huntington Theater, Herrmann plays Pope Urban VIII. Opposite him is another Broadway and film actor, Jay O. Sanders, as the scientist Galileo. This year, by the way, is the International Year of Astronomy, marking the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope (which led to his backing Copernicus’s theory that the sun, not the earth is the center of planetary motions, a notion that was heresy to the church).

These 17th century powerhouses, once friends, now adversaries, engage in one of the epic philosophical struggles of all time. Sanders is also a familiar face, most recently in the films "Revolutionary Road" and "Cadillac Records." Boston theater audiences know him from playing the title character in Commonwealth Shakespeare’s "Macbeth" on the Boston Common in 2003.

It was Sanders who convinced Herrmann, whom he’d worked with before, to join the production. The match-up will be a battle of the titans, as both men stand over six feet tall and are heavy weights, theatrically speaking, as well.

Over lunch at a nearby restaurant, Mr. Herrmann talked about the professional life that has brought him to this point.

The summer following graduation from Bucknell, Herrman landed his first job in the theater - doing anything that needed to be done, from house manager to going to the airport to pick up the stars of the touring shows that came into the Detroit summer stock theater: Andy Devine, Dan Dailey, Maurice Evans, Celeste Holmes, and Caesar Romero. "I grew to feel reasonably comfortable around all of them," he reminisced.

Vivian Blaine (the original Miss Adelaide in "Guys and Dolls") had her sunglasses on as she came off the plane. "I think she might have been drunk the night before," reasons Herrmann, who said she seemed "fragile." Blaine was "always sweet to me," he continued, "but she had a mouth on her." On the way to the theater, Herrmann pointed out Detroit native, the eccentric inventor/designer R. Buckminster Fuller’s edifice suspended from its large geodesic rubber dome roof. Blaine exclaimed, "Jesus Christ!" It looks like an elephant’s diaphragm."

upper photo: Edward Herrmann.

lower photo: Jay O. Sanders and Edward Herrmann in "Two Men of Florence."

A Collaborative Art

That fall, Herrmann joined the Dallas Theater Center, a major regional theater which continues to take promising tyro actors for paid apprenticeships. (In more recent years, the artistic directorship has been taken by veterans of Providence’s Trinity Square Theater, first Trinity’s founder Adrian Hall in 1982, and very recently Kevin Moriarity who became DTC’s fifth artistic director in 2007 following his being an associate director of Trinity.)

When Herrmann came to DTC, the company was housed in a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a tour de force for him and a point of civic pride for the city. Its artistic director was Paul Baker, head of the drama department at Baylor University who had some unconventional ideas about how plays can be presented - on the stage, over the stage, under it, or in the house itself. "The Center was away from the limelight," said Herrmann, "but theater artists came to perform and direct (drawn by the sheer exhilaration of working for Baker)."Here, Herrmann did everything from play a pirate in "Peter Pan" to running props, learning along the way that "theater bloody well is a collaborative art." He found the experience of hanging lights, working on sets, and so forth not only fulfilling, "I nearly stayed on the tech side," but also beneficial to himself as an actor. "You have to understand what’s possible for the production side to offer, and what’s not."

A primary influence on Herrmann is James Nelson Harrell, who after studying theater with Paul Baker in the 1930s, was invited to join Michael Chekhov’s Acting Studio in Ridgefield, Connecticut. (Russian born, Michael Chekhov, a nephew of the playwright Anton Chekhov, is widely regarded as one of the greatest actors of the 20th century. No less than the master director and drama theorist Constantin Stanislavski referred to Chekhov as his most brilliant student.)

Harrell returned to teach at DTC, offering a one degree in separation to Chekhov in his instruction. "I learned all my Russian technique through Jim without going to New York," says Herrmann. "It was wonderful. It wakes up your whole instrument to the physicality and to your imagination. You can saturate yourself in a role, never neglecting the ’cover’ of the part - the voice, movement, clarity." Herrmann feels that the version taught at the Actor’s Studio in New York, on the other hand, results in audiences hearing mumbling and seeing the tops of people’s heads.

Through the years, Herrmann has forged many friendships in the theater, among them Roddy McDowall, another outstanding character actor of stage and films (from the "Planet of the Apes" movies, 1968-1973, to one of his final roles Mr. Soil in "A Bug’s Life," 1998). It was McDowall who convinced Herrmann to give his theatrical papers to Boston University’s Gottleib Center.

"I was talking to Roddy about where I might send my archives. Bucknell has no archives to speak of. I thought perhaps UCLA. ’No, no, no, dear! he said." Because of Howard Gottleib who’d started the collection of theater people and other artists’ archives in 1966 he felt it should be Boston University. Roddy, like FDR, knew everybody!"

Herrmann zeroxed materials and piled the originals into boxes and sent them off to the library. Later when he gave a talk there, the host said, Would you like to see your archive? "I had sent them 26 boxes of stuff and they had neatly labeled everything and had it computerized as well. I had even forgotten some of what I had sent. Roddy had told me send everything, scribbles included. Throw it all in boxes." Herrmann is delighted that his papers are where scholars can make use of them.

He’s also pleased to be at the BU Theatre, where he had previously performed "Dear Liar" opposite Jane Alexander in 1981, a year before the Huntington took over the space. (Herrmann had been paired with Alexander to star in the television biographies of "Eleanor and Franklin" in the mid 1970s also produced by television impresario David Susskind.) Herrmann’ had forgotten his earlier association with the theater, in part because he feels he didn’t behave as well as he might have on the set, until he went into the dressing room: "Oh, I know these bricks!" he realized.

"This is such a dangerous profession; I haven’t done a play for three years, and this one is so hard," he says of the challenging "Two Men of Florence," which he is immersing himself in. "It’s the syntax. The hard vocabulary. It’s mind freezing this stuff. The hardest I think I have ever done. But, I’m fascinated with it."

photo: Edward Herrmann and Kevin Kline in a scene from the film "The Emperor’s Club>"

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