My kind of fame
I just finished reading the remarks by Richard Robichaux in the most recent Dramatics magazine. Those remarks struck home. Robichaux’s definition of fame, I discovered, is precisely the kind of fame I would like to possess. It is the kind of fame that my principal teacher in graduate school has with me. Joel Friedman’s influence on me was profound. He taught me artistic integrity. He taught me about analyzing and telling the story effectively. He taught me to communicate the story physically through what I do and how I do it on stage. He broke acting down into its simplest terms. He did brilliantly and effortlessly what I spend every day trying to do. To me Joel is famous.
Under his guidance and influence at Temple University, we spoke of becoming artists. Many of us claimed that we’d never do anything for money or fame. Most of us ruled out doing commercials and soaps and television because we would never compromise our artistic standards for anything so common as paying our rent. We’d wait tables and clean apartments, gladly. We’d do secretarial work, or starve, if need be. But we would never compromise our artistic values. Though Joel never imposed such standards on us, and was probably totally non-judgmental about what an actor did to survive or prosper; to us, simply thinking about acting in terms less worthy of art seemed a betrayal of what he taught us. But, we were all pretenders.
Within months, those of us who moved to New York quickly discovered that doing commercials and soaps and industrials brought us far closer to our artistic intentions than scrubbing a toilet bowl for money ever could. And finding a residual paycheck in the mailbox for a commercial we shot months before was far more gratifying than doing a workshop of that bad new play for no money at all. I quickly learned to take pride in my extra work on soap operas. I tried to bring the truth that Joel demanded to my under fives at Tony’s Bar and Grill on the set of One Life to Live. I searched for the core of truth as I played Chef Arnaud in a Folger’s commercial. I planned my exact physicality as I stood in uniform next to Yogi Berra at Yankee Stadium for an AT&T ad. It was probably my Field of Dreams. And as the Bell Ringer Price Reduction man for a supermarket chain, I fully played my objective to sell product. My tactics varied. That work may not have been Hamlet, but it was compelling—a favorite word of Joel’s, and now, mine.
I am sharing all this with you now because my acting teacher, mentor, and friend, Joel Friedman, died last week. I found out about it just after reading those remarks by Richard Robichaux. Would that be irony? I realized immediately that Joel was the most famous man I ever knew. The news of his death buckled my knees, and sat me on my butt for several moments. My life as an actor and as an acting teacher montaged through me as the news sunk in. As the frames of my life clicked by, I saw Joel in every shot. I have been carrying him with me every day now for over thirty-five years. Nothing would mean more to me than to know that he considered me an artist made from the same teaching cloth that he wore.