"Call Me Adam" chats with award winning actor and playwright Jim Brochu about his new Off-Broadway one man show Character Man, a salute to the memorable character actors of Broadway, filled with hilarious theater stories and touching personal recollections. Sprinkled with juicy backstage lore, the show spotlights the careers of, among others, Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Jackie Gleason, George S. Irving, Barney Martin and Brochu’s own mentor, two-time Tony Award-winner David Burns.
Character Man plays at Urban Stages (259 West 30th Street) through March 30. Click here for tickets!
For more on Jim be sure to visit http://www.jimbrochu.com!
1. Who or what inspired you to become a performer? I was very lucky to have born at the right time (mid 20th Century) and the right place (New York City) to be able to witness some of the greatest actors ever born up close. My father was a widower who loved the theatre and so he would take me to Broadway shows at least once a week while I was growing up. He also had many friends in the theatre and so the backstage became as familiar to me as the front of house. There was an electricity in the theatre that I never felt anywhere else on this earth and I knew at an early age that it was a world of which I wanted to be a part. My father was a friend of Ethel Merman and so, seeing her in Gypsy, I aspired to do what she did. But then within a month I would get to see performers like Jackie Gleason, Walter Pidgeon, Rex Harrison, Gwen Verdon, Robert Preston, Richard Kiley, Alfred Drake and watched as the audience bathed them in thunderous applause and standing ovations. When I was 13 I gathered all the kids in my Bay Ridge neighborhood together and produced, wrote, directed and starred in a musical review. When I heard that applause and got my own standing ovation, I was hooked.
2. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? I always love working with actors that make me better. Acting is like a tennis match and the better the player, the better the game. I’ve had the wonderful fortune of working with some of my heroes already, most of whom are gone now. I know Nathan Lane and would love to work with him sometime. Also Bryan Cranston who I think is one of the greatest actors EVER!
3. What made now the right time to write and premiere Character Man? Because the old Broadway is disappearing. There are no more Merricks, Fosses, Champions, Bennetts, Mostels or Mermans. I feel like I was a witness to theatre history as well as being a link in a chain of character man. If my life is a play, I think I’ve just begun act three and wanted to tell this story while I still had the time and the energy before the curtain comes down.
4. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing the show? Just what I always came away with after a show…that the theatre is a great place to spend a few hours. Perhaps an appreciation of a time gone by populated with characters, the likes of which we will never see again. I hope the show brings these performers back to life through their work and through their music and I hope audiences leave the theatre with a smile on their face, a tear in their eye and a song in their heart.
5. Why is Urban Stages the perfect venue for your show? Every theatre is more than the brick and mortar of a building; it’s the people committed to presenting new works that change people’s lives. I don’t believe anything in the world has the power to change people more than theatre. I know it’s true of myself. The people who have dedicated their lives to Urban Stages –like its founding artistic director Frances Hill and producer Peter Napolitano have great passion for theatre. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Urban Stages gives tremendous support to us playwrights and actors to create an encouraging, safe atmosphere for an artist. Frances and her staff are some of the most fervent, talented artists I have worked with in a career that is now approaching 45 years. It’s also a perfect venue because I can walk to work.
6. What was the best part about going back through your life to come up with the material for Character Man? What was the hardest part? The best part was reliving memories while going through a lot of photographs from when I was first starting out. I knew all the character actors I celebrate in this show. They touched my life in a very personal way - being mentored by David Burns, making my first television commercial with Barney Martin, learning how to deliver a joke from Lou Jacobi, timing from George S. Irving and how to create a life in the theatre from Charles Nelson Reilly. The hardest part was feeling that I would never live up to their legacy and realizing just how much I still miss them all these years later.
7. You were also the writer and star of Zero Hour, about theatre luminary Zero Mostel. Looking back, what did you enjoy most about writing and performing this show? Zero is one of the actors I talk about in Character Man. I first met Zero through David Burns when he was appearing in Forum. He was a complicated man whose life was filled with obstacles, personal, political and profession, that he overcame with courage, style and humor. I had been compared to Zero since my high school days and as I was approaching the age he was when he died (62) I thought it was the right time to create a play about him. The play wrote itself and one of the great joys was that it brought so many new friends in to my life, most of whom were friends of Zero. A lot of them came to the theatre with arms crossed thinking "Who is this putz who thinks he can pull off Zero Mostel?," like Theodore Bikel, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara and Doris Roberts. We are all friends now. I used to start the show with my back to the audience at an easel because Zero considered himself a painter first. I used to love to hear the audience gasp when I turned around. There is no feeling in the world like knowing you have moved people to laughter and tears. And I think more than winning the Drama Desk or the Helen Hayes Award was the night that Zero’s son Josh Mostel saw the show, came backstage and said, "You got him!"
8. What's the best advice you've ever received? Two things. The first was given to me by a teacher who saw I could do many things reasonably well and it was to focus. Not to try to do everything in an average way but to find the greatest talent and be excellent at it. And an agent who once told me that if I was serious about a career in the theatre, I had to do something to nurture it EVERY DAY, without exception.
9. What have you learned about yourself from being a performer and playwright? They are two very different dynamics. Being a playwright is a very solitary, almost lonely profession. You sit by yourself with nothing but an idea, a pen and a piece of paper. Then when the play is finished it attracts the army of producer, director, designers, stage managers and stage hands to fully realize your idea. It’s always been fulfilling to me as a playwright that my thoughts have turned into jobs for people that I had never known before who became very important in my life. As an actor, there is no happier place on earth for me than being on a stage in front of an audience. Playwrighting is theory, performing is the proof of your pudding. There is no more rewarding feeling in the world that to write a joke, think it’s funny and then hear an audience explode with laughter. It makes all the lonely hours worth it.
10. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? I’ve always wanted to be able to fly. Maybe I’ll do Peter Pan one day. But of course a character man would rather play Captain Hook.
Jim Brochu is the only actor in America to win New York’s Drama Desk Award, the Washington D.C. Helen Hayes Award, the Los Angeles Ovation Award and Florida’s Carbonell Award. He won these prestigious honors for Zero Hour, which he wrote and in which he portrayed the great Zero Mostel for over six hundred and fifty performances across the United States and Canada. Jim has appeared on Broadway in many special events, including Brigadoon, playing Andrew McLaren in opposite Christine Ebersole and Len Cariou, and Oliver!, taking on the role of "Mr. Brownlow" to Brian Stokes Mitchell’s "Fagin." Most recently Jim played Broadway's legendary Palace Theatre starring opposite Tony Sheldon in Broadway Backwards 8, directed by Robert Bartley. In Washington, DC he was "Willy Clark" to Theodore Bikel’s "Al Lewis" in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys and Harry Binion opposite Eddie Albert in Room Service. Brochu made his Off-Broadway debut in the 1968 American Place Theatre production of Endicott and the Red Cross by Robert Lowell, followed by Ephraim Kishon's Unfair to Goliath at the Cherry Lane. Recently, he starred in the Off-Broadway revivals of The Man Who Came To Dinner as "Sheridan Whiteside" and as "Sir" in The Roar of the Greasepaint; The Small of the Crowd at the York. He is the author of two books, ten plays and three musicals (The Last Session, Manhattan Clam Chowder and The Big Voice: God or Merman?) written with his partner of 30 years, Steve Schalchlin.