My mother always maintained that I should be an actor. She and I bonded as movie lovers, when I would stay up late watching Creature Features and Chiller Theatre with her, and she would often encourage me to imitate the characters we'd just seen -- Dracula, the Wolfman -- my impersonations gave her a chuckle. She urged me to overcome my shyness and get on stage, which I never did. Not in her lifetime, anyway.
Well, that's not entirely true. I had a brief cameo in a sketch we performed in the Harrison High School Gong Show my senior year. Harlan Zimmerman was playing the principal of the school, Dr. Goodhart, and I was his loyal henchman, the assistant principal, Mr. Hunter. I portrayed him as a Secret Service agent, complete with dark glasses and a lapel pin. I didn't say a word, but I managed to bring the house down, when I pointed to a particularly rowdy segment of the audience, in exactly the way I'd seen Hunter point at a group of my more detention-prone friends. I don't think my mother was in the audience that day, but my sister Jessica was, and she, like my mother, pushed me to try my hand at acting.
As an underclassman at Syracuse, I appeared in a handful of student films, giving performances of which I was generally less than proud. I remember Gordon Antell, one of the student filmmakers, saying, "I like working with Dan because if you put a fireman's helmet on him, he looks like a fireman, if you put a cowboy hat on him, he looks like a cowboy." I think he meant this as a compliment, but it made me wonder whether I was more of a prop than an actor in those short films.
I did take a significant step when I decided to enroll in a class during my junior year called "Acting for Non-Majors." It was basically a Scene Study class. I can't remember whether we discussed doing it together or not, but one of my best friends, Ruben Howard, also signed up for the course. Coincidentally, a good friend from my childhood, Barry Brown, was also in the class, as was Darryl Bell, who went on to be a successful actor, appearing in Spike Lee's "School Daze" and as one of the stars of the Cosby spinoff, "A Different World". Our teacher, Larry Tackett, was a lovably prickly man who I always thought of as a mix of Burl Ives and Garfield the Cat. After one of us would give a long-winded, convoluted bit of feedback to a fellow student, Larry was fond of taking a breath and saying, "Be that as it may, Sally Brown," before giving his own, more concise response. I also recall that he'd get us to be quiet by saying, "Okay, people, cool your jets. Let's bring it down to a dull roar." And he used to require us to keep a journal for the class, in which he would interact with each of us privately, writing his appreciations of our comments, and asking us thought-provoking questions.
A turning point came when I decided to perform a monologue that I found in a compilation of high school playwrights. The one I chose was from the point of view of a teenage boy who had just attended his mother's funeral. This would have been about 1984; I had no way of knowing, of course, that I would have this very experience about four years later. I allowed myself to get caught up in the honesty of the words and did my best to deliver them as frankly as I could. When I looked up, signifying that I had come to the endpoint of my scene, I sensed that the room was somehow different. My classmates appeared reluctant to look directly at me. There was some sniffling and wiping of eyes. One girl excused herself, made her way down from her place on the risers that served as our seats, and left the theatre. Larry mentioned a detail, the way I hugged myself at one point, holding onto my sweater as though it were my mother; "What a wonderfully vivid choice," he said, amid much nodding. I didn't have the nerve to say that I didn't think it was a "choice" at all, as I hadn't planned for it to happen.
There was talk after that performance of my possibly changing majors. Larry introduced me to the head of the drama program, Arthur Storch, best known for his portrayal of the psychiatrist in The Exorcist. The one who gets his balls crushed by Linda Blair. "I heard about your monologue," he told me. "Sorry I missed it. Sounds electrifying." I didn't know how to respond to that, so I muttered a thank you. The three of us discussed the notion of switching into the drama program as a junior. By the end of the discussion, we all agreed that there was too much ground to be made up and that it would mean a year and a half's worth of coursework. And tuition. "I hope you'll continue to study acting, just the same, even as an English major," Mr. Storch said. I told him I hoped so too.
My mother was, of course, excited by my interest in theatre and one Christmas she gave me Uta Hagen's book, "Respect For Acting." She didn't say anything, just that she hoped I'd enjoy it. In it, she had also inserted a newspaper clipping, a story profiling HB Studio, the acting school that Ms. Hagen and her husband, the late Herbert Berghof founded in the aftermath of the McCarthy years.
I enjoyed the book, and it did make me want to continue acting. I was caught up in the idea of going off to Europe with my girlfriend at the time, so much of my energy went into making that happen. Then my mother got ill. And by the time she died, on November 18, 1988, I still hadn't appeared in a play. I was 25 years old.
When I got up the emotional strength to return to Madrid, I vowed to honor my mother's wish. I sought out and found English-language theatre groups, auditioned for them and got in. The first one I worked with was called Teatro Tespis and was an educational theatre company that did simplified versions of Shakespeare plays for Spanish middle school students learning English. My first live performance in a play was in "The Merchant of Venice" as Bassanio, the ingenue. (I was often cast as the ingenue in those days, when I was young and pretty.) Still, I had a good time with it and, with my mother very much present in my heart, I had a successful debut, in a middle school auditorium in Madrid, packed with 2,000 students. Heidi, our director, told me afterwards, "It's official. You're an actor, and if you can make it with this audience, you can make it anywhere."
I also worked with a group called the Madrid Players -- a band consisting mostly of expatriate Brits and Americans who put together pretty respectable productions. I played Lysander, another ingenue, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and was proud of both my performance and the production, directed by a talented Englishwoman named Janet Gordon.
Eventually, I became too homesick for New York, and for my family there, and I said goodbye to Madrid and to my theatre friends. One of my first acts when I returned was to go to HB Studio and sign up for classes, and I had the great fortune to study with William Hickey, perhaps best known for his portrayal of the aging Don in "Prizzi's Honor." But I didn't just want to study; I wanted to act, as well. Luckily, my friend from Syracuse, James Savoca, was doing interesting things off-off Broadway and was open to me coming along for the ride. We wrote and performed sketch comedy in a really fun group called "City Soup" and did a night of one-act plays that we wrote and acted in with a separate group called "Crowded Theatre." (See photo, above.) I've since had the pleasure of helping James with early drafts of the films he has gone on to make, and I got to do table readings with Drea de Matteo and Chris Messina among other very talented actors, in participating in the casting process.
Of course, my life has little to do with acting and the theatre these days. I'm so grateful to people like Larry and Heidi and Janet and James and even Gordon, way back when, for giving me the opportunity to honor my mother's wish, and to tap into an aspect of myself that I needed to explore. I've moved on to other things (education reform, fatherhood, etc.), but I do sometimes wonder to myself whether there might still be a few roles out there still waiting for me to play them...