|This is the eighteenth in a continuing feature at IndustryCentral profiling "The Working Actor". (See Archives below)
William Shakespeare said "There are no small parts.....". William Shatner may have said it too, but the longhair with the tights was first, or so the reports go. In this feature we will explore what it really means to be an actor working in Motion Pictures and Television.
Broad public acknowledgment may have eluded some who find their way to these pages, or perhaps they may have brushed against what is referred to as stardom by virtue of one or more remarkable performances. However for many, the rewards of plying their craft in a field which has allowed them to earn a living may exceed the burdens of public acclaim. Given the chance, some in this clan might prefer the longevity offered by anonymity over the potential for short lived fame.
These individuals, either by design or fate, have managed to sustain a career by crafting performances which rendered them a good casting choice. They are usually thought of as a face you recognize, but you just can't get the name past the tip of your tongue.
Most of these folks have spent countless hours on stage in theaters ranging from 20 seats to 2000, building characters from the works of Ibsen, to Eliot, to Williams, to yes even Shakespeare, and so many of the modern Playwrights. They have rounded their skills doing drama, comedy, & musicals. Their work is a serious venture.
These people have given us screen performances which quite often were the catalyst that brought an Oscar or Emmy to another and yet they continue to work as "Characters" or "Co-Stars" without the trophies and plaques adorning their mantle.
|James Whitmore Jr.|
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James Whitmore Jr. was born into the home of peripatetic, bombastic and pure actor; James Whitmore and his understanding and charming bride Nancy. Little Jimmy was inundated with the harrowing realities of the performers life.
The bone chilling insecurities of waiting out the next job. The undeniable need to perform in front of somebody, anybody! Oftentimes forcing the helpless offspring of the volatile thespian to stand vigil as the actor frothed forth with dramatic tellings of historical minutiae, playing all the characters himself; i.e. Geo. Washington, Honest Abe, Albert Einstein (with full accent) or whoever. The clear madness of the craft surrounded the children as surely as the air they breathed.
Subsequently, it made complete sense that when little Jimmy came of age, and needed to choose a profession. Acting would be the only choice. So after a year of college, futilely trying to pass as a legitimate normal person. Jimmy was forced to throw up his hands and accept the crushing truth, that the only course open to a person of his type, was the dark and much sullied road of the 'actor'.
Off to New York and the 'Golgotha' of show biz. Enrolling at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he began to explore the beknighted corridors of this ancestral curse.
Sitting on a stage at school, soon after his arrival. The truth of his dilemma started to emerge. For all his involuntary indoctrination into the craft, Jimmy still had yet to realize the true power of the 'Curse".
As he sat on the rehearsal stage in "Acting class", he came to terms for the first time with the magic of the craft he was dealing with, he realized that he could be whoever he chose to be. He could express whatever emotions he wanted and no one would hold him responsible for them. You see little Jimmy was 'A COOL GUY', it was not cool to show the world who we were in those days of the 60's.
But as an actor, all the feelings that had, by force, been locked up, could now come flowing out with impunity. This little boy was free! He had a place to live and breathe and he thanked his father and God for the "curse".
He set to work learning how to conjure with this newfound magic. After two years of broadstroke study at the Academy. He returned to California and home. It was the 60's, as we've said, and the world was alive with, Lyndon Johnson's, "Great Society". One adjunct of the shifting times in America was the money that was being spent by the federal government to help heal the wounds that had been created by the horrible racial crimes of our nation against Africans, Latins and ethnic minorities of all types. As an off shoot of this there was a program in Venice, California. Set up to involve the kids of the local "lower class", neighborhoods, in the arts. Acting, music, writing and dance. Little Jimmy got a job there talking about acting to kids who could not have felt farther from the craft.
What they soon discovered though, was that they all could fantasize, that they all could play. "We decided that one of the truly compelling ideas of our lives was that we were different. Black or brown vis-a-vis so-called white."
They did improvs, the young people of color would be Klansmen, Jimmy would be a member of the Panthers. They played that way for awhile exhausting all of their prejudices about how one felt about the other. Then they switched and talked from their own reality and discovered that they really understood very little about how each of them really felt. They learned! The acting "curse", had struck again. It had given them the ability to communicate with and from who they were.
During this time Jim also got his feet wet in the professional arena. Auditioning for T.V. jobs around town. Learning that nobody wants to take a chance on the unproven. Reading well, with no prior experience, can often mean, no job. But you gotta keep throwing it out there until somebody is willing to pick it up, he learned.
First job! One scene on a network T.V. show! James Whitmore Jr. was on his way. He thought, but, "I didn't do another professional job for 5 years"
James was young and got wanderlust. He travelled the world for a few years. He ended up in Trinidad and Tobago working on a production of "The Lark", by Jean Anhouil. Directed by a friend he had met in school in New York. This friend it so happens had a very beautiful and charming sister-in-law. "I could not resist. Her name was Salesha. She and I will have been married 29 years this coming March 28th."
After getting married, they moved back to California. It was now time to make a real living and he didn't feel that he could do that with acting so he went to work for the L.A. County Flood Control and later for American Tobacco, selling cigarette displays to liquor stores around the L.A. area.
Needless to say, the curse was still coursing through his veins, and he was not too pleased with his situation in the workaday world. One night, laying in bed, Salesha turned to her husband and said, "If you don't go back and try acting, you will never be happy."
"She knew me so well. Once bitten, it was for life ,just like a vampire".
As luck would have it, an old friend, Ralph Waite was about to start fulfilling one of his dreams, and that was to start a theatre run by actors for actors. He needed someone to help him as a carpenter and house manager. Still carrying the curse. Jim said he would do it if he could read for some parts in his productions.
He did a small part in, O'Neill's, "The Hairy Ape". "It was thrilling to be on stage again. Especially, with actors like, Mitchell Ryan, Victor Arnold, Lazaro Perez,and Wilford Brimley. Directed by the likes of Mr. Waite. I was in heaven."
The next production of the theater was to be, 'The Kitchen", by Arnold Wesker. The day of the read through (Jim was to play a small part of a Vietnam War Vet who wanders into the kitchen for one scene in the last act) the actor who had been cast as the second lead could not make it due to work in a T.V. show. The producer and director (Mr. Waite and Gwen Arner, respectively) asked Jim to read the part for the read through. They felt that he would have no designs on the part, being to them, a neophyte.
Unbeknownst to them, the curse had once again inveigled itself into Jim's life. "My brother-in-law and myself would spend a couple of hours every evening working out. Cold reading off the page with each other. Blowing with, Fugard's, 'Bloodknot", or Albee's,' The Zoo Story". The latter with it's classic monologue," The Story of Jerry and the Dog". 12 pages of performance to blast through and make connections off a page."
So when they asked him to cold read at "The Kitchen" read through, he was ready to play. Well, The guy who was working, lost his part. Probably, in large part, because Jim was in the right place at the right time. But also because he never stopped working, even when he wasn't getting paid.
"The Kitchen", was the big break for Jim. Two or three weeks into the run, after getting some really good reviews, Reality yawned again. Whitmore was nearly broke. Four kids a wife and bills. A paycheck of $55 a week from the theater, was not going to cut it. On the way to the show that night Jim told his brother-in-law, "If I don't get something soon, it's back to selling cigs to liquor stores."
During the show that night Jim heard a laugh in the audience, He thought he recognized it. After the show, the stage manager approached Jim to tell him that an old friend of his from the Academy wanted to come backstage to see him and she had someone with her. When he said this last he seemed to get excited. Even though the actors who were in the show are well known today. In those days most were looking hard for work. The person who was with Jim's friend turned out to be the head of casting for Universal studios! One of the busiest studios at the time for movies and T.V. shows, and he liked Whitmore's work.
Just in the nick of time, a miracle!
Well, the friend, who's name was Milt Hammerman. Had Jim in his office that Monday morning. He put Jim in mini series. He put him in episodic T.V. shows. James Whitmore Jr. was working in the film business as an actor. That was mid-1975, and from that time to this, he has never stopped working.
After a year of working around town on various jobs, Jim was cast in a series called "Baa-Baa Blacksheep". "Doing a series proved to be a great experience, as I got to work everyday in front of a camera. Playing the same guy day in and day out. Going deeper and deeper into a character. It was as much fun as I'd had up to that point as an actor."
It continued to get better and better. After his first year on,"Black Sheep", Jim got a chance to act in his first feature film," The Boys of Company C", directed by Sidney J. Furie. "We shot the movie in the Philippines. My curse had taken me half way around the world. I was an actor and the world was my oyster."
The next thing that happened when he returned from Asia was just as amazing. He got a call from "The Rockford Files", asking him to come play a guy with James Garner. It just seemed to be one thing after another and he was on his way.
For about eight years, Jim kept busy in the theater, in films and television. "I pretty much never stopped working. Learning and working, working and learning."
In the spring of 1984, a guy Jim had done a lot of work for, Stephen J. Cannell, asked him to be in a new series that he was producing called, "Hunter". Jim boldly said he would, if Cannell would let him direct one of them. Amazingly, he agreed.
So in November of 1984, Little Jimmy began a new career. Directing actors in T.V. shows and movies. Since that day he has shot upwards of 150 hours of film for television. Such shows as, "Wiseguy", "Quantum Leap", "X- Files", "Dawson's Creek", "21 Jump Street", "Profiler", "Pretender", "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", "Roswell" and many many more.
It has been a dream come true for an itinerant thespian. "All I did was just keep doing the work whether I got paid or not. And I ended up getting paid in so many ways I never expected."
James Whitmore Jr.'s advice to the aspiring actor:
James Whitmore Jr.'s Credits (partial)
FILM & TV
Notable TV guest appearances
|WORKING ACTOR ARCHIVE|
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