Published in KPBS On Air Magazine January 1996
‘You can’t make a living in theater,’ his parents said. ‘Unless, maybe, you teach.’ So, after graduating from New York’s State College at Albany, and serving in the infantry in Eastern France, the dutiful son, Harold Gould, went on to Cornell, and completed a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Theatre. And he did, in fact, teach. At Cornell, at Randolph Macon Women’s College in Virginia, and at UCLA. But once he arrived on the West Coast, he decided to try his luck at making a living as an actor.
Cut to 1996. The 71 year-old Gould has appeared in more than 300 television shows, 20 films and 100 stage plays. But his doctorate wasn’t in vain. It brings him the perfect measure of articulate erudition needed to play the imperious Isaac Geldhart, centerpiece of “The Substance of Fire” by Jon Robin Baitz (through February 18, on the Old Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage).
Geldhart is, according to New York Times theater critic Frank Rich, “one of the most memorable and troubling characters to appear onstage this season” (1991). Geldhart, a holocaust survivor who has become a literary power-broker, spews arcane illusions, laced with caustic wit and seething anger. He’s a thrilling intellectual, emotional and linguistic challenge for Gould.
“In the first half of the play,” says Gould, “he is cutting, sharp, almost brutally frank, combining contemporary argot with elegant language. In the second half, we see another aspect of the man. He’s kind of splayed open. More vulnerable, struggling to find himself after he’s cut off from what energized him and gave him a reason for living.”
Some critics have complained that the piece is more like two plays than two acts. Not even the characters remain the same, except for Geldhart, a man who lives every day with a profound sense of guilt, anger and betrayal.
He battles his three emotionally scarred children for control of his cerebral and specialized publishing house. He loses. In act two, 3 1/2 years later, reclusive, depressed and alone, Isaac wrangles with a visiting social worker. His ruthless superciliousness and absolutism seem a long way from the affable, pensive Gould.
“I relate to his keeping of high standards,” says Gould. “He believes that it’s necessary for people to operate at the highest level — intellectually, culturally, ethically and morally. He hates the meretricious attitudes in our culture, and I relate to that… At times, he’s a flawed individual. He can’t relate in any compassionate way to his children. He denigrates their achievements. But I suppose every parent finds that his kids don’t come up to standards…..
“In the second part, he’s struggling to gain connection to human beings. It’s such a trauma to be uprooted by your kids…. Maybe he’s brought on his self-destruction. Maybe he merits punishment. He excites a lot of hostility and contempt. But he’s refreshing in that at least he’s authentic; he’s not a hypocrite. He’s not very nice, but he is a very interesting, very complex character. That’s what attracted me to him. That, and the sharpness of the language.”
After he saw the play in New York, Gould, who had earlier worked at the Old Globe in “The Skin of Our Teeth” and “Love Letters”, called to say he would love to do the role. Everything was set for early 1992, but Baitz pulled the play as part of a political/financial dispute between the Dramatists Guild (which represents playwrights) and the League of Resident Theatres (organization of non-profit theaters).
“The newness isn’t there any more,” says Gould. “The play’s already been done in regional theaters. But the challenge still is. At my age, I’m only interested in work that’s challenging.”
Recently, Gould has taken on two of the theater’s great challenges: Prospero in “The Tempest” and “King Lear”. Those two “tremendous and wonderful mines of discovery” took place at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. The setting so inspired Gould that he’s building a home on the side of a mountain, two thousand feet up from Cedar City, where the festival is held. He also has residences in Santa Monica, New York and Palm Springs. He runs every day, and works out with a personal trainer. He and his wife of 45 years travel to Nebraska, Montana and Pasadena to visit their children and grandchildren.
He doesn’t seem to be slowing down, though he talks about it. He just did a Disney movie (an update of “The Love Bug” with Dean Jones). He periodically tours in Lynn Roth’s one-man show, “Freud”. He and fellow-actor Alan Rosenberg are about to take “Old Business”, a potent father-son confrontation, to Chicago and then Off Broadway. And he can still be seen on reruns of “Rhoda” and “The Golden Girls,” as well as in movie rentals of “The Sting,” “Love and Death, “The Front Page,” and others. He relishes his live readings of short stories and his extensive voiceover work.
He sounds content with what he’s done and is doing. The Shakespeare was a life-affirming experience. “It was an eye-opener,” Gould confesses. “About my ability to imagine, to create, to call on my inner resources. And about my remaining capacity, and my stamina.” It’s likely that Isaac Geldhart will put all those skills to the test.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.