Published in KPBS On Air Magazine April 1994

“You Betcha!”

It’s the ideal exclamation from the guy who’s played Will Rogers, Harry Truman and Teddy Roosevelt. Expressions like that pepper the speech of internationally acclaimed actor James Whitmore, and make him sound downright down-home, though he hails from White Plains, New York and lives in the back-woods of Malibu.

There’s something genuine and unprepossessing about the affable veteran of stage, screen and television.   At 72, Whitmore is energized by his latest project, the West coast premiere of “Dirt” by Bruce Gooch (at the Old Globe Theatre, March 24- May 1).

In the play, a 73 year-old patriarch battles Alzheimer’s disease, and his 40 year-old son reluctantly returns to the family farm, where he discovers his love for his father and for the land.   Whitmore is close in age to the character; he has three natural sons and two step-sons (as well as two step-daughters).   He comes from a farming family, and he’s watched his parents descend into “what was in those days called senility.” It’s all pretty close to home.

“After a certain point in your life,” he says, “nothing is really that terribly distant — or distressing.   There’s the omnipresent reality of aging, incompetence, incontinence. You have to embrace them somehow. Acting it helps. It’s exploratory and enriching.”

Whitmore considers “Dirt” to have “a wonderful, stark nature… lots of sentiment but a total lack of sentimentality…   Gooch writes with rhythm, muscularity.   He writes better, frankly, than O’Neill.”   That playwright also tackled father/son conflicts and coming to terms. “It’s an eternal relationship,” says Whitmore.   “They’re always in competition, especially when the dominant male diminishes. With the younger one coming up, there’s an inevitable clash, rarely resolved.”

Whitmore thought “it would have been marvelous” to do “Dirt” with his actor-director son, but that wasn’t feasible.   He was happy with author Gooch playing the son in the first production of the piece (at the Williamstown Theatre in Massachusetts last summer). He enjoys ensemble work and considers himself “a team player, not a solitary runner,” but he is the pioneer of the one-man show. He was hailed in “Will Rogers’ U.S.A.”, toured nationally as Teddy Roosevelt in “Bully!” and was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Harry S. Truman in “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!”

Whitmore has a history of going far, fast.   His first Broadway role (in “Command Decision”) won him a Tony for Best Supporting Actor and a Donaldson Award for Newcomer of the Year. His second motion picture (“Battleground”, 1949) earned him an Academy Award nomination.

His film career is long, varied and distinguished, ranging from “The Asphalt Jungle” to “Battle Cry”, “Black Like Me”, “Planet of the Apes”, “Kiss Me, Kate”, “The First Deadly Sin” and “Nuts”.   On the small screen, he’s been seen in numerous movies, as well as the series “The Law and Mr. Jones” (which he co-produced), “My Friend Tony” and “Temperature’s Rising.”

But the stage is his first love. (“There’s no machinery between you and the audience.   The great thing about living theater is that death is omnipresent”). Whitmore has done at least one stage production during each of his 48 years in show business. Originally a pre-law (football-playing) student at Yale, accepted into Harvard Law School, he was attracted by the “theatricality of the law, the Clarence Darrow part of it.”  

It was a bad time for student athletes in those days, and to earn $40 a week, Whitmore started the country’s first college radio station (“the signal went through the university heating system”).   The law still fascinates him today, but his head was turned and his life was changed after he served as a Marine officer in World War II. He gave up on becoming a Methodist minister, and became an agnostic instead. “During combat,” he says, “I decided there was no reason to have a firm belief in a deity. So many people didn’t make it. It was a wondrous thing to be spared. I decided to do something I really bloody well enjoyed.”

Whitmore lucked out. In 1948, he was one of 30 aspiring actors invited to participate in New York’s prestigious Actors Studio, the birthplace of American “Method” acting. He’s never lost his sense of appreciation for being a part of theater history.   “We felt as though we were the anointed.   I was 26. We were the young princes of the theater.   Julie Harris was in my group. In another group was Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward… But over time, the biggest thing I learned is not to take myself too seriously.”

These days, he doesn’t believe in making long-range plans (“I don’t even send my laundry out”) but he keeps busy.   Between gigs (“the gypsy lifestyle even got old when I was younger”), Whitmore smokes his pipe, gardens, spends time with his fifteen grandkids and reads a lot.   “Mostly history,” he explains.   “I gave up fiction a long time ago. I try to stay as close as I can to reality.”

©1994 Patté Productions Inc.