Actor, Photographer, Director, Poet, Philanthropist
Boston University College of Fine Arts Commencement Speech
May 19, 2012
Thank you, Dean Juarez……
Division Directors Lynne Allen, Robert K. Dodson and Jim Petosa.
Faculty, families and, of course, graduates. I think President Brown must have been stunned when he Emailed an invitation asking me to do this and got a “yes” response in about ten minutes. To reject his invitation would have been highly illogical.
I am a walking, talking bundle of gratitude. I grew up in this great city surrounded by academia, the arts and a powerful wave of immigrant energy. I was lucky… I met people who took me by the hand and said, “Try this…look at that…” and early on I had a sense of what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be.
I suspect that some of you graduates aren’t there yet. You haven’t decided exactly what you want to do or how to go about doing it. That’s Okay….. Yes, It’ll worry your parents. Keep in mind what Robert Frost said. “Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” …… Hang in there.…….Life unfolds. And for those of you who know exactly what you want to do…good…now , all you need to do is find someone who will pay you for doing it.
I have three words for you. Persistence, persistence…persistence.
Sixty five years ago I saw Ted Williams hit home runs at Fenway park. I learned to sail on the Charles river. I sold newspapers at the corner of Boylston and Arlington….in the winter..
From where I lived it was a ten minute walk to Boston Garden where I watched the Celtics, the Bruins and the Ringling Brothers Circus. The neighborhood was called The West End. Three and four story attachéd brick buildings, A tenement area populated by immigrants approximately 65 percent Italian and 30 percent Jews living side by side and identifiable by the smell of the cooking as you walked up the stairs.
We had neighbors named Santosuosso and Spinale and Rabinowitz and Cohen. The Italian iceman who delivered blocks of ice before we had a refrigerator learned enough Yiddish to talk to his Jewish customers who had not yet managed the English language.
I first stepped on stage when I was 8 years old at 357 Charles St. The Elizabeth Peabody Playhouse. Well, the playhouse is gone but for years you could see a sign on the spot which said, “If you lived here you’d be home now”.
It was a community settlement house which was created to help immigrants find their way into the culture. They offered classes in language, cooking, shopping, kitchen sanitation, dental care and how to apply for a job. There was a gym and a sports program.
And there was a small gem of a theatre. When I was 8 years old I was asked to sing a song…probably, “God Bless America”, and I was cast as Hansel in a production of Hansel and Gretel. It was something to do after school and on weekends and I continued to perform there in various children’s productions for several years.
When I was 17 I was cast in the role of a teenager in a play called “Awake And sing”. This was my first time in an adult production. The play was written by Clifford Odets and concerned a Jewish family in the Bronx very much like my own in the West End. Three generations living in one apartment. The young man I portrayed was experiencing the same concerns that I had at the time.
How do you find the right job? How do you find the right girl ? Who am I supposed to be and what am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?
Well maybe some of you have experienced what I felt doing this role in this play. I was electrified.
The author gave me a voice when I was struggling to find my own. This piece gave an audience illumination about their own lives. I thought if I could do work like this for the rest of my life I would consider myself blessed. I had found my path.
Around this time I had a welcome bit of affirmation. I was seen in a play by a Jesuit priest who ran the theatre program at Boston College. He offered me a scholarship for an 8 week summer theatre program. I grabbed at it. It was classes every morning, rehearsals in the afternoon and performances at night, after which we would help build sets for the next week’s show and often fall asleep on the stage and start the whole thing all over again in the morning. I loved it.
And I was totally comfortable, this Jewish kid from a Yiddish speaking family, at a Jesuit school, being blessed daily with “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys”. I’ll always be grateful to Father John Bonn.
The last job I had before leaving Boston was selling vacuum cleaners on Boylston Street. The money I made went to pay tuition at a theatrical school in California. Don’t ask me why I didn’t go to NY. I still don’t know. “Life unfolds”. I got on a train at South Station and spent 3 days and three nights in a coach seat. I was excited. I knew without a doubt what I wanted to do and I believed I had something to give.
After 6 months at the school I dropped out. I feel safe in telling you that I was a dropout because you’re graduating today.
I paid $400 for the first year and when I abruptly left I got a refund of $47.00. Why did I dropout ? I felt I wasn’t getting what I needed.
In fact, I wasn’t sure of what I needed, but I knew I wasn’t being touched or inspired. The work I was involved with in Boston as a teenager was better than what was being done by the graduate students at the school. Now, full disclosure. Some of the people who stayed in school were helped later in building their careers by the network of folks they met in that school.
I hit the streets making the rounds of agent’s offices. Within a year after leaving the school I was on a soundstage in costume and acting on film. Not much came of it although I had high hopes. Maybe what sank the project was the title. It was called “Zombies of the Stratosphere”. And in case you’re wondering, the answer is “yes”… I was a zombie.
It would be almost 10 years before I would become a student again. In the meantime I jobbed around in small roles in smaller productions. But I was gaining experience. I worked at various low level jobs, spent two years in the U.S. Army, got married and had two kids and came back to L.A. with little money and the tiny scraps of a career.
I drove a taxi at night so that I could be available for auditions during the day. One night I picked up Jack Kennedy at the Bel Air Hotel. Yes, that Jack Kennedy. Senator from Massachusetts at the time and future president. We chatted about careers,….politics and show business and we agreed that both had a lot in common. Maybe too much in common. He said, “Lots of competition in your business, just like in mine,” And then he gave me this. “Just remember there’s always room for one more good one”. …Words to live by, and I did.
After ten years in California I had developed my craft and then…I finally came to understand what I needed to learn. Spencer Tracy, when asked about acting technique said, “Know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” He had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
If acting is to be considered an art one needs to learn more than the superficial craft. This is true of any work in the arts. What is the work about ? What does it say to a contemporary audience ? What light does it cast on our lives and on the issues which concern us and connect us ? Indeed, how does it help to heal the world ?
I found a teacher who put me in touch with these issues. The craft that I had acquired over the years served it’s purpose as a foundation. I was introduced to theme, to substance, to sub-text. My work improved and I began to support myself and my family as an actor for the first time. I was 35 years old. I came to be recognized as a useful performer who would bring something personal to a role…..Then came Mr. Spock. It took 15 years, but I was ready. I was on my game.
Still, I hesitated…. I took my work seriously.
Did I really want to put on those pointed ears? A wonderful curator and the founder of the New Museum in NY named Marsha Tucker said. “Do what scares you”. Well…It scared me…And I did it.
My folks came to US as immigrants, aliens, and became citizens. I was born in Boston, a citizen, went to Hollywood and became an alien.”
Spock called for exactly the kind of work I was prepared to do. He was a character with a rich and dynamic inner life. Half human, half Vulcan, he was the embodiment of the outsider, like the immigrants who surrounded me in my early years. How do you find your way as the alien in a foreign culture ? Where does your identity, your dignity come from and how do you make a contribution ?
I’m reminded of a quote from John F. Kennedy as president. He said..“We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda. It is a form of truth”. For a large audience Spock was a truth.
The character, seemingly so foreign, was welcomed and was quickly enormously popular. And when for the first time in a wonderful script by Theodore Sturgeon, I said, ” Live Long and Prosper” and stuck up my hand in an ancient Hebraic gesture, the deal was done….
The impact on my life was intense. And I had to learn to deal with celebrity.
When the Star Trek TV series was cancelled after three seasons, and folks are shocked that it was only three, I was hired to work on the Mission Impossible series. I was thrilled. The series was visual, cinematic and I got to play a wide variety of characters in makeups and dialects. I played Asians, Europeans, South Americans, businessmen and hippies. In the second season, the same characters came around and I thought I would go out of my mind. Not only was I being asked to do the same characters, more importantly, they had no inner life. They were charades. The demands on me were totally superficial. No substance, no inner life. No truth.
I was dying a slow, creative death and I asked to be let out of my contract which still had three years to run. I was let go and I never looked back.
Since Star Trek went on the air 46 years ago I have never been without work. I have given hundreds of performances in films, television and theatres including Broadway and stages across the country. The North Shore Music theatre in Beverly and the Cape Cod Melody Tent where I acted in Fiddler on the Roof and Camelot. The WilburTheatre on Tremont Street where I presented my one man show about Vincent Van Gogh.
I never worked drunk and I never worked high, though I must say I paid my respects to smoking and booze., I smoked a lot of cigarettes and all the good that came from it was to send some tobacco growers kids thru college….. and what I got was a pair of beat up lungs.
Respect your body. It’s a vital part of the creative process.
The alcohol got a firm grip until I gave it up 23 years ago.
Our creativity walks on the razor’s edge, using both sides of the brain. The left side of the brain gives us logic and discipline. On the right side is instinctive, creative thinking. We,as artists, need both. Fall to the left and we lose inspiration and originality. Fall too far the right and we are in danger of drifting into undisciplined chaos. The secret of a long, healthy career in the arts is the successful walk on the razor’s edge.
Here’s a description of the artist’s life. “Edwin Booth heard the solemn whisper of the God of all arts. ‘I shall give you hunger and pain and sleepless nights. Also beauty and satisfaction known to few and glimpses of the heavenly life. None of these shall you have continually and of their coming and going you shall not be foretold.’”
As a kid we walked the Boston Common and the Public Gardens and I was intrigued by the inscription on a fountain there. It’s from Ecclesiastes. It says…, “Cast thy bread upon the waters for thou shalt find it after many days.”… Not long ago I tweeted that and what came back was ” Cast thy bread upon the waters and you’ll get soggy bread.” Well,….I reject cynicism. To me that inscription means..what goes around…comes around.
You are the curators of your own lives.
You create your own life and work.
Give us your best…give us the best of your art. We crave it. We hunger for it.
Help us to see ourselves…to know ourselves.
Illuminate our lives.
And keep in mind what Victor Hugo said. “Popularity is the crumbs of greatness.”
And please….PLEASE. For the sake of our culture, for the sake of mankind….don’t create any more reality TV shows.
And , of course, Live Long…and Prosper.