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When the Tony Awards are handed out on Sunday night, there will be plenty of boldface names vying for Broadway’s highest honor—Bryan Cranston, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyne Daly, and Tony Shaloub, to name a few.

But among this year’s nominees is an actor you’ve probably never heard of, even though he’s been around for more than four decades. Reed Birney has spent much of his career working in New York’s downtown theater scene—far from the lights of Broadway—or playing small guest parts in television series (Law & Order and its various spinoffs, The Good Wife, Gossip Girl). At 59, Birney (CFA’76) is enjoying his first Tony nomination, for his performance as Charlotte in Harvey Fierstein’s critically lauded drama Casa Valentina, also a Tony nominee, for best play. Set in 1962, the play is the true story of a group of mostly straight men who gather each year at a Catskills resort, where they can safely don high heels, wigs, and dresses.

As Charlotte, Birney plays the villain. In his New York Times review of the play, Ben Brantley describes Charlotte as “the embodiment of McCarthyist-style villainy, proof positive that fascist instincts are as likely to be harbored under a Chanel-style suit and false bosom as under a brown shirt.” The role has earned Birney the kind of reviews that actors dream about. Brantley calls his performance “persuasive,” and “effortless-seeming,” while USA Today cites his “hilariously starchy” portrayal as one of the highlights of the production, which also stars Patrick Page, Larry Pine, John Cullum, and Mare Winningham.

After years toiling in relative obscurity off-off Broadway, he describes his Tony nomination as unbelievable. “I feel a little like Alice in Wonderland, this topsy-turvy world I have never been in before,” says Birney, who earlier this week won a Drama Desk Award for his performance. “I’ve had my whole career pretty much downtown in New York, so the Broadway thing has always seemed exotic and far away. An unscalable mountain.”

He says that when he learned of his nomination, he was reminded of the lyrics from the Kander and Ebb song, “A Quiet Thing”—“‘When it all comes true just the way you’ve planned/It’s funny but the bells don’t ring./It’s a quiet thing’—That’s what it feels like.”

Growing up in Seaford, Del., Birney says, he always wanted to be an actor. “I remember seeing The Wonders of Aladdin with Donald O’Connor (Hon.’98)—dreadful, but not to a five-year-old—and thinking, that’s for me.”

Birney in a BU production of Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, at the Boston University Theatre in 1974. Photo courtesy of Reed Birney

He was accepted to Julliard, but turned it down for BU. “I thought 10 hours of acting class a day would make me hate it, and I wanted to have some sort of college experience,” he says. Impatient to begin his career, Birney left for New York after two years, but says there are quite a few things he stills carries from his time at BU, among them “certain vocal exercises, and some movement techniques that Joe Gifford taught.” And the actor remains “great friends” with a number of his classmates, but says only a handful are still acting.

He landed his first Broadway role in the smash hit Gemini. But it would be more than 30 years before he returned to the Great White Way. What followed were some very lean years. “I tried to play the game for many, many years, and in my case it didn’t do me any good,” he recalls. “I would take a part I wasn’t interested in because I thought it would be a good move career-wise. It invariably was a disaster.”

“Do ya cry in this one?”

He tried leaving acting several times, most seriously in 1986, he says, “when I could feel the business killing me. I was so sad and despairing, I literally felt myself shrinking.” He moved to Paris for five months, then spent the rest of the year traveling around the world. But sitting by a cornfield in Bali, he experienced an epiphany. “I am an actor,” he says. “For better or worse. That’s just it.”

Birney moved back to New York, returned to the theater, and began earning a reputation for playing nice guys. “I’ve often had to cry in plays when playing the nice guys,” he says. “I’ve been teased by friends when telling them about a new role, and they will say, ‘Do ya cry in this one?’” His work began to attract notice, bringing him an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Performance. Reviewing his performance in the drama Dream of the Burning Boy in the New York Times, Charles Isherwood writes that Birney is “quickly becoming New York’s foremost actor in a particular subspecialty, communicating the grief of average men facing extraordinary loss.”

Birney began his Broadway career in 1977, but has spent most of it working off-Broadway, in New York’s downtown theater scene. Photo by Matt Harrington

In 2008, Birney was asked by his friend actress Marin Ireland to appear with her in the off-Broadway play Blasted. Cast against type, Birney played a ruthless journalist who rapes and maims. The part also required him to be naked on stage.

“The offer came out of the blue and when I read it, it felt like they’d made a terrible mistake, like someone was asking me to play Stanley Kowalski,” says Birney. “The script terrified and sickened me. But then I thought, they’re not asking me to play this part to do me a favor, they think I can do this and be good. If they think that, why do I think I won’t be? And if I turn it down because I’m scared of it, then how can I ever complain again about not being taken seriously as an actor?”

Diving into the role was both “incredibly empowering and liberating,” he says. It also proved to be a game-changer. Critics took notice, and Birney was offered the supporting role of the henpecked Howard Bevans in a 2012 Broadway revival of William Inge’s Picnic, his first role on Broadway in more than 35 years. Hilton Als, reviewing the production for the New Yorker, writes that “Birney runs away with the show.”

Audition by cell phone

That performance led to other offers—as Representative Donald Blythe on the hit Netflix series House of Cards, and as Hubert Humphrey in the American Repertory Theater’s production of All the Way, starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ. It was during that run that Birney received a call from his agent saying that producers were interested in him for the role of Charlotte in Casa Valentina. “I read the script and was interested instantly in playing her,” says Birney, who used his cell phone to make a video and sent it off as his audition. Fierstein and the producers called two weeks later with an offer.

Charlotte, the pivotal character he plays, is “the most wonderful part, glamorous, smart, articulate, passionate, ruthless, and determined,” says Birney. “Harvey knows how to tell an entertaining story above all else, and it was fascinating and fierce and sad. A very brave piece of work. Who wouldn’t want to be in this play?”

Birney says he wasn’t at all nervous about taking on a role as a transvestite. “I was actually excited since I felt like it was the one thing I had never done in a play.” (His only previous experience performing in drag, he says, was in a 1974 BU production of Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae.) That said, he admits to a moment of apprehension during the first day of rehearsal, when during a costume fitting for all the actors, they put a bra on him. “I thought I was going to pass out,” he recalls. “It occurred to me for the first time that I was really going to have to do this, lay down the masculine badge that all men carry and fearlessly go there.” He says the cast of mostly male actors was terrified the first week or so, but because they always rehearsed in dresses, wigs, and high heels, it all became normal quite fast.

Some of the cast of Casa Valentina: Patrick Page (from left), Birney, Nick Westrate, John Cullum, and Larry Pine. Photo by Matthew Murphy

He does very little to prepare to portray Charlotte each night, Birney says. “Simply putting on the outfit and wig and the nails does it all for me.” But the role has brought out behavior that continues to surprise him. During a recent performance, he found himself onstage “smoothing my dress in a way that I remember my mother and a million women from my childhood did. I hadn’t planned on it, but there it was,” he says. “Witnessed behavior that had made its way into my DNA and was finding its way out.”

After 40 years on stage, Birney, who also teaches acting, has some hard-earned wisdom for aspiring thespians. “You have to know and decide that you are a lifer as an actor. And if you are, then there’s nothing to be done but accept it. I also think there is no dishonor in leaving the business. But you have to be willing to hang in there.” The married father of two has some other advice as well: “Have a rich life out of the business, because that will sustain you and make you a better actor.”

He’d be thrilled to win the Tony Award Sunday night, Birney says, but win or lose, he is savoring this moment in his career. “I have been a very lucky duck, and so grateful for all the great people I’ve gotten to know and work with,” he says. “There were many, many hard times and lean years and heartbreaking moments. But I can see that it has all unfolded perfectly, and I wouldn’t change a moment.”

Other BU alums nominated for 2014 Tony Awards are producer Frederick Zollo (CFA’75), for best play for Casa Valentina; producer Stewart F. Lane (CFA’73), for best musical for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder; producers Allan S. Gordon (LAW’75) and James L. Nederlander (CGS’80), for best musical for After Midnight; and Christopher Akerlind (CFA’85), for best lighting design of a Broadway musical for Rocky.

The Tony Awards ceremony will be broadcast on CBS this Sunday, June 8, at 8 p.m. EDT.

Casa Valentina, produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, is running at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. Purchase tickets here.