It's interesting that Michael McKean and the actor who both preceded him and succeeded him as Dick Jensen in Gore Vidal's The Best Man — Mark Blum — make the same slip-of-the-tongue about their character, referring to him as a "stage manager" rather than a "campaign manager." Essentially, though, stage-managing is what Dick Jensen does. He pulls strings from the sidelines to get his candidate the presidential nomination. This is a period comedy set in 1960, when such momentous matters were settled at political conventions amid much confetti and rhetoric.
Nine weeks into the play's current Broadway revival at the Schoenfeld, a car struck McKean, shattering his leg and his lifetime record of never missing a performance. When it was clear he couldn't return to the role, producer Jeffrey Richards shot a midnight text to Blum: "Call me first thing in the morning. I want you to be Dick Jensen, again."
He had hired Blum for the part when the play was first revived in 2000, so the actor knew the turf and the words and brought it off on nine days' notice. "I had to work," Blum allows, "but the words did come back a little easier than if I'd never known them. There are certain neural passageways in my brain, which have these lines in them somewhere, but they're crusted over. I had to break through some barnacles."
Now, it is suggested, he is old enough to play the character as a Republican. "I don't think that time will ever come," he mutters under his laugh. Indeed, Vidal pitched his play rather even-handedly, blissfully nonpartisan but politically savvy. "It's a completely different experience," says Blum, the man of both worlds. "First of all, the production is very different. The staging is all different. But mostly, the people are totally different. It feels a little like a dream where you think it's supposed to go in a certain way, but you look around and all the people are different. I open a door, and Angela Lansbury walks in instead of Elizabeth Ashley. I open another door, and it's James Earl Jones, not Charles Durning. It feels like I'm hallucinating instead of acting.
"Also, being Spalding Gray's campaign manager is very different from being John Larroquette's campaign manager. Spalding, bless his heart, was drifty. He lived in the clouds — and so, in a lot of ways, my job as campaign manager for him involved pulling him back down and making sure his feet were on the ground, that he didn't drift off into some sort of dream world. It was like I was holding together a fragile person, whereas John — John is a very grounded, focused person. With him, I feel he's more solid. In dealing with what in the play is his breakdown — with Spalding, I always felt he really did feel he sorta cracked up, and with John, it's more like he had a deep depression. You don't feel like he's in danger now emotionally."
A good actor, like a good campaign manager, adjusts seamlessly to such situations.
(This feature appears in the July 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)