STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: There Are No Small Parts

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: There Are No Small Parts "It's not where you start, it's where you finish," sang Tommy Tune, in his breakthrough, Tony-winning role in Seesaw in 1973. But a mere eight years earlier, the future nine-time Tony winner was billed as one of "Three Killers" in Baker Street. What's more, one of the others was the then-unknown Christopher Walken.
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"It's not where you start, it's where you finish," sang Tommy Tune, in his breakthrough, Tony-winning role in Seesaw in 1973. But a mere eight years earlier, the future nine-time Tony winner was billed as one of "Three Killers" in Baker Street. What's more, one of the others was the then-unknown Christopher Walken.

How fascinating it is to stroll through old editions of "Theatre Worlds" and "Best Plays" annuals to see where and how some of our more illustrious performers started.

In 1962, Abe Vigoda was "Vagrant" in a production of The Cherry Orchard. Rod Steiger was "Telegraphist" in 1952's Seagulls over Sorrento. For The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial in 1954, a "Member of the Court" was one Jim Bumgarner, who eventually dropped the "Bum" from his name. Why not? In fewer than 1,000 days, and with a more formal "James" as his first name, he'd be far from a bum, and a TV star as "Maverick."

Michael Bennett was "A Delivery Boy" in 1961's Subways Are For Sleeping, while his eventual long-time associate Robert Avian was "A Beggar" in 1962's Nowhere to Go But Up, a show that sent him begging after a week's run.

The Sound of Music's eventual director, Vincent J. Donahue, was "A Poet" in Cyrano de Bergerac in 1953. Most fascinating is John Tillinger, now one of New York's most esteemed directors. Know what he played in 1969's Pequod? "Director." And for all of one night. Maybe that's why he gave up acting. There's the rub. An actor might not mind a small part so much if he's getting a steady paycheck. But what did Penny Fuller think when she played "Wedding Guest" in 1962's The Moon Besieged, for one performance? Paul Sorvino, "Officer" in 1965's Mating Dance, was also out of work after opening night. Tony (well, Anthony, really) Roberts was able to double their runs, what with his two showings as "Air Cadet" in Something About a Soldier in 1961.

Two directors of note played bits in the original production of The Skin of Our Teeth. Morton DaCosta, who'd later stage The Music Man, opened the play as "The Announcer." Later in the show, Stanley Prager (of Let It Ride infamy) portrayed an onstage "Usher."

Also in that production: Dickie Van Patten as "Telegraph Boy." Actually, that's a pretty good part, with a very nice first act speech. Less was required of Tony LoBianco, the "Head Bellboy" in 1962's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. Or Gregory and Maurice Hines, who, in 1954's The Girl in the Pink Tights, were respectively "Newspaper Boy" and "Shoe-Shine Boy."

Many a starting-out actor has played just-plain "Boy." Like Billy Dee Williams in A Taste of Honey in 1960 -- the same year Jeff Conaway portrayed "Boy" in All the Way Home. One Salvatore Mineo played "Boy" in Dinosaur Wharf, a 1951 four-performance flop. In 1969s A Patriot for Me, the "Boy" was Tom Lee Jones. (Funny; two years earlier, when he was at Harvard and starring in Coriolanus, he was Tommy Lee Jones. Guess for a while there, he wanted to seem a little more mature.)

"Boy," though, beats playing "Small Fry," which was Eliot Feld's part in 1954's Sandhog. And speaking of choreographers, Alvin Ailey was "Purple Bandit" in 1955's The Carefree Tree.

Military plays being what they are, there have been a lot of bit parts, from gob to general. Gene Saks was "Captain of the Patrol" in 1958's The Infernal Machine. Harry Guardino was a "Cadet Officer" in 1954's End as a Man. Peter Falk was "English Soldier" in St. Joan in late 1956.

Two months later, Falk was "Servant" in Diary of a Scoundrel, just one of the many stars who started out in theatrical domestic service. The late William Hickey, that Prizzi's Honor Oscar-nominee and esteemed acting coach, was "Concierge" in the straight-play revival of Tovarich in 1952. Charles Gordone, who'd write the Pulitzer Prize winning No Place Be Somebody, was a Valet in the 1961 production of The Blacks. The same year, Gene Wilder had the same job in The Complaisant Lover. A year after that, Charles Durning was "A Porter" in Macbeth. (Considering his considerable success, he undoubtedly never said the name of the show backstage.)

Tom Tryon was a "Waiter" in 1952's Wish You Were Here, and "Another Lackey" a year later in Cyrano de Bergerac. Maybe he felt he was going backwards, and that's why he quit the business to become a writer. It worked; he had many Gothic best-selling thrillers (including "The Other") in the '70s.

Vincent Gardenia was "The First Blind Man" in 1958's The Visit -- but at least he was the First. Jack Klugman had to be satisfied with "6th Citizen" in a 1954 production of Coriolanus.

You think Colleen Dewhurst was always an earth mother? No, for in a 1956 production of Tamburlaine the Great, she was "A Virgin." Well, for a while anyway. Later in the play, she was doubling as "Turkish Concubine."

Other doublers (and triplers) included Samuel E. Wright, who, in Jesus Christ Superstar, was "Reporter," "Apostle," and "Leper." By November 1959, Tom Bosley would be the toast of the town as Fiorello! but a year earlier, in The Power and the Glory, he was tripling as a "Villager," "Prisoner," and "Indian." Renee Taylor, meanwhile, did quadruple duty in 1967's Willie Doesn't Live Here Anymore, where she played "Stewardess," "Secretary," "Waitress," and "Fannie."

At least those character names are terms without judgment attached. Linda Lavin was "Crying Daughter" in A Family Affair in 1962. How did Hal Linden feel in 1967, when, in Illya, Darling, he was cast as "No-Face"? Anne Meara in 1957's Miss Lonelyhearts played a character identified simply as "Sick-of-It-All." The same year in Rumple, Elliot Gould portrayed "Weird One" -- which, if an interview I once had with him is any indication, was a case of solid typecasting.

In 1955, Tina Louise was "A Swimmer" in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? You'd think that that experience would have helped her to swim away from Gilligan's Island a few years later, wouldn't you? Yeah, we got a million of them. Dabney Coleman was "Guard" in 1961's A Call on Kuprin. Raul Julia was "Clerk" in 1968's The Memorandum. James Coco was "Professor" in 1957's Hotel Paradiso. Alec MacCowen was "Messenger" in a 1951 production of Antony and Cleopatra. Jerry Stiller was "Policeman" in a 1956 production of The Good Woman of Setzuan.

So who knows what the Playbills of the future will tell us. Maybe in 20 years, we'll be looking at the yellowed program from High Society and exclaiming, "Oh, look! Kirsten Wyatt! She was a 'Party Guest' in this show! And look at her now!" It's not where you start, it's where you finish.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star Ledger.
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com