THE LEADING MEN: Eric Schneider of Robin and the 7 Hoods & Bernie Kopell of Viagara Falls

News   THE LEADING MEN: Eric Schneider of Robin and the 7 Hoods & Bernie Kopell of Viagara Falls This month's column features a newcomer and a veteran: Eric Schneider steps into the shoes of Sinatra for the new musical Robin and the 7 Hoods, and TV's Bernie Kopell plunges into Off-Broadway's Viagara Falls
Eric Schneider
Eric Schneider Photo by Carol Rosegg

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GETTING FRANK

Eric Schneider should make a pretty convincing hoodlum. When the titular star — known to his gang as "Robbo" — of Robin and the 7 Hoods first rang me up, he was calling from an urgent care center in San Diego, where the new musical is now previewing at The Old Globe. He had a piece of glass lodged in his foot. Maybe "The Show So Tough Its Stars Dance On Glass" will be a solid tagline, but it turned out to be a minor wound, and Schneider was back rehearsing the next day. He and I spoke about the show, based on the Rat Pack film of the same name, his career so far, and getting Robin and Co. ready for Broadway. Here is your introduction to a very promising talent.

How is it going with Robin and the 7 Hoods?
Oh, man, it's going great. It's been just a blast since I got here. The cast is amazing. The crew and the creatives are just amazing, so as soon as we got here to San Diego, it's been like working with a bunch of really good friends, which is a lot of fun. Developing this new musical, we get a chance to create it from the ground up. It can be frustrating at times, but mostly, it's really exciting.

Had you spent any time in San Diego prior, or is this your first time out there?
Actually, I was here last year on tour with Grease. We played downtown. And I have family that lives in Carlsbad right now. So when I was a kid, I always dreamed of living out here. I came out here to surf as a kid. I can't really think of a much better place to get sent off to develop a new show. It's like 65 degrees and sunny every day. We go surfing in the morning before rehearsals, which is awesome. Obviously, Robin is based on the Warner Brothers Rat Pack film with Sinatra, featuring "My Kind of Town." Was it a movie that you were familiar with at all?
Actually I wasn't familiar with the movie, and to be honest with you, I haven't watched it to this day. I've seen other Rat Pack movies, and of course the original "Oceans 11" and stuff like that. Our version is very, very loosely based on the '64 movie. It's actually, from what I've been told, completely different. Kind of the same idea with robbing from the bad guys and giving to the good guys, but very, very different. I was thinking about watching it, but I didn't know how much relevance it would have. So instead, I just did a bunch of research, watching a bunch of Rat Pack stuff, some of their standup routines, kind of getting the sense of those guys and their relationships.

When you watch those movies and see clips of those guys — Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and others — in Vegas, the thing that stands out is their chemistry.
Yeah, they each know what the other one is going to do before they even do it. They're on the same page, and it's always like they've got some inside jokes going on. The playfulness is really what's so appealing. These guys were super, super talented, but just had such an ease and charisma. They had so much fun onstage. We're really trying to infuse the show with that kind of feel, that suave, fun-loving kind of thing.

Will Chase and Eric Schneider in Robin and the 7 Hoods
photo by Craig Schwartz

They say chemistry is something that can be hard to work on and create. Do you feel like the show is cast in such a way that it's easy for you?
Absolutely. We were just talking about this today, ironically, and we were saying what a credit it is to not only [director-choreographer] Casey Nicholaw but the casting people who put this show together. The cast from top to bottom, I think it's really a rare thing to be so in love with everybody in your cast. As far as my leading lady [Kelly Sullivan] goes, she's absolutely amazing. She's easy on the eyes as well, which doesn't hurt anything. We've got this great chemistry, and it happened right off the bat. Will Chase [playing Little John] is just a super guy. The first time I met him, we just hit it off, which is important. In the show, we're supposed to have grown up together. He makes that very easy. He makes that relationship — we both do — we make that relationship very believable. It's like we've known each other forever. Robbo's got to be kind of loveable, scampish. A little bit of a scoundrel, but the audience has to go for him. How did you attack that?
Robbo really is a big people person, and I'm very similar in that way. I think that the thing that I wanted to get across was really to bring out that charisma and that heart of gold and taking care of people, which I can relate to in my life. I attacked it with just trying to just charm the pants off everyone. Robbo is the kind of guy who goes around flashing his smile; there are no problems in the world. He just tries to make everybody feel at ease. But, really, I think it's about his heart and his good nature and how he truly cares about people. He can come across as suave and maybe full of himself, but it comes from a place of love. Love for his friends and love for the people in his neighborhood. I try to maintain this feeling of love for everyone. Like I'm everybody's big brother.

Did you ever think when you were starting out that you would ever be cast in a role created by Frank Sinatra?
Absolutely not. Truly, I'm a tenor. To be honest with you, I hate when other people sing Sinatra songs. It's like a pet peeve of mine. If somebody's singing a Sinatra song and it's not Frank, I don't want to hear it. I will never sing a Sinatra song at karaoke. That being said, it's been fun to sing his songs, but I'm like, oh God, people are going to want to hear Frank's voice on this! But I'm getting past that, I'm trying not to think about that. I'm just trying to do it justice, which they tell me I'm doing so far. I'm happy. The cool thing is it's not like it's a story about Frank Sinatra. It's not Frank Sinatra's biography. So I'm not technically playing him. Yeah, these are songs that he made famous and yeah he's Frank. But I'm not doing an impersonation. I've actually gotten notes saying, "Look, I know Frank may have done this or that, but what if you did it this way?" Nothing crazy, we're not taking songs up a couple of octaves because they decided I want to belt things out here. It's just little things, but I'm not trying to change much at all, the style, which was a big reason why people loved Frank.

I want to introduce you a little bit to folks who may not be totally familiar with your work. First off, where are you from and what's a little bit of your background and how you got involved in show biz?
I was born in New York, in Manhattan. I was born on West 19th… My parents are photographers. But I was raised and went to grade school through high school in New Jersey — in this town called Gillette, which is about a half an hour west of New York. So growing up, I always took a lot of trips into the city. I went to see concerts, and I got to see a couple of Broadway shows and just fell in love with performing. I was big into sports growing up, baseball, football, ice hockey... I also used to put on shows when I was a kid, for my friends and family. Then I was in a talent show a bunch of times, I had bands in high school, which is where I learned that I could sing. Then my junior year of high school, the choral director approached me and said, "I heard you sing, you should try out for the play." So I did and I quit baseball, which at the time was a huge decision for me. Looking back on it, it's kind of like a no-brainer. I quit, and I wound up getting the lead role in a couple of the plays. My senior year, I won an award called the Rising Star Award from Paper Mill Playhouse; that was when I started to learn more about musical theatre and that there's a possibility to have a career doing it. Once I saw what that world was, I fell in love with theatre and film, and I just totally got lost and I've been lost in it ever since.

Eric Schneider in Robin and the 7 Hoods
photo by Craig Schwartz

A "Jersey Boy" yourself, you eventually joined the cast of that show on Broadway. Do you have fond memories of that?
I do, it was my first and only Broadway show. I walked into the building, and I just couldn't believe I was there. It was cool to see how it works. I've done a bunch of theatre, and I've done a bunch of things leading up to it, but to be on Broadway was a dream come true. It was a really special time in my life. Most days, before I stepped in the stage door, I'd shake my head and be like, how the hell did this happen? This is the coolest thing in the world. I have really fond memories. I have some great friends that are very dear to me from there, and those are some experiences I would never forget. Some I would like to forget [laughs], some I don't want to forget. All in all, it was an amazing experience. My first Broadway show that I ever saw was Tommy, which was directed by Des McAnuff. Christian Hoff and Donnie Kehr were in Tommy at the time. Then when I got to Broadway, I'm in Des McAnuff's show with Christian Hoff and Donnie Kehr in the cast. That was a weird, full circle, and of course, I told them I was in fourth grade when I saw it, and they wanted to kill me.

How about giving us one of your more notable onstage embarrassments?
[Laughs] I've got a laundry list, but I'd say one of the worst, I was in Altar Boyz, and at the end of the show, Abraham, the character that I played, pulled all the boys together. The band's about to break up, so you know, Abe pulls all the guys together with this song that he's written. So he goes up to the music director who's on stage and he gives him a little piece of paper, and he goes downstage center with one beam of light, a single spotlight. And the vamp goes "doo doo doo doo doo," and I look out and I've done the show at this point, 200-plus times, and I had nothing. I had absolutely nothing. Blank. I turn around — now these have become my best friends, the guys that are in the show — and they can't help me because this is the song that I wrote to bring the band back together! I look at the crowd and I say "One minute." And I turn around and I go to the MD, and he goes, "I can give you the vamp again." and I said, "I don't need the freaking vamp! What are the words?" He goes, "Dude, one beam of light! You're standing in one beam of light." So I went down and I said, "Sorry folks. It's a new song. 'One beam of light…' and the rest of the time on stage, my friends are dying and looking at me like they're going to kill me and laughing. We barely got through the last number. We get off stage and they tackle me. It felt like an eternity that we're on stage waiting for me to say "One beam of light," so that the rest of the show can carry on. My legs were smacking together at the knees; it was ridiculous.

Last thing: "Boardwalk Empire." You're part of that exciting Martin Scorsese-Mark Wahlberg HBO project. Might that coincide with Robin coming to Broadway?
The show is going to be crazy and awesome, and I'd watch it if I wasn't on it. I play Sixtus D'Alessio, one of the brothers in the D'Alessio crime family, which rivals Steve Buscemi's on the show. It's going to be a killer show! We wrapped Season One. There are a lot of questions: if I'm going to be back on that show, if this show is definitely going to go to Broadway… It all remains to be seen. All good things to have to worry about!

[Robin and the 7 Hoods, featuring a book by Rupert Holmes and songs by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, continues to Aug. 22 at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Go to oldglobe.org for tickets and details.]

Bernie Kopell in Viagara Falls
photo by Carol Rosegg

LOVE…EXCITING AND BLUE He's not a doctor, but he played one on TV. Now, Off-Broadway, he's getting medical advice from his best pal about a certain little blue pill. Brooklyn-born Bernie Kopell, who made Saturday nights safe with his shipboard diagnoses on "The Love Boat," has returned to New York to co-star in Viagara Falls at the Little Shubert, and the karmic connections are everywhere, including this column. For instance, Kopell played Alan-a-Dale in TV's "When Things Were Rotten," a character also in Robin and the 7 Hoods (now Alana O'Dell) played by Amy Spanger.

Welcome back to New York.
Thanks, I grew up here. My whole career was really in California. And there's a certain coming together about all of this because when I was a kid my dad had a jewelry store on 42nd street just off Sixth Avenue. And my 12-year-old just did a school play. What was the play? 42nd Street. And here I am on 42nd Street in the Little Shubert Theatre. It's like, holy mackerel! This is just either a coincidence or something or other.

What can you tell me about Viagara Falls? It sounds potentially bawdy.
Well we did it in Calgary, Canada, for 12 weeks. Very lovely response, and I kept going out and asking of people, "Did any of this offend you?" Young people and older people said, "No you could have gone much further." There are no dirty words in it. There's nothing that is distasteful in it. Then we did it for another 12 weeks in Toronto. I asked the people the same thing because I was always curious, but it did not offend anybody, young or old, and I was delighted to hear that. The Nederlanders came up and saw it in Toronto, and on the basis of that, here we are at the Little Shubert Theatre, which is the gem of Theatre Row.

Was it exciting when you realized it was coming into New York City?
Tom, the word is beyond excitement. It was just unimaginable that I would be working in New York. I went to NYU, this was starting in 1951. I had a very formal Shakespeare training, and that did not really suit me for what my career involved. I discovered I could do accents, and my first five years were nothing but playing Latinos, believe it or not. I'm a Jewish boy from Brooklyn. As a matter of fact, on the plane coming here, there was a lady behind me. I didn't really pay too much attention to her, and getting off, I'm looking at her and I said, oh my god, Joyce Van Patten! I did my first TV show, which was "A Brighter Day." I played a Mexican heavy because I discovered I could do the accent, and she played a hooker. This was back in 1961. So we had a nice little chat getting off the plane. She came to California to see her brother Dick Van Patten. Dicky and I have careers that are sort of blended together because he was the first doctor on "The Love Boat." Then he had a contract with ABC. ABC pulled him out to do "Eight is Enough," and I got moved into the doctor roll and that went on for ten amazing years of my lucky life.

I didn't know that he was the original doc on the "The Love Boat."
Aaron Spelling had such power, such juice that ABC was saying we're not so crazy about the first pilot, so Spelling said, "We'll give you another one." I wasn't involved in the first one, I was involved in the second one. And Spelling said, "I think I know what it needs," so for the third pilot, they brought in Gavin MacLeod and Lauren Tewes and Ted Lange and Fred Grandy and I remained. I've never heard of three pilots being made for one series! Of course the television critic for the L.A. Times gave us this stunning review. He said, I quote, "It's going to sink like the Titanic." It was on for ten years! It's just so wacko when you think what critics say. It was never breaking new ground; it always had happy endings. But Aaron Spelling had his finger on the pulse of what the public wants. The great thing about the show had to be the grab-bag of different talents coming on each week. What stars stand out for you?
I think of Greer Garson, for example. I was so in awe of her English accent and her red-haired beauty and her grace and all of that. Here I am, I just turned 77 on June 21, I remembered seeing her in "That Forsyte Woman" and "Mrs. Miniver" and all of these marvelous classic films. I approached her sort of timidly and I said, "Excuse me, Miss Garson. Why are you doing this show?" And she said, "I thought it would be a lovely way to say hello to old friends." A lot of the actors and actresses of a certain age felt that way, and they were tickled to be working again. We had Ethel Merman, Della Reese, Cab Calloway. Unbelievable people — Van Johnson, June Allyson. The list goes on and on and on. They were all very happy to be there, number one, because Gavin and I being the old farts of the company, would welcome everybody.

What's it like working with your co-star, Lou Cutell. I'm interested because he wrote the play, and I wonder if it is added pressure, working with the author.
It's funny you should bring that up. Lou is wearing so many hats in this. I keep reminding him, I said, "Lou, when you're on stage. You're not the writer, you're not the producer, you're not the director. You are an actor, and you don't know what's coming up next." So we keep going back and forth, you know us veterans, I think between us, we have about 8,000 years in the biz. We have a marvelous relationship. He is probably best known for being the "Assman" on Seinfeld, a happy proctologist who has a boat that says "Assman" on the bow. At one point, Jerry Seinfeld asks him in recognition, "Wait a minute! You're the Assman!" And Lou just looks at him and winks, and it's very funny.

Being back onstage here is one thing, how are you enjoying New York life?
It's a mad house! I walk to the theatre, which, of course, is 42nd Street and Ninth [Avenue], and I'm looking at this spectrum of humanity. I grew up here. I grew up in this absolute nut house. Where I live in California, you have trees and bushes and even though people call it La La Land, it's very tranquil where I live. It is bucolic. I've got two little kids, two boys — 12 and 7 — we shut the gate, and we have our own little park, and they bring their friends over. It's very peaceful. Being flown into New York City, it's like, wait a minute! Gee whiz! The cars are honking horns, and people are yelling at each other just by way of greeting. It's a crack-up to be back in this city.

[Viagara Falls is now playing at the Little Shubert, 422 W. 42nd Street. Get tickets on telecharge.com.]

(The Leading Men columnist Tom Nondorf can be reached at tnondorf@playbill.com.)

Lou Cutell, Bernie Kopell and Teresa Ganzel in <i>Viagara Falls</i>
Lou Cutell, Bernie Kopell and Teresa Ganzel in Viagara Falls Photo by Carol Rosegg
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