PLAYBILL PICKS: David Mamet's Five Most Memorable Men

By Robert Simonson
25 Oct 2012

Robert Duvall in the 1977 Broadway production of American Buffalo.
Photo by Roger Greenwalt

Walter "Teach" Cole, American Buffalo

Mamet males usually spend the play trying to make something happen, something that's going to make their fortune and prove their worth on the street. Often, it's something illegal. Such is the case with long-suffering small-timer Walter Cole, known by his and colleagues as "Teach." In American Buffalo, he and his pal Don, who owns a junk store, hatch a scheme to rip off a local coin collector. The half-baked plan quickly goes awry, of course, and the play culminates with a volcanic exhibition of Teach's pent-up frustrations.

Though the roles of Don and the dim-witted youth Bobby have their attractions, the play belongs to Teach, and actors have long been drawn to the character's mix of pathos and emotional histrionics. Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and William H. Macy have all portrayed him. And, according to Macy, there's a kinship between such actors. "Dave is the guy who found the music in American speech, unlike any playwright before him," said Macy, who filled the role in an Atlantic production. "When you find two guys who have done American Buffalo, they start doing the lines together. Just like, 'Did you do Sound of Music?' and they'll start singing the songs."

"That's one of those roles that everybody wants to play," said Neil Pepe, artistic director of the Atlantic, who directed Macy in the drama. "It's a cathartic role. It begins with an incredibly well-written rant. It's based on a story of Mamet and Macy living in Chicago. They had no money. Mamet walks in and opens the refrigerator and takes some food out and Macy says, 'Help yourself.' Mamet was so pissed off at Macy for hassling him for taking some food that he wrote that monologue. It not only has that, but it has this thing about small-time businessmen and guys who think they're more than they are, and then betrayal. It's so much about fathers and sons and loyalty and that brotherly feeling between those guys."

Al Pacino as Teach in the 1983 Broadway revival.
photo by Stephanie Sala

Director Gregory Mosher, an early and important interpreter of Mamet's work, who directed the world premiere in Chicago in 1975, said, "Teach in American Buffalo is probably the smartest of all the Mamet guys, as we might infer from his nickname. And what a poet. When Teach wants to defend free enterprise, he says that without it, 'we're just savage shitheads in the wilderness, sitting around some vicious campfire.'"

Lage believes the play is "Don's story, finally," but that "Teach is the engine that drives the play. From the moment he enters with his 'Fuckin' Ruthie…' rant to his trashing of the junkshop, he just owns the joint. The actor playing Teach can revel in the more vaudevillian comic moments as well as get off on the power of his sociopathic outburst at play's end."

Lage continued, "Teach is a very wounded guy, mostly by his own hand. But having played the character twice — during my undergrad days at NYU and 28 years later last fall at Baltimore's Center Stage — it would follow that I have great empathy for him, faults and all, as does his friend in the play, Don. Explosive, conniving, sociopathic, vulnerable, out of his league around those smarter than him and extremely sensitive about it, Teach struggles to carve out what he perceives to be his entitled piece of the American Dream. In the course of the play, he's foiled once again, not fully realizing the failure is mostly of his own making."

Comic, tragic, smart, sociopathic, vaudevillian, vulnerable, empathetic. Who wouldn't want to play that guy?