September 19, 2002 (Ira Pilgrim)


It is a great help for a man to be in love with himself. For an actor, however, it is absolutely essential.

Robert Morley

We were recently treated, on the TV news, to the spectacle of actor Charlton Heston making a speech about his developing Alzheimer's disease. One TV news program ran quite a bit of it. Developing Alzheimer's is a very sad event, but Heston's speech was even sadder. Heston is an actor who says his lines the same way, regardless of what character he is supposed to be portraying. If you have seen Heston as Moses or Ben-Hur, you have seen him in any other role. You have also seen him as president of the National Rifle Association. If I had to explain the meaning of the expression "ham actor," I would simply point to Charlton Heston.

Whenever I think of ham actors, my memory goes back to my high school days. A friend and I used to frequent the Davenport Free Theater. Since it was free, we could afford the price of admission. The whole cast consisted of a single actor by the name of Butler Davenport. He would play everything to the hilt and even his death scenes were funny. The sad part of it was that he did not intend that they should be funny.

There are superb actors who become the character that they are playing and can play almost any role. For example, I didn't realize that Lawrence Olivier was performing in the movie Doctor Zhivago, although he is easy to recognize. To mention just a few of my favorites: Paul Muni, Tom Hanks, Ingrid Bergman, Helen Hayes, Frederick March, Simone Signoret, Rod Steiger, Rip Torn, Dustin Hoffman, Alec Guiness and a number of others. It is not a large list, however.

There are also excellent character actors who rarely get staring roles.Then there are all of the rest. These are actors who essentially play a single role and that role is themselves. They win Oscars because they are a perfect fit for the roles that they are playing. Charlton Heston won a best actor Oscar for his role in Ben-Hur in 1959 and he has been playing the same role over and over ever since. There is no arguing with success.

There are actors, usually male, who branch out into other fields. Some go into directing and a few are very successful at it. What immediately comes to my mind in this category is Robert Redford's excellent directing of the movie Ordinary People. It was one of those rare films where the movie was as good as the book.

Some male actors go into politics. The most visible example is Ronald Reagan. He knew little about acting and even less about government, but he was a skillful politician and a very popular president whose policies almost bankrupted the country. I sometimes think of our current president (George II) as always playing an actor in a western. Try as he might to be a tough Texan, he just ain't no John Wayne. There is only one John Wayne and that man is Marion Morrison.

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