Service of Actors

December 1st, 2011

Categories: Actors

I was so excited to hear that Billy Crystal was selected to replace Eddie Murphy as the 2012 Oscar host. I’ve been watching the Oscars for eons and he was among the best if not the best one ever.

Sharing my pleasure with a colleague, David Reich, I mentioned that in addition to being spontaneously funny and fast on his feet, Crystal is also an incredible actor.

In the play “700 Sundays,” [named for the number of Sundays he had with his Dad who died when he was 15], Crystal was the only person on stage. He wore a long-sleeve tee shirt and generic pants. In one scene, suddenly he became his aunt.

In the scene he was on the phone with her–she lived in Florida–and he played both parts. He didn’t change clothes or affect typically feminine gestures but between the raspy, whiney, voice altered by thousands of cigarettes, [you could hear her puffing during the call] and a subtly different posture, he transformed himself into a middle aged woman with the assistance of neither makeup nor wig.

David mentioned a similar experience when he saw Chazz Palminteri in “A Bronx Tale.” Like Crystal, Palminteri was alone on stage and didn’t change clothes or makeup. He played four roles and David said he’d turn slightly and become another character so convincingly he marveled at the performance. A while after seeing the play, David was in a green room at a TV station with a client when who showed up? Palminteri. David mentioned that after playing all these roles so convincingly, he must have been exhausted at night. The actor agreed.

I lost Dustin Hoffman when he became Ratso Rizzo in the movie “Midnight Cowboy.” And in “Tru,” Bobby Morse was Truman Capote, no question.

Other great actors such as my favorite Hepburns–Audrey and Katherine–John Wayne or even Spencer Tracy, seem to be themselves and stick out when I see them on Turner Classic Movies. But when an actor disappears, it’s something else and puts an actor on a higher stage. Do you agree? Or is something else at play?

9 Responses to “Service of Actors”

  1. David Reich Said:

    Thanks to TV, we see acting all the time — not only once a week at the movies or even more rarely in the theater. It’s easy to take good acting for granted. Thanks for reminding us how difficult and how rare it is to see really great acting where the actor truly loses himself.

  2. Peregrine Whittlesey Said:

    That’s one kind of acting. A definite plus in FILM acting.

    In stage acting, you want the person and the character to be seamless but you also want an actor able to transform himself into a RANGE of other people. Olivier was one of the greatest masters of that, finding a prop (often a differentiated nose) to guide him into a character, lowering his voice so he could play Othello.

    I certainly agree it’s wonderful to be sufficiently drawn into the scene that you believe every word, every gesture but some theatre is stylized (as is true in Wilde, S.N. Behrman, Noel Coward, Sheridan and others) so the STYLE of acting then has to be uniformly true and true to the voice of the writer. And that’s not entirely REALISTIC, but definitely WORKS! XPeregrine

  3. ASK Said:

    I agree with you about the 4 now deceased stars; they do stick out like sore thumbs. They never disappeared into their characters as much as they retained their own special “personas.” Perhaps we expected different interpretations from those performers at the time.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    What is remarkable about Billy Crystal and Chazz Palminteri is that both were on stage–they didn’t have the benefits of film/editing/retakes.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I wondered about that as I selected those actors. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, studios controlled their actors pretty much, creating off-stage personas, and stars were huge. Studios spent so much money promoting the stars committed to them that perhaps they wanted them to stick out.

  6. Hester Craddock Said:

    You make a good point about Billy Crystal and those like him, and it is hard to disagree.

    But I also have enjoyed “type” actors such as the ones you describe. Among my favorites are Charles Laughton and his wife who was every bit as good as he, Claude Raines and more recently, Judi Dench.

    As to film actors versus stage actors, years ago, I saw both Olivia De Haviland and Ingrid Bergman (in French) play the wife in “Tea and Sympathy.” It is a good play and they were both terrific in quite different ways. Lauren Becall, unexpectedly for me, was also terrific in a Shaw play a few years ago.

    What’s fun about this is that really good actors, whatever they do, whatever way they chose to do it, always come through.

    P.S. I think we are all glad that Billy is back.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I agree with you about Judy Dench. And I don’t dislike the work of the stars who stand out. I can get just as lost and blessedly distracted and transported into another world or story by all of them.

    It’s just that I can’t get over the magic of a person who can be standing in front of me and transform himself into someone else. What talent!

  8. Lucrezia Said:

    I make a poor critic since I don’t enjoy theatre that much and if I did, remember too few names to make intelligent comment. That said, I am highly appreciative of efforts made by opera singers to add acting vs just standing there in pretty costumes and producing fine tones. These include Deborah Voigt, James Morris, Placido Domingo, among others.

    If someone puts on a great performance, does it matter whether he represents the character or himself? It’s the effect upon the audience which counts and which usually determines the length of a show, critics notwithstanding.

    As to movies, felt that Master & Commander ended all too soon – but haven’t the faintest idea whether Russell Crowe metamorphosed into a sea captain or was playing himself. I wasn’t thinking in those terms then, and have no plans to revisit now.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I didn’t write the post to critique the work of great actors as much as to point out the difference and marvel at those who convince me they are someone else.

    I’ve never been absorbed by opera as by a play or movie so I can’t address how good an actor a singer is. Hearing the higher ranges sung badly I’ve wished that the singer would do more acting than vocalizing.

    However there have been plenty of movies I’ve seen at every stage of my life that I wished lasted longer. When I think back on some, they wouldn’t grab me now. Others, like “12 Angry Men,” or “To Kill a Mockingbird” I like every time I see them and wonder what happened to the characters after they and I left the theatre.

Leave a Reply