Where: his dressing room (Cort Theatre). 5 pm.
Donald Moffat is one of those brilliant character actors who you always expect to show up in a film or on a television series to make it that much better. His presence in a project lends it a gravitas that it normally would not have without him, but audiences are not used to seeing him on the Broadway stage where he is currently starring in a revival of The Heiress. As Moffat tells it, there are pros and cons to being back on the boards.
“It’s been ten years since I’ve done a play on Broadway, which was Iceman, but it doesn’t seem that long. It’s just very necessary to do. You use a different set of muscles. It’s splendid to be doing it again. I no longer feel that I have to do it all the time. I don’t have a desire to get out there and hear the applause. The joy of work to me now is the exploration, and the rehearsal part is the most exciting. Then I have to confess that the chore part of it is the eight times a week. I don’t have a burning desire to be in front of an audience. So it needs to be something that is rewarding enough, either a wonderful play or production or something that’s a challenge.”
Moffat started out as a theater actor in his native England, but soon left to pursue his dream of a career here in the United States.
“I wasn’t a very happy Englishman. I emigrated. I didn’t come over with a show and then stay. When I got to New York, I discovered there was a little enclave of professional Brits here, and that was just what I had run away from. So I was determined that I was going to be a Yankee actor, and I set about disappearing. I was a shy person, and I fooled most of the people most of the time.
“I just realized that if I had stayed very British, which a lot of people did, I would just be very limited and American parts wouldn’t be there for me. I’ve been lucky enough--and I suppose I worked at that a bit--to have several careers. But in terms of television or movies, different people have thought of me and seen me as different things. So I never got typecast, especially in the film industry.
“I remember when I first came out to L.A., I had quite a western career. I did Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and all of those things. Then I would do some English things on the stage. So various people saw me in various things, and they didn’t connect. I always aim to disappear into a part, so they didn’t know that they were hiring the same actor.” A sly smile appears on his face. “And it’s worked out pretty well.”
Even though he escaped the confines of his upbringing, he was still conditioned by his classic Shakespearean training to have a disdain towards working in film. It is a belief that a now older and wiser Moffat thoroughly deplores.
“It wasn’t a conscious choice on my part,” Moffat states with a smile. “It was a conscious choice on the part of the people who offered me jobs. When I was doing theater, I wasn’t offered movie work. When I first came to New York, there was live television and it all disappeared.
“It’s very much more compartmentalized than Britain, where people do freely work in television, and they all are based in London. Here they have forever been on opposite ends of the continent. That still affects the way people think of theater, television and movies as quite separate entities, and I suffered early on from having a snobbish attitude towards the movies as being inferior, and to my regret really. I wasn’t much in demand because I wasn’t a handsome, young leading man, so I wasn’t offered parts. Not in television!” he laughs. “The theater was the only thing open to me.
“I should have pursued film more seriously because it’s a wonderful medium, and I’m just in the last five years beginning to learn how to do it. It’s made me a better stage actor. I said that I was snobbish about it, and it’s partly true. I thought that the theater was so wonderful and that film was beneath me. Not to mention something that I have never dealt with successfully or well, and that is notoriety. By which I mean, publicity and having value in a name that people recognize.”
DM: (his voice fills with disdain) It’s part of the equation, and I avoided it for a long, long time. And still do, I have to say.
TH: Yeah, there’s not a lot written about you. I expected to find a mountain of stuff based on how much work you have done.
DM: I suppose what I’m really saying is I would have been a different person. (smiles) Partly the reason why I have not pursued it is because it’s not my nature, but it’s not very good for your career. So if I could do anything differently, I wish I were better at dealing with it, and I wish I had dealt with it earlier. (thinks for a moment) That’s a pretty raggedy answer I’ve got there.
TH: No, not at all. You just weren’t into the whole self-promotion game. You see a lot of guys on magazine covers with every film that comes out, and there’s this constant barrage--
TH: --and the film isn’t worth publicizing. So it’s okay that you didn’t do all of that.
DM: Right. I’m here.
TH: Exactly. I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if you were all publicity and no talent.
DM: Thank you.
With over 110 movie and television credits since the late 1950s, Donald Moffat is one of the most prolific thespians around. Having to juggle playing multiple characters throughout the years on countless sets, he has developed a philosophy about his work and about dealing with the uncertainty that is at the cornerstone of every character actor’s existence.
“There are two kinds of actors basically. One type is generally called stars, and the other called, by and large, character actors, and they need to disappear into their work. They tend to be shy and not very much at home in their shells. So to pretend to be somebody else is of great value, which certainly was a factor early in my career.
“What I always try to do is find the truth of the person. What makes them tick? Why are they doing things? I try and be very, very specific at every given moment. Then try to not let anybody see what I’m doing. If that all comes together, then I’ve succeeded. Spencer Tracy--being an idol of mine—you can’t catch him acting. That’s the wonderful thing, when you can’t catch the person acting. You’re brought into their world, and you’re never jolted out of it.
“I don’t like looking at myself in movies. I seldom see them at all. But when it’s good, I do sometimes enjoy my performances. Like Clear and Present Danger, I enjoyed that. I thought I was good in that, and I was pleased to see that what I tried to do was up there. Of course, that was a terrific role. It was beautifully placed in the film. A nice scene in the beginning and a terrific scene at the end. Efficient, interesting middle scenes all the way through, so you didn’t lose track of him in the film. And enough facets of the character so that you can do anything with it.
“A lot of scripts that I get sent now, they don’t really need an actor. They need a quality. Luckily, I’m at a point now where I can choose a bit. I don’t have to work. I’ve just about hit Social Security, and I have a pension, so that’s no longer a concern. Early on, I really needed that job on Bonanza. So, it’s interesting. I didn’t set out to have this career. Things that were just right in front of my nose is what I dealt with because that’s what I got.” He lets out a tiny laugh, and then admits, “Even at this stage, when I think I have a pretty well-established career and people in the business know who I am and people on the street know that they know me from somewhere.”
DM: You know, they do that thing.
TH: (does that thing) “Hey!” (points at him) “I know him.”
DM: Yeah. They do a double take.
TH: “He works in that office.”
DM: That’s right!
“But I very, very seldom know what I’m going to do ahead of time. Things just come up. Certainly unlike opera stars or big movie stars where their next four or five years are booked. But it’s never happened to me, and I don’t know how I would deal with it if it did. But it’s one of the great things about this business. I won’t ever have to retire.” He lets out a loud laugh. “As long as they need an old codger of some sort or another!”
TH: (laughing) Why are you saying that? You’re only 64! You’ve got a long way to go, pal. Actually, your birthday is three days before mine.
DM: Is that right? So you know how it is to be a Christmas baby.
TH: Yeah, and those people with their, “Here’s your Christmas AND birthday present.” And it’s only one thing!
DM: Yes! (laughs)
TH: So when their birthdays roll around in the summertime, we should hand them only one present, and say the same thing.
DM: (laughing) Yes!
Most character actors fall under the you-know-their-face, but-not-their-name category because so many have similar physical features. Donald Moffat, on the other hand, has one very distinguishing facial feature that separates him from all but a very select few actors—his thick, expressive eyebrows.
“They haven’t always been as luxuriant as they are, and they turned white one at a time. The right eyebrow first, which was odd for about a year. The only thing is that Lloyd Bridges, George Gaines, and I all have the same pair of eyebrows, so those are the two that I sympathize with and get mistaken for. Once in Spain, I did sign an autograph as Lloyd Bridges,” he confesses. “That’s what they wanted, and I didn’t have the Spanish to tell them that I wasn’t.”
TH: You should have said, “No estoy Lloyd!”
DM: (laughs) They were quite happy, and I was quite happy to get away from them!
“The problem in film is that they are so white that they glare. These are clipped back. In the theater, I really have to cut them back because if I don’t, they just get too long and you can’t see my eyes at all.”
TH: I had seen you one day on the street several years ago. I was coming up Broadway a few blocks before Times Square, and you were standing by the curb in the middle of the block looking up at a building. I was going to approach you, but you had this really angry look on your face. As I got closer, you started furrowing those (points to his eyebrows), and I thought, “Oh, no. Maybe another time.”
DM: (laughs) It probably was nothing personal. (smiles) I’m just kidding. I was probably disagreeing with the architect. (suddenly remembers) You know what I bet that was? It was probably one of the Lord & Taylor buildings. Since you bring it up, I remember looking at that building, and they’ve done awful things to it. They’ve chopped it in half. It’s being semi-restored now.
TH: It just seemed odd that you were looking up.
DM: I do that every now and then. There are some wonderful buildings there, and I look at what’s been done to them. (grimaces) Or not done to them.
While many of the roles he has played have been of a villainous nature, most folks generally see Moffat as a being a good guy with a great work ethic. While they would certainly be correct, the thing that pleasantly surprises me the most about Donald Moffat is his life-affirming perspective on what it truly means to love your work.
“I love my wife, and I love my children. I love my grandchildren. I love being alive. What more? The greatest gift I have—and those are great gifts—I think the greatest gift in life that one can have is to be able to make a living at what you have to do. I’m lucky, and all of my family is lucky enough to be artists. They are not driven by monetary success, and my life is more concerned with values.
“I don’t want to get too heavy with this, but there’s a spirituality to it that comes out of an artistic nature to be expressed. I had to be an actor. I was blessed with the ability, and I had enough talent, and I was able to leave this little town. My talent opened doors for me, and I was able to make a living and raise a family at what I had to do. It’s a great gift, which I would wish for everybody.
“I think the worst thing would be to have to do some drudgery because we all have to live. You have to make money, and you have to eat, and you have to pay the rent, and so forth and so on. And I see most of mankind talk about work in sort of a pejorative sense. ‘Oh, God. I’m going to work.’ A job is some awful thing that you have to do. An ideally-organized society would know how to deal with that in some better ways than we do.” AAA
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