By Fred Dickey
Originally published September 3, 2012
It is a great thing to stand before people and cause them to applaud noble ideas. How worthy to befriend thousands over a half-century by speaking beautiful words that enlighten and entertain. Jonathan McMurtry does that. By performance and devotion, he deserves to be Shakespeare’s Man in San Diego.
To talk to McMurtry without mentioning William Shakespeare would be like talking to Tony Gwynn without mentioning baseball.
He is an actor, often in difficult “character” roles. To him, acting has never been a path to celebrity, or big paychecks, or girls waiting at the stage door. To him, acting is a craft to be honed. If he loved plumbing thusly, he would practice after-hours with the pipe wrench. To playgoers looking for a performance to attend, his name on the poster means smiles — and probably tickets sold.
McMurtry is a small man of 75, lively and enthusiastic. When he appears on stage he often projects an impish or curmudgeonly image, and often plays old men, even when he was not one. That persona is not by design, but a sort of benign typecast that has developed over the years he has performed here.
On many occasions his appearance on stage has elicited spontaneous applause, for which he is grateful. He enjoys returning warmth for warmth. McMurtry says he is acutely aware of the audience, its moods and manner, and that includes hearing every inadvertent cellphone ring.
He has been a local onstage institution for five decades, mainly at the Old Globe, but also the North Coast Rep and many other theaters. He has served his time in Hollywood movies and on television, though he didn’t relish the experience. He had an ongoing role in the TV show “Cheers” for which he regularly receives residual checks. His range is broad and eclectic, from comedies to intense dramas. He’s a trouper: give him a script and tell him when to show up.
He is being interviewed in my family room talking about the lion in his life, William Shakespeare. Adjusting for maturity, he feels about him as devoutly as a teenager would Lady Gaga.
When he turns without prompting to Shakespeare’s words, even while seated on a couch, the room becomes a stage. He recites a sonnet, all 14 lines without falter. I immediately feel his intensity and think maybe I should be paying for this.
I watch closely. McMurtry’s face transforms with the mood. His eyes tantalize about secret thoughts and hidden motivation, revealing and concealing in turn. His gestures are economical and purposeful. His baritone rolls effortlessly over every syllable and with a caress for each. He is the lovesick suitor:
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
… So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”
McMurtry is an evangelical Christian who lives a quiet, middle-class life in Vista with his college teacher wife, Terri, and their 19-year-old daughter, Coral.
He learns his lines the way you and I did for a school play: He paces and recites while Terri coaches at the kitchen table.
He doesn’t crave attention. “I’m actually shy. I don’t go to parties and mix well. Sometimes I have to, but I don’t really enjoy them. When I’m in the [theater] audience, I’ll go into the parking lot at intermission to be alone. When people come up to me, I’m flattered and appreciative, sure, but I want to be with my own thoughts, and I’m kind of lost. I don’t know what to say. I certainly don’t like it when people gush.
“I’m not completely an introvert. I guess I indulge my extrovert side on the stage.”
He was born to showbiz parents who, of necessity, were more often out earning a living than spending time at home with the kids. That’s why he always disliked being on the road when he became an actor.
He first had a visceral awareness that acting could be just a job when he spent almost two years in the early ’70s touring “every city in the country with a dreadful play called ‘Pajama Top.’ ”
He started out as a commercial artist for Walt Disney, which his family thought was a great job, but on which he quickly soured. “Coloring in little frames day after day, it was monotonous and I hated it.”
In 1959, he won a national contest for a scholarship at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. “I was there when Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave and Richard Burton were performing next door. Albert Finney was my roommate. Princes of the theater, all.”
And a career was born.
McMurtry has fond remembrance for Craig Noel, producing director of the Old Globe who died in 2010. “Craig was a great director and played a major part in my life. He’s the one who brought me to the Old Globe. He directed me in a play in Milwaukee in 1960, liked what he saw and invited me to the Old Globe as a scholarship actor at $150 per week.
“I misunderstood. I thought I had to pay $150, and I didn’t have the money. I borrowed from my family and when I went to see the financial person at the Globe, I told her I only had $500, but I’d get more later. She said, ‘No, darling. We’re paying you.’ ”
McMurtry loves what Shakespeare did with words. He wrote them muscular and made them go to work. “When Shakespeare gets the most dramatic, the language gets punchy in one-syllable words. ‘I feel this pinprick.’ ‘To be or not to be.’ ‘I do not know why yet I live … this thing’s to do, since I have cause and will and strength and means to do it.’ ‘Steed answers steed, in high and boastful neighs, piercing the night’s dull ear.’ ”
McMurtry identifies his favorite Shakespeare plays as “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Coriolanus.” But it’s the play he least admires that fleshes out an aspect of Shakespeare as a real-life player in Queen Elizabeth’s court.
McMurtry considers “The Merry Wives of Windsor” to be Shakespeare’s weakest play. “It’s the one I dislike the most, and I’ve played it a lot. It’s a mishmash of scenes.” He says the main purpose of the play was to please the queen who loved the character of Falstaff, the rascally, dissolute rake who taught sinning to Prince Hal. Unfortunately for Falstaff’s many fans of the time, he had been killed off in “Henry V.”
“Merry Wives” was actually an Elizabethan version of a sequel that included a cameo by Falstaff. Like Hollywood sequels, its motives were more calculated than artistic. But Shakespeare knew what he was doing. In Tudor times, “playing the game” was not only a matter of prosperity, but of survival, and the Bard definitely aspired to both.
Asking McMurtry how long he plans to work draws a blank look, as though I had asked how long he intends to breathe.
If one of these days McMurtry decides to ring his curtain down, we can trust someone will stand on the Old Globe stage and say this man was an actor who honored his craft and upstaged no one. He loved what he did, and he loved doing it for you.
And then it will also be said that those in the audience loved him back.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.