Hamilton Major: Psychology
College Productions: None. The summer between high school and Hamilton, I did The Fantasticks with a local theatre group. After the ordeal of doing a show around a 9-5 job, I vowed that if I ever acted again, I would get paid for it. I ended up keeping that promise. It's not that I would not have considered doing a show at Hamilton, but the stuff they were doing was classical theatre, and I was not particularly interested in it.
Moment You Knew You Wanted to be an Actor: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cowboy. As I got old enough to realize that wasn't very practical, I wanted to be an actor and play cowboys. At Hamilton I figured acting wouldn't be a very practical career, but as I was getting ready to graduate, I realized there was absolutely nothing else I wanted to do.
First Job After Hamilton: I worked as a private investigator for Pinkerton's National Detective Agency out of its Albany office.
First Acting Job: The second summer after I graduated, I was hired by a summer stock theatre in my hometown [Chatham, N.Y.] that did musical comedy. I did four seasons there; the first three, we did a different musical every week. It was a hectic schedule but great fun. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
Big Break: In the summer of 1975, I was hired for a union show at Goodspeed Opera House [in Connecticut] that was supposed to go to Broadway in the fall. My salary all of a sudden went from $50 a week to $250 a week, which back then wasn't bad. It was the musical version of the life of western artist Charles M. Russell, and I was playing the gunslinging sheriff. It starred David Canary [Bonanza, All My Children] and Gary Sandy [WKRP in Cincinnati]. Good music and costumes, but the show did not generate much interest. But it helped me segue into the cast of Shenandoah on Broadway. I came out to Los Angeles with the national touring company of that show in 1977 and stayed. I immediately hit it really big doing TV commercials, but had difficulty getting a TV and film career going.
Best-Known Roles: George Frankly in Mathnet on PBS. I am not a high-profile actor, but that show had a modest fan base that was not limited to kids because of the off-the-wall humor. We had a great time shooting the show, had some great guest stars, including James Earl Jones, who played my boss on a couple of episodes, and the entire show was done without network interference.
Biggest Challenge as an Actor: Getting your next job. Once, after having been in the business for over 20 years, I went a full year without working. It was a sobering experience.
Most Awkward Moment: When I first came to Los Angeles, a big-name agent called me in for an interview. While he was talking to me, he casually asked his secretary who Robert Redford's agent was. For some reason that seemed to drive home the point that I was really in the big time and it scared me. The interview went downhill, and at the conclusion I walked into the agent's closet, rather than out the door! Although I could easily make the humor of that circumstance work for me now, I did not recover well at the time.
Actor You Most Admire: There are a number, but Anthony Hopkins looms large since I recently worked with him on The World's Fastest Indian. He was such a nice guy — went out of his way to talk with everyone on the set.
Hobbies: Fishing, when I can. Also playing acoustic guitar and singing around the house. I've had a hard time finding any place to get paid to do it, although I played a folk-singing, alternative political candidate on The West Wing. And I do a little coin collecting — Morgan dollars mainly.
Advice for Aspiring Actors: Ask yourself: When you perform, do you get unsolicited feedback that you're good? Do you have an unusual look or a distinctive voice? Are you drop-dead good-looking? Do you have a certain presence or charisma? Rank-and-file actors don't get most of the jobs they go up for. Can you handle rejection and not take it personally? The best way to get into acting is to fall into it. This happened to my son [actor Jeremy Howard, who has appeared in such films as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can], who was born into an acting family. If that doesn't happen, do you have the persistence to keep at a profession where many times the return you get will not be in proportion to the amount of effort you put out? Having raised all these considerations, a career in acting — when it is good — is a blast. Getting paid to have fun tastes really sweet. The artistic satisfactions can be enormous.