With careers whose sum equals almost a century of experience, Leon Russom and Barry Ford believe getting older does not mean less opportunity. In fact, both actors believe age and experience are invaluable tools as they take on one of the most difficult plays of their careers.
Sitting in the quaint dressing room at Sacred Fools, the veterans prepare for a tech run of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, directed by Paul Plunkett.
“I want to go on a vacation and go back to Shakespeare,” says Russom,Â who plays Hamm, the ironically powerless and blind ruler of a household of four people in a world nearing the end.
Russom, 70, is probably best known for his roles in the Coen brothers’ films The Big Lebowski and, most recently, True Grit; however his career is filled with a rich blend of over 90 television episodes and films, and a plethora of theatrical performances on both coasts and abroad.
Ford, 78, who has extensive experience performing abroad and in New York, portrays Nag, Hamm’s elderly father who resides in a dustbin next to his similarly trapped wife, asking for food and recounting the same story day after day. He agrees that Shakespeare would indeed be a “relief” at this point in time.
Yet both men firmly agree they have waited their entire careers to be able to wrestle with a play like Endgame.
Russom grew up in Arkansas as an orphan moving from one family member to another. He graduated high school at the age of 15 and attended Southwestern (now Rhodes College) in Memphis, where he quite literally stumbled upon acting while sitting out a football season with a broken ankle. During this time he was asked to play Biff in the school’s production of Death of a Salesman and, after an unexpectedly stellar performance, was encouraged to join the Memphis Front Street Theatre.
Three years and 38 productions later, he left to train at the London Drama Centre where he acted in well-known pieces including The Miser, The Little Foxes, Macbeth, Hay Fever and Waiting for Godot. “The last time I did Beckett was 51 years ago when I played Lucky” in Godot, says Russom with a chuckle.
In between his two Beckett productions Russom tackled Broadway, Off-Broadway, soap opera land, regional theater, film and television such as Bones, Boston Legal, JAG, The West Wing and NYPD Blue, to name a few.
Despite this wide spectrum of work over a long time, Russom believes Endgame is one of the most difficult pieces he has ever done. “In a very real sense Beckett writes people’s consciousnesses and puts it out there,” he says. “It’s like he turns you inside out and even when you’ve “˜got it,’ you feel like you’re taking your SATs on a unicycle on a tight rope.”
Russom attributes this level of difficulty to Beckett’s incredible attention to detail within his scripts. From the particular elements of the set to the pauses he writes into each scene, every choice is deliberate and full of underlying meaning.
“The play hinges on every breath you take and you cannot have a wrong thought or paraphrase because that will throw off the rhythm of the entire show,” says Russom.
Beckett’s purposely false “theatrical bombs”Â make actors believe they are dying inside, Russom says, making every moment in the play a test.
Russom’s response to this?
Some of Beckett’s own words: “Try. Fail. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”
He says, “It is thrilling to take on something that you don’t know whether or not you can pull off. I often think, “˜Is this going to kill me?’”
In this cycle of great effort and uncertain success, Russom believes there are two things seeing him through: his own experience and the rest of the cast.
As he grows older, Russom wants to fit in as much performing as possible and take on parts that challenge him. In his role of Hamm, Russom is not only blind onstage with completely blacked-out glasses but also physically immobile. He remains in a chair for the entire duration of the show with little movement and many long monologues.
For any actor these limitations would present difficulties, but this role would be nearly impossible for a novice. “Beckett calls on everything you know. The more you know, the more there is to call on, which is imperative in this show,” Russom says.
Along with his garnered wisdom, Russom’s fellow actors have been a great source of support and creative inspiration. “David [Fraioli] who plays Clov, my counterpart, is a youngster half my age but he has been wonderful to work with, absolutely no friction between us whatsoever,” says Russom. “And Kathy [Bell Denton] who plays my mother Nell, her work is heartbreaking and lovely.”
As Russom speaks of the fourth and final cast member he breaks into a huge smile. “And Barry, he is about eight years older than me but I am truly thrilled to watch a man his age attack things like he does,” says Russom. “It is really nice to know I can do that also eight years from now.”
With Ford the feeling is completely mutual. “It has been a dream to work with Leon. He is a hard worker with no Hollywood star business, even though he has probably done the most high-profile work recently in True Grit.”
Coming from Ford, this is a real compliment. Truly an old hand, Ford has been in the business for 62 years, and counting.
Born in Oakland, CA, Ford began his acting career in high school as the school’s “Frankie,” singing along with his high school band at graduation.
During college, he worked in Northern California with different groups including Sacramento Music Circus and the Actors Workshop in San Francisco.
In the ’60s Ford took his talent overseas as a singer, actor and dancer in Paris. His performances resulted in a profile in a French newspaper describing him as an “American in Paris.”
“I lived in France at a time when Ionesco and Beckett were still alive,” says Ford. “And I am an actor with a background in a lot of great plays like Shakespeare, but there is nothing like this show.”
Ford recalls his first encounter with Beckett in a production of Waiting for Godot abroad. “I was completely bowled over, I absolutely loved it,” says Ford.
Now many years later, after returning to New York and Los Angeles for work on Broadway and in TV and film, Ford maintains this respect and love for Beckett’s work. “Nag is a small jewel of a part, like a diamond, and I am having a wonderful time even if I am sitting in a dustbin the entire time.”
Ford believes Endgame is so effective because of the nuanced, yet very strong statements in the play. “You know by keeping Hamm’s parents in a dustbin Beckett makes a really strong statement about the way we treat elders and what the end of life means,” he says.
Having to embody this message in a dustbin for over an hour has been one of the most challenging aspects of the character, but Ford also believes it has offered him levels of exploration as an actor.
“Oh sure, Beckett has some curious immobility in his plays, but they are really key to the story,” says Ford. “And getting adjusted to the contained environment, sitting there waiting for your cue can be tricky, but I wanted to do this part so badly, it is a compliment to have even been cast and now to be able to explore new colors as an actor. That’s what the greats do.”
Ford explores these new colors through the gifts he personally brings as an actor — his vocal quality and knowledge of languages. “My mother was American and my father British, so people never really know where I am from; my accent is not quite British but not quite American,” says Ford.
He is also fluent in Spanish and French, has a knack for pronouncing German and knows what he calls “a smattering” of six other languages. He uses accents derived from these languages to inform the history and life story of Nag without messing with Beckett’s original script.
Ford credits director Paul Plunkett for encouraging his use of accents and being a source of constant support. “He is a wonderful director with a lot of detail in his work. He is someone great for actors because he is sensitive and believes you can do it, which makes all the difference.”
Although performing Endgame is a personal victory for Ford and Russom, each say the experience only encourages them to do more work like this in the future.
“The only reason I am an actor is because I am in love with beauty like any artist; I never expected I would be able to do Endgame, but here I am, you never know,” says Russom.
“It’s true, if I keep a positive attitude and work hard, something wonderful that I haven’t even dreamed of, I mean look at me now,” says Ford.
And those are some words to live by.
*** All production photography by Ben Rock
Endgame, produced by Richard Levinson, Paul Plunkett, Ben Rock and Greg Sims for Sacred Fools Theater Company, opens March 18; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun. (April 10 & 17); 7 pm; through April 23. Tickets: $20. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Ave., Hollywood; 310-281-8337 or www.sacredfools.org.