I was sick as a dog this morning. I’d spent the night coughing and sneezing and wheezing and I awoke exhausted, willing to roll back over for another 4 or 5 hours of sleep…But I couldn’t. This morning they would be celebrating the life of an old and influential friend…and I needed to be there.
I knew I had no business attending the repast (the meal after the services) but I needed to man up. If you at all can, you muster to show respect for those whose lives have touched yours. I’d been around a lot of people of late (in New Orleans, at my birthday gathering and a recent black tie affair); all that hand shaking and hugging had probably exposed me to someone’s bug. I don’t often get sick, I’m pretty hardy and when a bug does slip thru my defenses it really kicks my butt. I was coughing so hard that I felt light-headed, feared I might pass out.
Get up, Tucker. Get in the shower, wake your ass up, let’s see if we can do this. After some coffee, some Dayquil, some breakfast, I felt I could manage for a few hours, but you stay away from all the people this morning! I dressed in black, too muted to wear my b/w spectators (tho I knew that Dick would have approved:) and I fought heavy morning traffic on the 405 to arrive just after 10 AM at Inglewood Park Cemetery. The large chapel was absolutely filled from front to back with the multitudes of artists and friends who had admired and loved this man. I accepted my program, smiled back at the smiling portrait of Dick Anthony Williams on its cover, found a seat at the very rear, not immediately beside anyone and slipped in. I bumped the elbows of a lot of old friends today but resisted any embraces, much as I might have wished to.
There are certain times and certain events in one’s life that are defining; events from which you can clearly see the road taken and why. More than anyone on this earth, Dick Anthony Williams was responsible for my having become an actor. In late spring of 1969, in just 72 hours, I’d driven cross-country from LA to DC, stopping here and there to say goodbye to friends and family. I was now in NYC. In two days, I would fly first back to California and then on to Vietnam, to begin my work as a military advisor to a colorful and deadly group of soldiers, the Vietnamese Airborne. I was fatalistic, I really didn’t expect to come home.
I was in NY to visit a college girlfriend living in Little Italy…and hoping to get lucky:) I drove up and down Houston Street, (which seemed to me to be HUSTON St) and finally found her apartment. It was early on a May Saturday evening. We embraced and she asked whether I thought I’d like to go to see a play. Hell, I had carnality on my mind…but I said, “Sure, why not?” She took me to a small theater in the West Village…and my world view underwent an abrupt shift.
Understand that I’d been to a few plays in my life, had even walked the ancient stones of Greek amphitheaters as a child, living there for two years when my father was a Fulbright professor. But this was something entirely different…this was BIG TIME BUCK WHITE. And the stage was dominated by the presence and performance of a tall, compelling actor named Dick Anthony Williams. I was enthralled. The power, the electricity, the passion of this kind of theater was very different to me. It was something new; it was BLACK Theater. I didn’t go backstage afterwards to thank him, I knew nothing about such traditions.
Fast forward maybe 7 months. I’m now lying in a room at Walter Reed, facing months of more surgery and convalescence. It’s December, 1969. The doctors really don’t have much to offer me in terms of expectations – my injuries invariably led to death – and yet I was still around. At nights, I’d lay awake and think about what might be possible for my time. I’d been a TV director before I was drafted, a graduate of the TV Production program at the University of Maryland and became the first Black director hired by WBAL, the Baltimore NBC affiliate. I was a good director, I knew lots of technical stuff…but absolutely nothing about the process of acting. To progress, I needed a grounding in the actors process…and I remembered the excitement and the immediacy of Dick’s work…and one night, I resolved: If I survived all the healing ahead of me and could still function, I would learn to act.
In the spring of 1970, I continued to progress and wrote to Sanford Meisner at The Neighborhood Playhouse Theater in New York and to Edward K. Martin, heading UCLA ‘s MFA program, requesting an interview. I met with both, chose Sandy and in September, I resigned my Army commission and moved to New York to begin my studies.
Let’s now jump forward to 1975. I’ve been out of school for several years and have enjoyed a measure of success in my new profession. I’ve done a number of stage plays, a soap opera, several commercials and am now a member of all three acting unions. Joseph Papp of the Public Theater hires me to understudy actor Al Hall’s role at the Lincoln Center production of Black Picture Show at the Vivian Beaumont. My lady is performing there in A Midsummer Nights Dream. I feel like we are latter day Lunts:)
I meet with the cast that include. Ethyl Ayler, Linda Miller, Graham Brown, Carol Cole, Al Hall, Bill Cobbs… and Dick. This is truly the Big Time to me, I am very excited. I don’t remember at what point I felt secure and familiar enough with Dick to share our connection…but eventually I told him. I got to thank him for having inspired me to enter this glorious profession. If you ever knew Dick at all, you knew him to be a man of great warmth, humor, grace and humility. And you can imagine how he received and responded to my confession. I am very grateful to have encountered him in my life.
Happy Trails, Dick
24 Feb 2012