Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Actor Tom McGowan '81  Is Having a Magical Time Playing the Wizard in Wicked 

Tom McGowan wows audiences as the Wizard of Oz.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
For nearly two and a half years, character actor Tom McGowan ’81 has been starring in the wildly successful musical Wicked. In the national tour and now on Broadway, McGowan has filled the large green shoes of the Wizard, who is not quite so wonderful in this story about the witches of Oz. 

 McGowan's show business breakthrough came in 1991 when he received a Tony Award nomination for La Bête. Afterward he began appearing in television sitcoms, starting with the Fox comedy Down the Shore, and later in recurring roles in Frasier as Kenny the station manager, and then in Everybody Loves Raymond as Ray’s buddy Bernie. More recently McGowan has been seen on the small screen in Desperate Housewives, Hot in Cleveland and Curb Your Enthusiasm. His film credits include Sleepless in Seattle, As Good As It Gets, Heavyweights, Ghost World, Bad Santa, The Family Man and The Birdcage

Hofstra Magazine had the opportunity to speak with McGowan about his successful career and his advice for students pursuing careers in the performing arts. 

What is it like taking on the role of the Wizard of Oz – a character people love and probably think they know going into the theater? 
TM: It’s fun to play a part where people assume you will be one way and then find out that the story is quite different – and that’s a lot of what this play is about. People think they are coming to see a version of The Wizard of Oz. They are primed to love the Wizard, and then during the course of the story, they find out things about him that they’re not thrilled about. 
In this play the Wizard is really there to help the witches, Elphaba and Glinda, tell their story. My impetus as an actor is, What can I do to help these actresses tell the story they need to tell? They’re such fantastic parts, and the Wizard is very key, especially to Elphaba’s story. Both times these characters meet one another, she comes in with one expectation and leaves a different person. 

People who come to Wicked expecting some light children’s fare are probably surprised at how deep and emotional the story is. 
TM: Audiences really respond to it. When I was on tour with Wicked, I got the sense that people came in thinking, “This is a kids show.” It’s not that way at all – it’s for everybody. If you like comedy, if you like a great story, if you like beautiful music, if you like the sheer spectacle of live theater, you’ll love Wicked. 
Performing on Broadway has been very special. I’ve enjoyed being back on the East Coast. A lot of my Hofstra friends and my friends and family from New Jersey have come to see me. 

What are the challenges of working on such a huge and technically complex production? 
TM: I’ve never worked for any theatrical production that was near the scale of this. It’s really awe inspiring. I did the second national tour of Wicked for a year and performed it in San Francisco for a year. Just the thought that there are multiple huge sets like this traveling the country is amazing. 
It’s really so impressive what they do – the lights, the sets, the costumes. The show is done on a huge, old-fashioned Broadway scale. The Wizard appears late in Act I, so at some point I usually watch some of the musical numbers from the side of the stage. With all that is going on with the sets and costume changes, I always have to be careful that I don’t get run over by a huge piece of scenery. 

You’ve done theater, film and television. Do you prefer one genre over the others? 
TM: Creatively, there’s nothing like the theater. I love rehearsing. I love choosing how to present the play. I love performing in front of a live audience. With that said, I also love doing television. I’m still not quite comfortable with film, but I haven’t had the same types of roles in film as I’ve had in television. 
Working on Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond were just fantastic experiences. I love the sitcom format. It’s great for having a family life. You get to go home at night and see your kids. I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to do a little of everything. 

To what do you attribute the longevity of your career as a character actor? 
TM: At Hofstra I had a couple of leading roles, but I seemed to gravitate toward the parts as the best friend or the uncle. I actually like those parts – they are usually meatier and funnier, and they can be darker to play. 
After Hofstra I spent a few years waiting tables, doing little shows here and there, and then I got into the Yale School of Drama. About five years after graduating from Hofstra I got my first agent. He said, “We really like you, but you’re probably not going to be working for a few years. Once you hit your 40s your career will really start.” And I just got lucky. I started working right away. La Bête was one of the big breakthroughs, but before that I had done three years of regional theater, and I worked at the Public Theater doing Shakespeare. 
I leave myself open to opportunities and whatever seems interesting at the time. All through the years I was doing Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond, I would spend my summers doing regional theater and kept my name out there as someone who loves working in the theater. 

Phil Rosenthal ‘81, executive producer and creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, was your close friend and classmate at Hofstra. What was it like being a part of that show? 
TM: Phil and I are great friends. We moved to the city together after Hofstra. I’ve known him since I was 18. The first television show I did was a sitcom that he was a writer for, Down the Shore. 
When Raymond happened – well, you just never know what’s going to click. Phil and Ray [Romano] just really connected, and Phil really fought to get the best cast possible. I think I was in three of the first six episodes, and you could tell right away there was something special there. Ray was a better actor than they could have hoped for. He and Patricia Heaton had great chemistry. Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle were great. And Brad Garrett was this incredibly funny character. Very few of the writers left, which is unusual, because typically when a show is successful, the writers get new deals and leave. 

I did about 20 episodes over the course of the years. There was always great camaraderie on the set. 

What’s ahead for you? 
TM: The word is there will be a lot of television pilots shooting this spring, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to get back into television, because I’ve been away for a couple of years. Wicked has been a spectacular job. I love it, and I hope I can come back to it in the future. My daughter is a junior in high school, so I’d like to be home [on the West Coast] so I can see her through the rest of high school and get her settled into college. I have a son at U.C. Santa Cruz. So it would be nice if some television work would keep me home for a while. 

What advice would you share with current drama students and recent alumni about succeeding in the performing arts? 
TM: I would say the No. 1 thing is to be nice to everybody – an underrated quality in show business. There just aren’t enough people being nice to each other. I would also suggest continuing to study and to work on anything you can to get experience. 

Another piece of advice Phil and I followed: if you want to be an actor and work in New York or L.A., move there the day after you graduate. Don’t go home. If you go home, the summer goes by, six months go by, a year goes by, and what do you have to show for it? Phil and I had a couple of hundred dollars for an apartment, and we moved into the city and got terrible jobs. Then we got slightly less terrible jobs. But we were in the city pursuing our careers from the day after graduation. 
You have to give yourself that little kick in the tail and get yourself to right where you want to be. 

Wicked photos: Joan Marcus


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