You may not recognize the name Kevin Conway but you surely know his work. Of course, if you saw him in “Funny Farm” or “Mystic River” you still might not have known his name because he doesn’t appear in the credits. Billing counts in Hollywood and if you can’t be featured it’s best not to be mentioned at all! After beginning his professional life working with IBM he pursued acting by studying at the Dramatic Workshop at New York’s famed Carnagie Hall, later moving on to the famed HB Studio. He soon found himself doing regional theatre, including what he calls his favorite role, that of Randal P. McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” He made his Broadway debut opposite Charles Durning, Stacy Keach, Sam Waterson and Raul Julia in the play “Indians.” In 1973 he won critical acclaim for his role as Vietnam veteran Teddy in Mark Medoff’s play “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder.” Among his other theatre triumphs: the role of Dr. Frederick Treves in the Broadway production of “The Elephant Man” and Lawrence Garfinkle in both the New York and Los Angeles productions of “Other People’s Money.” He made his film debut in 1971’s “Believe In Me” and gained recognition as Weary in “Slaughterhouse-Five” that same year. He also has the distinction of having starred in the first film made exclusively for PBS, “The Lathe of Heaven.” Mr. Conway has appeared recently on the popular CBS television program “The Good Wife.” When he’s not working he devotes his time and celebrity to a great cause: the rescue and adoption of animals. He recently appeared in a PSA to benefit the Best Friends Animal Society (you can view here) and encourages his fans to either visit their web site – www.bestfriends.org – or their local no-kill shelter and find a home for a new friend. He also recently started his own web site – www.kevinconway.com – which is currently under construction. Mr. Conway recently took the time to sit down with MovieMikes and talk about his career:
Michael Smith: You won an Obie and a Drama Desk Award for your performance in the off-Broadway show “When You Coming Back, Red Ryder?” Did you feel like you had “made at” after being recognized for your work?
Kevin Conway: Absolutely. Before that even. I had done several plays before “Red Ryder,” including my favorite role, McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which I did for almost two years in New York and Philadelphia. I couldn’t wait to get on stage every night. It’s really American mythology, that whole play. McMurphy being the tragic figure…not that something bad has happened to you but knowing in advance that something bad IS going to happen to you. But you have to do what you have to do anyway. It’s like Oedipus…just don’t ask who your mother is. Let it go. And he can’t let it go. That role is still the most satisfying I’ve had. I’ve been very lucky. Even before that. My first play in New York was a John Guare play, which wasn’t too shabby. And the second one was a play called “Saved,” directed by Alan Schneider, one of the great stage directors of that era. Alan did the premieres of all of the Becket and Albee and Pinter plays. And it was an important play. It was an English play and at the time England had a person called the Lord High Chamberlain. The Lord High Chamberlain would go to a play and if he didn’t like it…if he didn’t think it was a suitable play for the public…it was over. Gone. He would withdraw their license to perform. Edward Bond was the writer of “Saved” and other plays. He went to court over “Saved” and the court ruled that his work was free speech. Nobody forces you to go to a play. If you don’t want to go see it don’t go see it. The play has a right to be performed. And I did the play in the states with James Woods. It was a very controversial play. So that was really the first time I did anything that got noticed. I then did a play called “Moonchildren.” I was a little long in the tooth to be playing a college kid, but then so was the rest of the cast, which included James Woods, Stephen Collins, Christopher Guest, Edward Hermann, Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker and Robert Prosky. And even though it didn’t make it to Broadway there was a big hue and cry because of the way it was mishandled…the way it was publicized. We started off in Washington D.C. I had just finished filming “Slaughterhouse-Five” in Czechoslovakia and went right into the show. I spent one day in New York and then went down to Washington. From there I moved on to “Cuckoo’s Nest” and then to “Red Ryder.” Then I did “Of Mice and Men” (with James Earl Jones) and then I went Hollywood for a few years! (laughs) I came back to New York and did “The Elephant Man” for two years, than I did the television production of “The Elephant Man.” Then back to film and television for most of the 1980s. Then “Other People’s Money” came along and I did that for two and a half years. I also directed the show in Chicago and San Francisco and starred and directed the show in Los Angeles, which was very successful. It ran almost a year there. And I have to tell you it all went by fast. I turned around and it seemed like I had just done “Red Ryder” the other day!
MS: Your first major film role was as gangster Vince Doyle in “F.I.S.T,” which was Sylvester Stallone’s follow up to “Rocky.” What are your memories of that production?
KC: Well, the film was shot in Dubuque, Iowa and one of the reasons they chose Dubuque was that the film took place in the 1930s. They needed a place where there weren’t a lot of television antennas. Dubuque was one of the first towns in the country to have cable television. It was like an experiment to see if cable was viable. So because of that the town was perfect architecturally to play the 1930s. Lots of old trucks and warehouses. It was perfect. I was a little nervous, being the big city kid, thinking I was going to go crazy spending months in Dubuque. But it turned out to be a very friendly town with lots of great things to do…mainly involving alcohol. (laughs) On our off days. So we filmed there and then went to California for a lot of the interior work. And that’s how I ended up in Hollywood. I just stayed there for a couple of years.
MS: You worked with Stallone again when, as director, he cast you in “Paradise Alley.” As “Paradise Alley” ends it’s revealed that your character, Stitch Mahoney, secretly wears women’s undergarments. Can you share how that came about.
KC: That came about because I have a big mouth! We were having lunch and I was talking about what a strange, repressed little Irish guy Stitch is. He’s always talking about his mother and he’s got his gang of thugs. But on the other hand, there’s something a little “off” about him. So I said to Sly, “you know, I bet that under all the black clothes and the fedora…the stickpins and the black gloves and the gold teeth…I bet he wears garter belts and women’s underwear. Stallone stopped eating and looked at me. “I love it!” (delivered, I should say, in a perfect Stallone voice). So we wound up shooting two endings. One where there is a big battle in the ring and I get thrown out. And one where I’m wearing break away pants, which come off when the guy grabs me. And it had to be ME getting thrown out of the ring, because I had a line to say as the guy holds me over his head. So we did about ten takes of me being thrown out of the ring from various angles. And I became an honorary stunt man. Stunts Unlimited gave me a hat that said that. And they were incredible. They basically had to catch me each time and it’s almost like a science. Each one of them takes a different part of your body as their responsibility so that when you come flying out of the ring somebody goes for your hips and somebody grabs your head and neck and somebody grabs your legs and you fall on them and they act like they’re being crushed but they are really taking care of you. I didn’t get a scratch on me.
MS: I visited NYC the day AFTER “The Elephant Man” closed on Broadway! You starred in the production as Dr. Treves and later reprised the role in the television version. How do you continue to perform a role for so long without losing focus?
KC: People ask me that question a lot. “How can you do the same play eight days a week?” And I tell them it’s like walking into a party or some kind of event. You get a sense of the atmosphere. Sometimes you feel like the party is going to be a dud. You can just tell…there’s no energy in the room. The next one you walk into you can feel a spirit going on. It’s always different. Different people create different energy. So each audience is different. And I always approach the theatre as if I’m doing it for the very first time. It’s always an investigation. And any good actor will tell you that from the moment the play gets started and you begin doing it over and over again you’re really not doing exactly the same play. Your own mood, your own sense of the energy you have that day…you start investigating the moments in the play and you find that they change. Sometimes in subtle ways…sometimes in pretty big ways. The very last performance I did of “The Elephant Man” with Philip Anglim…we found a moment. We got off stage and looked at each other and said, “Damn, why didn’t we do that? Why didn’t we find this nine months ago?” It was a great little moment that we had and we found it in the very last performance. Of course we found others during the course of the show as well. But there is something about theatre that has an immediacy. And it’s really your life. If you’re doing live theatre you’re not going to be able to stay home and watch “Jeopardy” every night.
MS: Can you tell us about how “The Elephant Man” came about?
KC: The show started out as a small play in London called “Deformed.” It played at one of the smaller fringe theatres…almost a warehouse really. It was a small, fringe theatre production and it didn’t go anywhere. But it happened to be seen by Philip Anglim, who was on vacation in London. And he saw it and realized there was a good part for him (Anglim, like Mr. Conway an American actor, would go on to receive Drama Desk and Theater World Awards for his work in “The Elephant Man,” as well as a Tony Award nomination. When the show was performed for television he also earned Emmy and Golden Globe nominations). He persuaded a producer friend of his to bring it over here. It started out as a very limited production. It was only scheduled to run for about two weeks. And at the last minute the producer got a special off-Broadway contract so that, if we could, we could make it an open ended run. There was no theater. When the show started we were working in the basement of a church on Lexington Avenue that had about 60 seats. He had to rent chairs for people to sit in. We opened up and I never had this experience…by the second or third night I knew it was going to be a hit just from the audience reaction. We opened and the reviews were fantastic. So we moved to Broadway. But because where we originally were was so small, the set had to be totally reconceived for the bigger Broadway stage. And we wanted to wait for the Booth theatre, which is the primary theatre on Shubert Alley. And so while we waited for the Booth to come available I went down to Texas to make “The Lathe of Heaven.” I had about ten days before we re-opened on Broadway so I flew to Dallas and shot the film.
MS: You also played Johnny Friendly in the Broadway production of “On the Waterfront,” a role played so memorably in the film by Lee J. Cobb. Was it hard to step into a role that so many people already have a preconceived notion of?
KC: The thing about Johnny Friendly…Lee J. Cobb was perfect. Nobody could do it better than him. He’s in the movie that’s the classic. Nobody could top it. In the original Budd Schulberg story there is no happy ending. It’s based on a true incident that really happened about a guy like Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando in the film, played in this production by Ron Eldard). He really did do what happens in the film…he testified. But in real life not long afterwards he disappeared. And nobody ever saw him again. And the character that Johnny Friendly was based on, he wasn’t that big. Not like Cobb, who was physically imposing himself. There was something a little off with him. They hinted almost that there was a kind of homo-erotic relationship with boxers. And his power came from the position he had, not from his own physical strength. So we went more for that. There was still a big fight at the end of the play…I got my ribs cracked during that fight with Ron Eldard. But we went for it…we tried to do a good stage fight, which is difficult. You have to be careful when you have a knock down dirty fight on stage…you can’t just go for it because you’re doing it eight times a week. You don’t want to make a mistake. I mean look at “Spider-man.” You make a mistake and you don’t have a show anymore. (Mr. Conway is referring to the new Broadway production “Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark,” which has had several cast mishaps and has gone through constant delays). We choreographed something that was pretty brutal for Broadway and one night I got hit in the ribs. Ron used to box so he could punch! So I wore a protective vest after that. But it was more that Johnny Friendly was dangerous because of what he could have done, not what he could physically do. And Ron also played Terry much differently than Brando. Which I think was right because you can’t imitate the roles of a classic film that almost can’t be improved on. James Gandolfini was in the show, as well as David Morse, who was playing the Karl Malden part. I really think the show could have been good but there was just too many backstage problems between financing and switching directors. The show never really gelled, never came together. I was hoping it would succeed because when you looked at the drama that was being performed on Broadway at the time it was primarily British plays. They would import them over with the British cast. The British cast would play for awhile then leave. They’d re-cast the show with American actors and then the show would close in a month. And “On the Waterfront” was purely and American story. And it had a cast that wasn’t movie stars. When I won the Drama League award for the show I made a speech that might have been ill advised. I didn’t have to but I did. All of the producers were there and I said, “you know, it used to be that Hollywood would come to Broadway to look for talent.” That’s where Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda and Jimmy Cagney…Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn. These people all came from Broadway. They were brought out to Hollywood by the studios because the studios wanted the “class” that came with having a Broadway actor. Cagney and Joan Blondell were brought out to reprise a small role they had in a show that was owned by Al Jolson. Jolson agreed to give the studio the rights to make the film if they agreed to take Cagney and Blondell. And I said what’s happening now is that you have a play with me and Ron Eldard and Penelope Ann Miller and David Morse…we’re not well known actors. We don’t necessarily sell tickets. But we have good reputations. We’ve all done theatre. I’d probably done more than all of them. But the mindset became “if we can get a Hollywood actor who’s between movies and get him to play this part for a couple of months we can get a big advance sale on his or her name.” And if that actor leaves they’ll get another, hopefully cheaper actor with a name. A play is about chemistry. You have to find the right chemistry between actors. You rehearse. If you can bring in a movie star and make your money back, that’s fine. But don’t forget to do plays that are worth doing with the right actors in them. And I said now it looks like Broadway is looking to Hollywood for actors to come slumming for a few months, when it used to be the other way around. I said I’m not really holding my breath to see Kevin Costner’s “Coriolanus.” These are movie actors…very good movie actors, but movie actors.
MS: You directed and appeared in the film “The Sun and the Moon.” As an actor, what was your hardest challenge as a director and vice versa?
KC: I had a small part in the film. I did it to save money because I was very inexpensive. Zero. I didn’t have to pay myself anything. It was the first, and last, narrative film I’d ever directed. I didn’t expect to direct it but the original director fell ill and I had to jump in and do it. I helped them raise the money for it. It was a nice little film and I’m still proud of it. It’s a film about the Puerto Rican experience in New York City and how, among all the Hispanics, the Puerto Ricans are the only ones who are American citizens. They can freely travel back and forth to Puerto Rico…they’re not aliens, if you will. And it’s caused a cultural schizophrenia. People have emigrated here from the island to get jobs and raise their kids, but then they want to go home. They want to go back to the island. But the kids don’t. The kids become “Americanized.” In New York they call them “Nuevo Ricans.” And this causes an interesting dynamic because the parents tend to be more old fashioned and conservative in their values while the children were wilder. The story is about a woman who is from Puerto Rican heritage who lives with my character, a sort of Phil Donahue type who is a talk show host. And I’m a terrible husband…I cheat on her and everything. So she runs away from her comfortable Manhattan life style and the only place she knows to go to is where she was born, which was the South Bronx. And when she gets there she becomes involved with the people who live in her building…very different characters. The film got some very nice reviews but by the time it came to be released it was almost, may I say, too soft for the market. Even though it took place in the South Bronx there was no crime in it. No rats. There was a problem with the landlord but that was it.
MS: What do you have coming up?
KC: I’m leaning toward the theater. That’s what I want to do next. I’m always open to offers. I was just offered something but I didn’t like the part. I’m very lucky in that I don’t have to take every part that comes along. This one was for a pilot and I really didn’t want to do it…I didn’t want to lock myself in. I’m really looking to do some theater. That’s what I like to do. A short run…no two year shows anymore. If I could find a show here in New York and get those muscles going again, that would be great. And hopefully a big movie somewhere in Paris or Morocco or someplace else I’ve never been. I’ve been to Paris but I’ve never been to South America. Maybe something in Buenos Aires!?