Carolina Conversations with Judson Theatre’s “The Sunshine Boys” Actors Don Most and Robert Wuhl

by Carrie Frye

For the fall production of its sixth season, Judson Theatre Company brings two familiar faces to the Owens Auditorium stage with actors Don Most and Robert Wuhl for Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys.” The show runs Oct. 19-22 at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst. This comedy focuses on a long-time vaudeville duo of characters, Al Lewis and Willy Clark, who went their separate ways after working together for more than 40 years but come back together for an unanticipated reunion.

Don Most, 64, makes his way to the Sandhills from southern California, resonating with “Happy Days” fans as his most notable character, Ralph Malph, from the 1970s sitcom. With a long career of screen and stage roles, Most also enjoys time behind the camera directing. However, his most recent project, “Donny Most Sings and Swings” has him in the role of entertainer, performing a variety of classic songs from the “Great American Songbook.”

Robert Wuhl, 66, is recognizable from stage, television and movies, throughout a storied list of roles from “Batman,”“Bull Durham” and “Good Morning Vietnam,” to HBO’s “Arliss.” Beginning his career in stand-up comedy, he brings his appreciation for the art of comedy to the role and his admiration for playwright Neil Simon. With his wife, two dogs and golf clubs, Wuhl will be making the trip from New York.
Catching up with Most and Wuhl as they ready for rehearsals, the actors share their development of their characters in “The Sunshine Boys,” and their mutual love for their craft.

ONC: What drew you both to the roles in “The Sunshine Boys?”

DM: I have never seen the actual play. I knew about it. I have seen parts of the film. Since it is Neil Simon, it is going to be very funny. With it being a two-character play, I knew it would be a lot of fun to do, and as an actor, I enjoy those kinds of plays, where it is two people on stage for the bulk of the show. It’s all about great dialogue and character and acting. It presents some challenges, but I knew the pedigree of it. The other thing that attracted me was that Robert had already agreed to do the play. I really liked the idea of working with him. I have met him once or twice. I think the two of us are going to make a great team. The rapport, dynamics and chemistry for these roles are going to mesh really well.

RW: I am very much looking forward to it. I am a golfer (laughs). When they first approached me, I was shocked, but I said yes, almost immediately, and I am looking forward to coming down there. I like what they are trying to do there with theater, so I am a supporter of that. I got a call from my agent to say there’s an offer for “The Sunshine Boys” for you to play Willy. Neil Simon has always been one of my heroes growing up. I’ve met him a few times. I saw “The Odd Couple” as a child. Neil Simon is Neil Simon, and to get an opportunity to do that is quite terrific.

What do you want to bring to your characters?

DM: I so far have purposely avoided watching the movie, because I didn’t want to be unduly influenced by George Burns’ performance, and he won an Academy Award for that role. The thing is I was a big George Burns fan growing up, so I am sure on some subliminal level, he is going to enter my psyche. At this point, I have just been reading it a lot and going over the scenes, letting it sort of simmer, percolate and seep into me. When we get into rehearsing, we will be finding it a lot more so. There are certain things I can relate to. These two guys have worked together for a long time and were known for being this legendary comedy team in vaudeville, and now, getting back together again. I have some similar experiences. Way back on “Happy Days”—40 years ago—I worked with Anson Williams, who played “Potsie,” and we just did something together again a few years ago with a pilot for a TV show, which was a very different character thing. A lot about these guys and performing are things I can certainly relate to. A lot of it feels very real to me.

RW: There’s a long shadow with Neil Simon. I am a generation behind him, but I grew up in the same East Coast concept as Neil Simon. I grew up in surburbia New Jersey, and he was a Brooklyn kid, but still, it was the same New York rhythms he developed. I grew up in that world. So in learning the lines, of which there are many, it lends itself. I just keep reading it over and over again. Being an actor who started in stand-up comedy, although I was never part of a comedy team, which is a whole different mindset, there’s always a fear that one is going to break apart, and can you go on without him? Like show business is pop culture, so as you age, the parts and choices become fewer, and you are always in fear of that. The play is a lot about aging. That’s something else, because my mother-in-law is going through dementia now, so I have dealt with that, which is something you think about as you get older. What’s interesting is that when George Burns and Walter Matthau did the movie, but the play is slightly different, the characters are supposed to be in their 70s, which I am not there, yet (laughs). However, Walter Matthau was about 10 years younger than I am now when he did the part.

Have either of you spent any time in North Carolina before, other than your “Bull Durham” days, Robert?

DM: I have been to North Carolina but not the Pinehurst area, so I am looking forward to coming there. I love golf, so I am hoping for some playing opportunities, too. This will be my first visit for work.

RW: No, other than the 10th anniversary of “Bull Durham.” I don’t play as much golf as I would like to, but that’s what you’ve got to do there, so I hope I can find the time.

How did you develop your love for acting, and do you have a preference for comedy or drama?

DM: I knew pretty young that acting was what I wanted to do. I actually started my pursuit of the arts with singing. I was going to a school in Manhattan where they taught singing, dancing and acting, and through that, I got picked to be in their professional review and got booked for clubs in the Catskill Mountains in the resort area in upstate New York. After that summer, I switched gears and enrolled in a more serious acting workshop, and that’s when I started really pursuing it and wound up getting a manager and going out on auditions. I started doing a lot of commercials in New York City. I went to Lehigh University. My parents were supportive, but they knew how precarious that kind of career could be, so they wanted me to have a college degree and something more solid. That’s why I didn’t major in acting, and college was a backup. In the meantime, I was doing a lot of theater in college and working in the city. Then I went out to L.A. after my junior year in college for the summer to make some contacts and pursue acting. At the end of the summer, the agent said I should take six months off from school, so that’s what I did. I was cast in another guest starring role and then got “Happy Days.” And it went on the air pretty quickly.

RW: You are really always doing drama. Drama is comedy and tragedy so you are playing both. I think one of the most misused phrases in the English language is sense of humor, in the sense that you cannot feel it, touch it, taste it, hear it or see it, and that’s what professionals do, they find the humor. There’s an appreciation of humor. I’ve been fortunate to make people laugh, and what’s better than laughter. It’s something I take seriously and play it seriously. With comedy, it’s a thing I have always enjoyed. I took drama classes, but I always enjoyed the art form, because I wanted to be a storyteller, to do acting, writing, directing, producing … I want to be part of that world as a storyteller, and you want to convey it, depending upon the part that you are playing. I do love collaboration and working with other people. Writing is a very solo, frustrating art. Comedy depends on timing, and, sometimes, you don’t know what’s going to get a laugh. There’s little things you would have never thought would get a laugh, and when it does, you have to wait for that. By the fifth performance (of “The Sunshine Boys”), my timing will be perfect (laughs).

Do you have a greatest role or one that resonates with you throughout your career?

DM: Ralph (“Happy Days”) is obviously the one I am most known for because of the success of the show and on and on in reruns. It is probably not my favorite role. I enjoyed the development and evolution of it. Then it changed, and I didn’t feel it was growing as much. It is certainly a highlight of my career, but I had many roles I have enjoyed doing more. In some plays, most of what I was cast in before “Happy Days” was dramatic work. I just landed a comedy and got well known for it. One of my favorite roles as an actor was in a play I did in Omaha, Nebraska, “Wait Until Dark,” which is a psychological thriller with a killer. That’s the part I got to play. It was a real challenge and something so different and very rewarding. I do love comedy though. I know I am going to enjoy working with Robert. This play is heavy on the comedy, and the more I read it, the funnier it is.

RW: I have enjoyed every single thing I’ve done. I love the process and people. I have been fortunate to work with very talented people: Barry Levinson, Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kevin Costner… There was a little movie called “Mistress” that I did with Robert De Niro and the late Martin Landau. I enjoy them all, especially the whole HBO experience with “Arliss.”

Do you prefer the stage to the screen, or does one medium appeal to you more?

DM: I really love doing it all. They have their own unique challenges, using different parts of your brain and muscle memory. I probably would pick acting and singing. Directing uses a different part of your brain to create a vision.

RW: No, they are different though. When you are doing stage, which I haven’t done a ton of, and when you are in an ensemble piece, the one thing that takes a unique discipline is doing the same thing every night over and over again and keeping it fresh without changing things. You just have to give yourself over and trust that you are going to do the best job you can.

Can you share a little about balancing family life with the demands of your work schedule?

DM: My wife and I have two daughters, no grandkids, yet. I have been going back to singing and performing the “Great American Songbook.” I love doing that. I love being up there with a big band, sometimes, 17 pieces. I usually do “Mac the Knife” as my encore. Bobby Darin was my guy, and incredible, so I usually close the show with it. There could be some more directing coming up, too. This play is good timing for me. I am feeling the drive to take on different roles now.

RW: I have two kids that travel with my wife and me a lot, and each has four paws. Those are my kids, and they will be coming down there with us. They go everywhere with us. Other than that, I am everybody’s godfather, and I enjoy being that.

Do you have any specific goals for your Second 50?
DM: Definitely. One of the top ones is having a second career as an actor that will be close to the level of success that I had on “Happy Days” and having my best work ahead of me as an actor. I want to continue to direct and sing and record. I feel like my best work is yet to come.

RW: It is not a question to me of a real bucket list, per se. There are a couple of mottos I have. One is, “Life is always better when the home team wins.” That pertains not only to sports, it pertains to family, it pertains to politics and it pertains to business. I also have always loved the line, “If you don’t pay for first-class, when you die, your kids will.” So I urge people to enjoy life for themselves. You’ve earned it. I just want to continue to working on good projects with terrific people and be excited. There’s also that old line, “Make a plan, and God laughs.” You have to be willing to go with the flow and improvise. So right now, I am looking forward to North Carolina and doing the best job I can.

For more information, visit www.judsontheatre.com