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In 'Immigrant' : Acting Pair Has Special Chemistry

September 29, 1986|JANICE ARKATOV

The first time Guy Raymond met future wife Ann Guilbert, he was a guest on an episode of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (1965).

"I was the only stranger on the set," he recalled. "It was the last show of the season, and everyone was anxious to do it and get out. Nobody paid much attention to me, except Annie (who played neighbor Millie Helper), who came over and offered to go to dinner."

The beginning of a beautiful relationship? Hardly. Raymond and Guilbert had a nice dinner, went home to their respective spouses, and did not see each other again for four years--during which time he became a widower, she a divorcee--until he came across Guilbert at a Theatre West workshop . . . and didn't recognize her. ("In the TV show, they'd had her looking kind of frumpy, but now she looked really lovely.")

Since that auspicious re-meeting, Raymond and Guilbert have been together--at least in spirit, since diverse acting assignments have often physically kept them apart. That all changed two years ago, when they became involved in the original Denver Center staging of Mark Harelik's "The Immigrant: A Hamilton County Album," an association they've continued with the play's current incarnation at the Taper (through Oct. 12).

Having acted together occasionally in the past, Guilbert, 57, maintains that "the great part about playing husband and wife (as they do here, as the respectable Perrys of Hamilton, Tex.), is that we know each other so well. You can't help it, that (dynamic) gets in there. Especially the comedy, because we're always putting each other on, being silly around the house when it's just the two of us."

"So when we get on stage," echoed Raymond (a youthful 75), "there's a chemistry involved that wouldn't be there between two people who weren't married. An arch of an eyebrow has meaning to us. It's very easy--and it's fun."

As with most good things, "The Immigrant" (the author's tribute to his grandfather, Haskell Harelik, a Russian Jew who settled in Texas in 1909) came about mostly through luck. When the rights were pulled on a production of "Hank Williams" at the Denver Center, Harelik was given carte blanche with a play of his own.

"Mark called us and asked us if we were interested (in playing the older couple who take in and befriend Haskell). We said, 'Sure, but show us something.' He showed us three pages he'd written in longhand and said, 'Here's the situation: This peddler (Haskell) comes down the street. You're on the porch with your wife. He says something in Yiddish and you say, 'Ima, get in the house.' And I said, 'OK, Mark, we'll do it.' It was wonderful, because the parts were really written for us."

Both feel that their Midwestern backgrounds helped with the regional ease. (She grew up in a "little bitty town" in Minnesota where her father was the doctor; he shuttled from Niagara Falls to New York City to Blackfoot and Boise, Ida., with his musician parents.)

"When you travel that much," said Raymond, "you run up against all kinds of people, and if you're a sponge, you absorb a lot of it."

A less pleasant byproduct of his travels was an introduction to anti-Semitism, which Haskell also encounters in Texas.

"When we lived in Blackfoot, there was only one other Jewish family--and from the earliest age, I felt different. But I really became aware of it when I was about 9, when one day we were driving past the house of some boys I knew, and I heard them say, 'There go the kikes.' That's when I knew."

Before long, he also knew he wanted to perform. First came a career as a comedy dancer (touring the United States and Europe with the big bands), then a stint in stand-up comedy ("having worked in the poshest places, I had to break in all over again"). Next came Broadway (including "Mrs. McThing" with Helen Hayes), regional theater ("Annie" and "Oliver!" at Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria), film ("Marjorie Morningstar" and "Gypsy") and television (a string of commercials, including a six-year spot, as the ubiquitous Prewitt, for Autumn margarine).

For Guilbert, who began her career doing comedy sketches with the Billy Barnes Revue, the move toward dramatic work occurred relatively recently--with stage roles in "Blood Wedding," "The Royal Family," "Foxfire" and " 'night, Mother." She's appreciative of the financial stability that enables them to pursue the work they want.

Raymond agreed. "Doing regional theater is great, but it doesn't buy you a house, a Mercedes, put your kids through college. The 25 years of commercials allow us to do this now: We can leave the house (in the Palisades); our kids (Guilbert's daughters, actresses Nora Eckstein and Hallie Todd) are grown. We can do just about anything we want.

"But the best part of being in this field is that you can keep doing it as you get on in years. As long as you can walk and talk, you can act."

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