After seven years away from the musical stage, Joel ("I-didn't-know-you-could-sing") Higgins is back: playing stern Mr. Nowack to Pam Dawber's winsome Miss Balash in "She Loves Me." (It's at the Ahmanson through Aug. 2.)
"After five years on 'Silver Spoons'--being identified with that and with playing a father--I felt it was time that people saw me in a romantic role," explained the Illinois native. "And I love doing this." So much so that after the original 2 1/2-week run in Santa Barbara, Higgins opted out of his original summer plans--a movie role--and into the play. Whether or not it was a wise career move is a moot point.
"In this business, you really can't have a game plan," he shrugged. "You do what's important at the time. Also, it's the area of least resistance: They want me--it's a good deal--I better do it. And it's important to me to have more of a British career, not to shed things as I go along, but gather them, like a dung beetle. So I'm just building up my particular ball of dung. When I finally lay it down," he laughed, "it'll be a substantial ball of dung."
At the same time, the actor realizes he's bucking the loyalty of a lot of die-hard series fans.
"There's so much information coming at them," he said philosophically. "It's a lot easier to cubbyhole someone, put a handle on them--and then you don't have to think about it anymore. The industry does it, the public does it. And I don't think it's necessarily a wrong thing--for some people, it's all they can do. But some of us insist on saying, 'I have more to offer than just that, and it would bore me to do just that.' "
In spite of those restless feelings, Higgins stressed that his tenure on "Silver Spoons" was a happy one.
"It's amazing what you can get used to," he said cheerfully. "But it's dangerous, too. It's so easy when you're doing a series, making lots of bucks, to think that you live like that. You have to say, 'I'm an actor: By definition, work is providential.' See, half of an actor's life is getting work. Then you get a series and it's like an unnatural state: 'I'm doing the same thing year after year.' Actors aren't keyed to do that. They're used to doing this well and being accepted--then going over here and being accepted for that, then going there."
Higgins blunts the myopia of series television with other, very different projects: composing commercial music for his New York-based jingle company and writing a musical with a friend--good buffers against actor's unemployment.
"When a job ends," he noted, "everyone feels bad. Suddenly, you're out of work. But I've been lucky, worked solid for eight years--a year and a half on 'Salvage 1,' a year on 'Best of the West' and five years on 'Silver Spoons.' And in the meantime I did movies, miniseries, I went back to Broadway (in "Oklahoma!") for seven months. So by the fifth year of 'Spoons,' I wasn't unhappy to see it end. I liked everyone; we did a good job. But it was time to move on."
Did success always come easily?
The actor shook his head. "I didn't get the national tour of 'Grease' till I was 30." Graduating college with an advertising degree in 1966 (he's 43 and doesn't mind people knowing--"It's like, 'Hey, I got this far, I'm still alive' "), Higgins went to work at General Motors. Yet off-time was spent in a comedy stand-up/folksinging act ("We did a lot of loony tunes, paid a lot of dues"), dutifully zigzagging across the country to avoid his Army physical.
Eventually, it caught up with Eventually, it caught up with him and he was drafted. ("Seven-foot football players with bad knees, they couldn't go. But me, I was skinny and young--I could die.") Luckily, Higgins was sent to Korea, "where it was safer but colder. I was a grunt in a foxhole." Spying an out in the entertainment division, he auditioned, lied about his qualifications and promptly became sergeant in charge of entertainment for the 7th Division.
It wasn't long after his return to the States--while touring with two Army buddies in his "Green Apple Nasties Revue"--that Higgins got tagged for a Kentucky equity production of "Guys and Dolls." Then came "Cabaret," "Grease." A move to New York netted a soap opera ("Search for Tomorrow") and a Broadway show ("Shenandoah").
"I was doing the series all day," he recalled happily, "learning to hit my marks, get the lights, do things right, memorizing lines--then I'd run to the theater and do that all night. . . . I was young enough then to stand it."