RANCHO BERNARDO — Once upon a time there was a kind but rather introverted civil engineer named John Issacs. He worked for Firestone in such far-flung places as Liberia and Portugal.
Issacs had a bubbly, extroverted wife named Jacqueline who enjoyed meeting people, but he didn't--"I never knew what to say to them," he explained--and so he rarely spoke to strangers.
Then, in 1974, the year he turned 50, things began to change.
The first thing to change was his appearance.
During a hunting and fishing trip in the Colorado Rockies he grew a beard and let his hair grow longer. Both grew out very thick, very wavy, very white. When he got home--he was living in Denver at the time--everybody said he looked exactly like Santa Claus.
"I'd be driving down the freeway and people would yell things like "Hey, Santa, is the traffic too heavy for the reindeer today?" he recalled. "Wherever I went--grocery stores, restaurants, on the street--someone would come up and say, 'Did anyone ever tell you that you look just like Santa Claus?' And the funny thing was, I loved it! It was nice having so many people smiling at me."
After he started looking like Santa Claus, in fact, Issacs said his whole personality began to change. He found himself growing friendlier, more outgoing. Life became full of small, amusing incidents.
"That Christmas season I was standing by an Orange Julius stand in a Denver shopping mall when the mall Santa Claus clumped over to me and said, 'You're the real one, aren't you? Can I get a photograph taken sitting on your lap?' "
The second thing to change, in that year he turned 50, was his career.
Earlier this month, while Issacs was visiting the Acapulco restaurant in Rancho Bernardo, to collect some donated toys he planned to take to a Tijuana orphanage, he talked about his metamorphosis from engineer to character actor. A character actor who plays Santa Claus every December.
Fell in Love With Acting
Shortly after he grew a beard, Issacs played the ghost of Captain Hook in a production of "Treasure Island" at Denver's Theatre Under Glass. It was children's participatory theater, and children were called up from the audience to join in.
"I fell in love with acting immediately," he said.
Under the lights of the Acapulco's lobby, his rosy cheeks glowed. His round blue eyes--everything about Issacs seems slightly rounded--shone. He was wearing his custom-made suit, of scarlet Pendleton wool and white rabbit fur, and children eating dinner with their parents kept jumping up in their chairs to shout, "Hi Santa!" A passing waitress whispered "Don't forget to bring me a car."
"Jacqueline encouraged me to go for it--to become a professional actor," he said, as he adjusted, to a more comfortable spot on his nose, a pair of small gold-rimmed spectacles that once belonged to his great-grandfather.
It was, he added, a very generous gesture on Jacqueline's part. During his first year as a professional actor his income dropped drastically. At the time they were living in a house on several acres of land, and their household included three large teen-age sons, several horses, several large dogs and a jackass named Dusty.
The first commercial he made was for Chevrolet. He played the part of a grizzled old prospector, standing by the roadside watching a new Chevrolet coming toward him and comparing it with his jackass. The jackass was played by Dusty.
"He was a sweetie, very intelligent," Issacs said of Dusty, who died in 1979 at the age of 25. "We got a lot of jobs together because, for a while, my card read 'Have Jackass--Will Travel.' He always behaved himself. I've had him in the Grand Ballroom of the Denver Hilton."
In 1976 and 1977, the Denver Tourist Board put Issacs, dressed once again as a grizzled prospector, on its posters. A friend who was the general manager of a TV station found him an agent who found him roles such as Sam the Miner and Dutchy the Saloon Keeper in the Bowfils Theatre production of "Paint Your Wagon." Soon he also began to get roles in movies.
"Never any major roles. They were all small ones, but there were a lot of them," he explained. Typical of his roles, he said, was the one he played in the TV miniseries "Centennial."
"I was the old prospector who found Chad Everett, after he'd been shot on the plains, and brought him back to town."
His favorite role, however, has always been that of Santa Claus. Issacs has played him so many times he's lost count. The man who once never knew what to say to strangers now talks to hundreds of them every Christmas season.
"But as Santa I always have definite things to say. I ask if they've been a good boy or a good girl. What do they want Santa to bring them? If they're the right age to be in school I ask how they are doing and encourage them--in a fun way--to work hard.
"I feel that playing Santa is a responsibility, particularly when you are talking to young children. You have to stay in character."