Seventy-three-year-old Bert Conway, who will make his Orange County debut this weekend in the Grove Theatre Co. production of Stephen Metcalfe's "Vikings," arrives with a most distinguished background. Since he launched his career in the late '30s, fresh out of acting school in New York City, he has worked with some of the most illustrious figures in the field--Clifford Odets, Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan, to name just a few.
With all that behind him, is he excited about spending four weeks playing a Danish-American patriarch in Garden Grove? You bet he is.
"The grandfather's a tough, proud old guy with a lot of memories, principles and love," said Conway. "He's very human, very real--a character that really hits close to home. It's the kind of role that touches, and illuminates, your own life."
Clearly, this man has lost none of his youthful zest and affection for the theater. "Tired of it?," he boomed during a recent break in rehearsals. "Leave the theater? Are you crazy?"
He wasn't quite born in a trunk, but close: His parents were New York-based vaudevillians who played the national circuit in the 1920s. "My father was an acrobat and juggler, my mother a singer and pianist," Conway recalled. "And they made it, bless them, all the way to the Palace," the Broadway theater that was vaudeville's mecca.
Young Bert, following in the footsteps of his older brother Curt, enrolled in the Neighborhood Playhouse School in New York, then joined the famed Group Theatre in 1937. Founded in 1931 by Clurman, Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford, the Group Theatre was celebrated for highly innovative, powerfully societal-oriented productions.
One legendary project was Clurman's original staging of Odets' "Golden Boy" in 1937, featuring Luther Adler (as the boxer hero), Morris Carnovsky, Frances Farmer, Kazan, John Garfield, Karl Malden, Martin Ritt and Howard Da Silva.
Conway, who was an assistant stage manager for "Golden Boy" and was given a walk-on part as a boxing-arena employee, still remembers that production with awe. "I was just 21, barely out of drama school. Yet there I was, rubbing shoulders with likes of those people!"
A year later he played a lead--a reform-school youth in "Dance Night," staged by Strasberg. Roles in Odets' "Night Music" and Marc Blizstein's "No for an Answer" followed.
After serving with the Army in World War II, Conway took off for Hollywood. His movie debut --again, a brief role but again, in a landmark venture--was in William Wyler's 1946 epic, "The Best Years of Our Lives." He continued to play supporting roles in films throughout the late 1940s, most notably in Kazan's interracial drama, "Pinky."
But in 1950, Conway left Hollywood, caught up in the sweeping investigations and anti-subversion purges by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. "It was a time," he remembers, "of incredible fears and complete idiocy in Hollywood. It was a very dark, very tragic era" as actors, directors, writers and others were blacklisted by the studios.
Back in New York, Conway resumed a full-time career in theater, starting as an understudy in Arthur Miller's monumental "Death of a Salesman" (late in the run, he said, he got to play Biff Loman "for one glorious week"). In 1952, he played a fight commissioner in a major Broadway revival of "Golden Boy," staged by Odets himself and starring Garfield and Lee J. Cobb.
Subsequent work in New York included an off-Broadway revival of "Deep Are the Roots," which he directed, and appearances with Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival. His last Manhattan performance was in the mid-'60s; since then he has toured nationwide in "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" and has been back in Hollywood for supporting roles in movies ("The Three Musketeers," "Little Big Man," Kazan's "The Arrangement") and TV ("St. Elsewhere").
He has also increased his work in smaller theaters. With Los Angeles' Group Repertory, he has had major roles in Miller's "A Memory of Two Mondays" and in Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!"
Underemployment, however, is still part of the actor's lot. "There's always the lean times, the long spells between shows," noted Conway, who has done time as a cabbie, restaurant cook and mill worker.
"But there's nothing like (the stage) when luck is with you, when everything clicks and you're in the right place at the right time."
"Vikings" gives him a meaty role. He plays Yens Larsen in the production directed by Jules Aaron. Daniel Bryan Cartmell, a Grove regular, will play his son. John Walker will play his grandson.
Larsen has "lived his whole life with a proud heritage, and he wants to pass this on as an anchor to the younger generations," Conway said quietly as he discussed the serious themes at work in "Vikings." "He's an old man wanting to help others find their way through that labyrinth called life."
Then Conway smiled, philosophical solemnity put aside, his grand jauntiness back in its place. "Let's face it, the grandfather's a damn fine role. For someone who's been in the business this long," said Conway, his voice rising, his arms in a sweeping gesture, "I sure can't complain about that!"
The Grove Theatre Co. production of "Vikings" by Stephen Metcalfe will be presented from Jan. 16 through Feb. 13 at the Gem Theatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. Show times: Wednesdays through Saturdays 8 p.m., Sundays Jan. 24 and 31 at 7:30 p.m., Sundays Jan.17 and Feb. 7 at 3 p.m. Tickets: $11 to $14. Information: (714) 636-7213.