Like a lot of young boys in the '50s, Troy Evans grew up wanting to be President. Instead, he flunked out of college, got drafted, spent two years in the Vietnam jungle, came home, got shot, was arrested for "15 to 20" assaults and served almost two years in a Montana prison.
Near the end of his term, he reassessed his options. "What can you do (where) nobody's going to ask if you're a felon?" You can act.
For 15 years, Evans has built a career doing just that. Along the way, he's also developed an old family tradition: storytelling. The result is "Troy Evans' Montana Tales and Other Bad Ass Business," opening Saturday at the Pacific Theatre Ensemble.
"I think of storytelling as having a life in the West," said the actor who hails from Montana. "Those are my strongest memories of my grandfather--telling stories. And it's something I've always done."
The artistic spirit first surfaced in a college rock band.
"They wouldn't allow me to sing," he said. "The only way I was able to stay in the band was by owning most of the equipment--and the car we traveled in. But because all my energy was going into that, I flunked out of school and was drafted." He shook his head. "I grew up in Kalispell, a little town where cynicism does not run rampant. It never occured to me that my government would send me 13,000 miles to kill people if there wasn't a very good reason."
Evans is less sure about it now. "Some people can go into that kind of situation and come back and shine it on. Some people can't. An experience like that is incredibly damaging. When I got back, I was completely out of my mind--and I didn't know it. I was so hurt, so angry, so ashamed. I was also incredibly violent."
And he was completely unprepared for the anti-war sentiment raging at home. Two days after stepping off Vietnam soil and eight hours after arriving in Oakland, he was on his way to visit an old girlfriend at UC Berkeley--in full military dress--when, he says, he was shot in the back with rock salt by a uniformed police officer on a horse. (The police department declined to investigate when he couldn't supply a badge number.) It was the start, Evans says, of a "bad attitude."
Returning to Montana, he opened a bar and began three years of boozing and brawling. "In those days, there were still a lot of people in Montana who fought for recreation. Once I threw a drug dealer out of my bar--violently, and he blew up my car." Another time, he says he broke into a closed bar believing there was a party going inside. When the owner arrived with the police, Evans attacked him with a crowbar.
The final straw came when he assaulted a man who had made a pass at a customer's wife. "I broke his leg, fractured his skull," Evans said calmly. "They teach you those things in the Army." Then he went after the victim's friend--who was on the phone, summoning help--beating him with the phone until people pulled him off.
Looking at a lengthy term for aggravated assault, Evans says he angled to get himself committed for observation at a nearby Veterans Administration hospital--where he planned to be the model patient, play up the Vietnam experience and hope the doctors would respond with sympathetic reports.
Since he was drinking two fifths a day, Evans said, it would be easy to make them think he was an alcoholic. To convince them he was crazy, he showed up for the exam as Groucho Marx. It worked.
Halfway through his stay there, Evans began to realize how far gone he really was--and decided to turn it around. "All the time I was growing up, I had been a fervent young Republican," he said with a smile. "Student body president, class president, Mr. Clean-Cut Young Guy. The funny thing is, during the insanity of the bar years, I'd gotten involved in a little community theater group, because I still had an image of being this regular guy."
After serving his 19 months in jail, Evans says he got on the GI Bill and enrolled in college. A year later, he was offered a scholarship to Santa Maria's Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts where, he figures, he appeared in "40 to 60" plays in four years. Since 1979, he has lived in Long Beach and commuted--in one of his three Studebakers--to jobs in town. (Credits include "L.A. Law," "Cheers," "Hunter" and "Night Court" on TV, and the film "Planes, Trains and Automobiles.")
The informal storytelling began years ago in late-night venues around the country. Evans insists that most of the material is light: "Even the stories about prison have a comic edge. I never used to talk about Vietnam. But last year I went to the monument in Washington and it was a wonderful experience. I thought, 'Maybe I should start telling these stories.' Audiences seem to be filled up by them. I hope at the end they feel . . . idealistic. I do. Well, maybe (I'm) a cynical idealist."