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For Seniors : This Painter Is an (Art) Work in Progress

November 06, 1994|LINDA FELDMAN

If passion is a measure of youth, Malcolm Wittman is a very young man.

He's not dismayed that the art world doesn't know a Wittman when it sees one. He's determined that it eventually will, and by the looks of him, time is on his side.

He has the build of a longshoreman, the look of a graying cherub and the hands of an artist. He's fearless, and he has to be. At 67, Wittman is still a work in progress.

"When I was young, I never knew what I wanted to be, but the whole idea of creating something--that has always been my passion," he said.

Friends still ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, and now he finally has the answer. "I am a painter."

Wittman, a resident of West Los Angeles, is the youngest of four children born in New York, the son of a pattern maker whom Wittman characterizes as a "hungry scholar." Both his parents died before Wittman was 16.

When he enlisted in the Army in 1944, he was sent to Princeton, N.J., to study engineering in a specialized training program. While he was there, Wittman and 11 others were invited to Albert Einstein's home for a Passover seder. The great scientist was then based at Princeton University.

"It was hardly a traditional seder--no one asked the four questions (about the meaning of Passover). I mean, Einstein had already answered one of the big ones. All that I can remember is Einstein dismissing the idea that an egg can stand on the wrong end," Wittman recalled.

By the time he finished his training, the war was over, but the Army shipped him out to Austria as part of Allied occupying forces. When he returned to New York, he attended Hunter College as a liberal arts major under the GI Bill.

Wittman eventually married, had three children, moved to the suburbs, studied classical guitar and earned a living as a background artist for animated short subjects. Seventeen years later, he was divorced. That was the beginning of his trial-and-error journey through the arts.

After animation, he did live-action industrial films, taught filmmaking here and abroad and then worked as a stage actor in Dallas.

"A broken romance drove me from New York--the town wasn't big enough for both of us, so I settled in Texas," he said. He was 50.

Wittman became an actor by accident after doing a documentary about aging. He was required to do on-camera commentary, and someone saw him and offered him a job in the local theater.

"It's a lot more glamorous to say I was inspired by Chaplin and Picasso--which I was--or the book "Lust for Life"--which I was--but, really, I was personally inspired by these people in their 70s, 80s and 90s who defied the nonsense about aging. They said to me, 'I have so much time to live.' And so I wanted to try everything," he said.

Wittman's first stage role was in "The Sunshine Boys." He was chosen to play Al Lewis, one of the leading roles. He said it wasn't much of a stretch because he remembered his father having a competitive, love-hate relationship with his uncle.

"I had Velcro-mouth--my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, and the only way I could go onstage was to tuck lemon strips into my cheeks," he said.

He went on to perform in the courtroom drama "Inherit the Wind." That's when someone from Los Angeles invited him to Hollywood in 1981.

At the time, Wittman said, he wasn't ready for this town, so he returned to Dallas. He made his living appearing in commercials and wrote a screenplay about how the government lied to the American people about the effects of atomic testing in Yucca Flats. He returned to Los Angeles in 1984.

"I wrote about issues, and it wasn't entertaining. But I paint in a visually entertaining way. You can look at a picture for five minutes and walk away, but a play or a movie--you got to sit for an hour and a half and get your money's worth," he said.

Wittman still earns his living doing commercials and voice-overs. He uses his fees--sometimes as much as $7,000 for a day's work--to rent a studio where he paints. He's applying to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's program for emerging artists. He participates in the Playwright's Group, continues to act, and every Monday delivers Meals On Wheels.

"I like to feel part of the community. We need to be responsible for each other. It's part of being a grown-up."

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