COSTA MESA — Broadway musical star Harry Groener, a three-time Tony Award nominee, came back to Los Angeles for the TV pilot season this spring. He couldn't get arrested.
"Nothing happened," he said. "They were looking for stand-up comics or people in their 20s. I couldn't even get a callback. And I went up for a lot of stuff."
He shrugged. The look on his face, more frustrated than hurt, told volumes about the actor's life at the top as well as the bottom.
"I was talking to some friends and they said, 'It's the same way all over. None of us are getting callbacks. Nobody in our age range.' I don't have any hard feelings about it. It's just the reality. So here I am at South Coast Repertory."
Groener is playing Captain Bluntschli, the Swiss "chocolate cream soldier" in "Arms and the Man"-- George Bernard Shaw's century-old, romantic satire about love, war and class pretensions (running through June 30).
It's the second time Groener has done the play--"The only Shaw I've ever done"--but the first as Bluntschli. The last time he was Bluntschli's rival, Sergius, at the American Stage Festival in New Hampshire.
"I had a really good time then, but there's a difference here: the rehearsal process. It's much deeper, more thorough, much more detailed. Martin is an expert on Shaw as far as I'm concerned," he noted, referring to SCR artistic director Martin Benson, who staged the production.
Groener, 44, looks very relaxed, his legs splayed, as he sits for an interview at the theater. He could pass for 10 years younger because of a baby face that he's only now beginning to outgrow. Dressed casually, he wears the fanny pack of a serious traveler. Which he is.
Together with his wife, Dawn Didawick, also a bicoastal Broadway actor, Groener divides his time between their Beechwood Canyon home in Hollywood and their Chelsea apartment in Manhattan. Perhaps not surprisingly, he has had the sort of stage career many of his peers might envy.
Groener made a Tony-nominated Broadway debut as Will Parker in a hit revival of "Oklahoma" in 1980 and spent eight months on the boards at the Palace Theater. He originated the role of the princely Munkustrap in the Broadway production of "Cats," his second Tony-nominated performance, which kept him on the boards at the Wintergarden for 14 more months.
A few years later, James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim brought him in to replace Mandy Patinkin in "A Sunday in the Park With George." Groener starred as Impressionist painter George Seurat for another four months on Broadway (before reprising the role at SCR in 1989).
And that's not counting the three years he starred on Broadway as the lead in "Crazy for You," which won the 1992 Tony for best musical. Groener originated the role of Bobby Child, which earned his third nomination.
(Unfortunately, Gregory Hines had the best-performance Tony sewn up that year. He blew out the jams in "Jelly's Last Jam." Nobody--including fellow nominees Nathan Lane in "Guys and Dolls" and Michael Rupert in "Falsettos"--was going to win that prize but him.)
This is not to say that Groener hasn't had his share of Broadway flops. Reeling off their names, he almost seems proud of them: "Harrigan and Hart," "Sleight of Hand," "There's a Life After High School."
But as versatile as he is and as hard as he works--his most recent nonmusical roles were the bartender in the Off-Broadway production of Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" and the Jungian psychiatrist in James Lapine's "Twelve Dreams" at New York's Lincoln Center--Groener says the most underrated actors around are on the TV soaps.
"I actually think they're the hardest-working people in the business. They come in every single day and have lines to learn every single night for the next day's shoot. You have to be incredibly fast. . . . I'd rather sing and dance; it's easier," he said.
"Even when I was a regular on 'Dear John,' "--a prime-time TV sitcom, starring Judd Hirsch--"you had to learn very, very quickly, and the show was only on once a week."
One of the great pleasures of being cast in SCR's "Arms and the Man," Groener noted, was that all the actors had their lines down before the first rehearsal.
"I've been in so many situations where four weeks of rehearsal are spent with actors who are still learning their lines," he said. "I can't stand when that happens. You cannot begin to work unless you know your lines."
Born in Germany but raised in San Francisco since childhood, Groener comes from a performing-arts family. His mother, a coloratura soprano, was a professional opera singer; his father, initially a concert pianist, had a cabaret act. When they came to this country, however, both parents gave up their careers.
"They had to earn a living," he said. "It was the basic immigrant story. You have to find a job, find a place to live and a way to pay for it. But they both continued performing in their spare time."
His mother played the leads in amateur operettas. His father had a Bavarian band. He was a composer too, writing music and songs and whole operettas that got on at ethnic German-American events.
Does that background perhaps explain Groener's utter lack of show-biz snobbism?
"Not really," he said. "I just like to work."
* What: "Arms and the Man."
* When: Through June 30.
* Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) freeway to Bristol Avenue; go north. Turn right onto Town Center Drive.
* Wherewithal: $28-$38.
* Where to call: (714) 957-4033.