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An Inventor of Historic Character

Theater: Robert Prosky, who plays Thomas Edison in 'Camping With Henry and Tom,' delves deeply into himself--and the past--for inspiration.

July 20, 1996|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Twinkly-eyed Robert Prosky has one of those faces that can be cuddly and avuncular one minute and gravitas incarnate the next. A seasoned performer who's been in more than 150 plays ranging from classic drama to light comedy, he can change personas in an instant.

And yet after 50 years of acting, Prosky still prefers to do extensive character research--and not only the kind that involves books. Rather, his favorite texts are other people.

"I like living outside of the centers of my profession," said the Washington, D.C.-based actor, 65, during a recent conversation in a theater greenroom. "Not that I dislike actors or theater people, but somehow I want a larger, more balanced background.

"I'm amazed that many actors can only do this and do it well, because I can't do it as well if what I know of human life is only that life that an actor has to lead," he says. "I'm working from my own self to create not a character, but another human being. I'm a son and a father, and I live in a community, and all of that helps."

Prosky also turns to books, though, particularly when his character is based on a real person, as in his current assignment. He portrays Thomas Edison in Mark St. Germain's "Camping With Henry and Tom," opening at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sunday. The play is based on a real 1921 incident in which Edison and Henry Ford (John Cunningham) met with President Warren G. Harding (Ronny Cox). The play is directed by Paul Lazarus.

Playing Edison is a different task than becoming a purely fictional man. "There's a great deal more available to you," says Prosky, who played the same role off-Broadway in 1994. He has also played other historical roles, including the William Jennings Bryan character in "Inherit the Wind."

"I enjoy research. It's no great chore to me."

That may be an understatement. "I'm on my third biography of Edison in preparation for this," Prosky says. "You don't know what is going to work. You don't know what you're going to use."

*

As much as Prosky likes to read background material, though, he's not much on reading scripts. "Plays don't get to me right away," he says. "It takes four weeks in rehearsal. I've never been able to enjoy them as much reading them as rehearsing them. It's in the act of doing where the actor works best."

He has, in fact, always been a hands-on man--a characteristic he attributes partly to his "lower-middle-class Polish background."

Raised in Philadelphia, his love of the stage blossomed early and just kept going. "I started in high school when I was 15, playing the stage manager in 'Our Town,' " Prosky says. "It's a role I've repeated many times, as recently as 1990. And I don't want to do it again."

Prosky's career profile has also had some consistency. "I started off kind of as a funny fat man, if you will," he says. "I've always been a character actor--even at 15, playing the stage manager."

Prosky began acting professionally when he was in his 20s. Shortly after that, he began to work regularly at D.C.'s Arena Stage. "I went down from New York to do one play and I've worked at Arena for 23 years," he says.

His work there has included Shakespeare, Chekhov and Brecht, as well as contemporary plays. "Arena was always at the cutting edge of theater in those days--the '60s and '70s. I spent most of my time one step behind, trying to catch up."

Over the years, Prosky also found time to branch out from the D.C. theater. He has twice been nominated for a Tony--for his work in "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1984) and "A Walk in the Woods" (1988).

David Mamet, in particular, is a playwright Prosky has been frequently associated with in the years since the actor originated the role of the failing real estate salesman Shelly Levene in "Glengarry Glen Ross."

Prosky may be best known to TV audiences from his three-year stint as Sgt. Stan Jablonski on "Hill Street Blues," but he has also worked often in film.

Throughout it all, Arena Stage has remained his home base. "I married and raised a family [in Washington]," says Prosky, who has three sons, all in their 30s, two of whom are also actors.

Prosky's son John, in fact, is reprising the role of Col. Edmund Starling that he created alongside his father for the premiere of "Camping" at Berkshire Theatre Festival in upstate New York in 1994, as well as off-Broadway.

Even after two previous outings, Robert Prosky says he continues to find inspiration in his character. Edison was someone who loved creativity: "He loved the theater, even though he was so deaf he could hardly hear," Prosky says. "He read omnivorously. Certainly there were mechanical texts and engineering texts, but his favorite author was Victor Hugo. To the end of his life, he ordered books by the shelf."

Edison was, in other words, a challenge made in acting heaven, for a thespian such as Prosky. "Brilliant mind, flawed individual: cynical, problematic childhood," he says of his character. "All this is grist for the actor's mill. Such a juicy character to play!"

* "Camping With Henry and Tom," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Sunday, 5 p.m. only. Regular schedule: Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 25. $13.50 -$39.50. (800) 233-3123.

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