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A Busy Stage in His Career

Robert Mandan's manic fall schedule has the veteran actor doing double duty, working two plays at once.

September 29, 1996|Susan King | Susan King is a Times staff writer

A familiar face in the world of TV comedy, Robert Mandan is best known as the womanizing, pompous businessman Chester Tate on the cult 1977-81 ABC comedy series "Soap." He's also played equally bombastic characters on the comedy series "Private Benjamin" and "Three's a Crowd."

In person, however, the veteran of such Broadway shows as "Applause" is polite and rather soft-spoken--apologizing for being tardy for an interview, taking pains to accommodate those around him.

For the past few years, Mandan has worked nonstop on stage. This fall, he's doing double duty: On Saturday, he opens in "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," at the Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood; then he begins directing a revival of John Patrick's 1950 drama "The Curious Savage," opening Nov. 8 at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood.

He was seen in the spring of 1994 in Michael Arabian's "A History of Shadows" at the CBS/Radford Studios, played Col. Pickering last year in the Theater League's production of "My Fair Lady" at the Alex Theatre and recently closed in the drama "Just Men" at the Stella Adler.

Mandan also starred with Matthew Broderick in the La Jolla Playhouse production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" two years ago, although he did not follow the cast to Broadway. He and director Des McAnuff, Mandan says, had artistic differences over the interpretation of his character, the goofball chief executive of the World Wide Wicket Co. "I regretted that [I didn't go to Broadway] for a while," he says. "I thought I was perfectly cast in the show."

He did travel to New York eight years ago with the musical "Mail," which had been a huge success at the Pasadena Playhouse the year before. Mandan says he was devastated when "Mail" flopped on Broadway.

"I tell you personally what happened to me when we came home. I was in a terrible state," Mandan remembers. "A friend finally said to me, 'You are in mourning.' I finally realized it was true. I was numb."

Broadway audiences, the actor says, were enthusiastic during the two weeks of previews. "Opening night, we had, of course, friends, family and a huge standing ovation," he recalls. "My wife and I went to Sardi's before the cast party and there was nobody there. When a show is a hit, Sardi's is packed. We stayed until the reviews came out and then we went to the cast party. It was awful because they absolutely loathed the show. Every time I go to the Playhouse, someone says, 'Can't they bring 'Mail' back?' "

A Southland native, Mandan caught the acting bug in school. "I think in junior high I became really conscious I was doing a play," he says. He majored in theater at Pomona College but never graduated.

"I snuck off to Palm Springs," he says with a smile. "[Producer] Herb Rogers had a theater in Palm Springs and one in Highland Park, outside of Chicago. I went down and got a job as a Mexican poker player in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.' "

He got his big break in the next production when he starred opposite veteran actor Edward Arnold in "All My Sons." The unknown actor had to beg the producers to give him a chance.

"They wanted to get another [Hollywood] name and at the first rehearsals they put [the decision] off on Mr. Arnold. When we did the first read-through, he came up to me and shook my hand and said [to everyone], 'Thank you for this boy.' He was incredible. That was a fabulous experience."

"All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," based on Robert Fulghum's international bestseller, offers a wide range of situations and observations of everyday life. Adapted by director Ernest Zulia, the play features original music by David Caldwell. Beth Howland, Michael Tucci and David Naughton also star.

Trying to describe "Kindergarten" is a bit of a challenge for Mandan because it's not a typical musical. "This is really storytelling," Mandan says.

"We go in and out of the story," he continues. "Sometimes we are the characters and we talk about the character and another actor is playing it. It's very hard to define. We start out as kindergarten students and then college kids and then we are adults from that. Each character has a prominent story to tell. Michael [Tucci] gets to sing the prettiest song about Charles Boyer and his commitment to his wife and her death and his suicide."

Of Patrick's "Curious Savage," Mandan says: "It's very gentle and moving. I don't quite know how the schedule [between the two projects] will work out. This is going to be a busy fall for me. It's wonderful."


"ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN," Tiffany Theater, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Dates: Previews Tuesday through Friday. Opens Saturday. Plays Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Indefinitely. Prices: Previews, $20; general admission, $32. Phone: (310) 289-2999.

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