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Making a case for known faces

If the charge is luring audiences to `Twelve Angry Men,' George Wendt and Richard Thomas plead guilty.

March 25, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Sacramento — THE voice came from the middle of Row F in the orchestra section at Sacramento's Community Center Theater during a recent matinee performance of "Twelve Angry Men" -- rather loudly, in fact:

"Can you look at him and not think of 'Cheers' "?

This unscripted line accompanied the stage entrance of actor George Wendt, who portrays Juror One in the Reginald Rose drama. Those seated near the woman could only be grateful that the speaker had not jumped to her feet and shouted: "Norm!"

And those in her vicinity most likely cringed when the actor portraying Juror Eight took the stage: Richard Thomas, who also played one of TV's most long-lived and memorable characters, "John Boy" Walton on the 1972 to '81 family saga "The Waltons."

Please turn off all cellphones and pagers, unwrap your candy, and if you don't want to be swarmed by 12 angry audience members, please, please don't say: "Good night, John Boy."

Wendt did not look at all surprised when the Row F incident was recounted during a conversation after the performance. "When did she say that?" he asked, as though he already knew the answer. It happened, he was informed, at the beginning of the show. He nodded sagely and smiled. "And I'll bet after that, she forgot all about it," he said.

True, the woman from Row F offered no further comment during the play's taut 90-minute running time. And after being on tour with "Twelve Angry Men" for about six months, Wendt and Thomas say it's always the same: Thomas says it takes audiences only about 10 minutes to forget that they are watching their TV favorites and get caught up in the drama.

"I'd say not even 10 minutes -- more like 20 seconds," observes Wendt. "It just takes off like a locomotive."

Both actors bring significant stage credits to this Roundabout Theatre Company production, which opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Thursday. Thomas, 55, has appeared in many Broadway plays, including Richard Greenberg's "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way," also for Roundabout Theatre, and in Michael Frayn's "Democracy." His lengthy list of classical roles includes appearing at the Ahmanson in Sir Peter Hall's staging of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Measure for Measure" in 1999.

Wendt, 58, who began his career as a member of Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, has appeared in David Mamet's "Lakeboat," directed by Joe Mantegna, which played at L.A.'s Tiffany Theatre in 1994, as well as in other stage productions in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Though the actors have never worked together before "Twelve Angry Men," they have the distinction of having shared a part: Thomas followed Wendt in the role of Yvan in a London production of Yasmina Reza's "Art," a part Wendt also portrayed on Broadway. Indeed, Wendt thinks it's shocking that the two have never ended up in a project together "because Richard knows practically everyone in the business, and I know pretty much everyone else."

Still, outside New York City, Thomas and Wendt are well aware that it is their TV stardom that fills the seats. The ensemble also includes actors well known to stage audiences -- among them Randle Mell, Charles Borland, Todd Cerveris and Alan Mandell. But that doesn't matter much when it comes to ticket sales in Minneapolis-Sacramento-Portland-Miami.

"It's the nature of the business -- especially if you are going to tour a play. You want to have recognizable people, because plays don't tour much anymore; it's all musicals now," says Thomas, who lives with the ghost of John Boy through daily "Waltons" reruns on the Hallmark Channel. "There used to be plays on the road all the time, and not just light plays -- serious stuff." Thomas sees the tour of "Twelve Angry Men" as part of a minitrend in that direction, pointing to recent touring productions of John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" and Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

In a separate conversation from a taxicab in snowbound New York, Scott Ellis, who received a Tony nomination for his direction of the Broadway revival of "Twelve Angry Men," agreed with Thomas. "In touring, the reality is, you have to have some sort of name value out there, you just do -- that's the way it is," Ellis said. "And I say, that's fine -- I understand that, but I need to find really good people to do this. To just put anyone in there, name or no name, wouldn't have worked."

The two actors certainly were not hired for their jury experience: Both have been called, but neither has served. For Thomas, it was always a matter of a busy work schedule; besides, after playing the lone juror to challenge the guilty verdict -- the Henry Fonda role from the 1957 Sidney Lumet movie -- he expects he'll never make the cut. "We've had a lot of prosecutors and judges come up after the show and say: 'You're my worst nightmare,' " Thomas says.

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