Character Generator

Why Tom Parker Never Looks the Same Way Twice

Tom Parker as Nat Moyer in I'm Not Rappaport

photograph by John Anderson

According to Tom Parker, the greatest compliment that he ever received came from a couple who told him that they had seen him work numerous times and just wanted to know two things: How old was he really, and what did he really look like? Those questions pleased Parker so because they signified that he's been doing his job. Parker is a character actor -- one of the city's finest, by the way -- and he devotes a lot of effort to losing himself in the dramatic figures he plays. He will assume a different posture, adopt a different gait, alter the rhythm of his speech, the set of his mouth, the length or color of his hair -- basically, any aspect of his physical self that can be modified short of surgery -- to flesh out a character.

And in the 19 years that Parker has been performing on Austin stages, he has become so adept at transforming himself and has done so in such a broad range of ways that it's no wonder an audience member would be confounded as to his true appearance. He's played men young and old, husbands, uncles, fathers, and grandfathers. He's portrayed a Texas sheriff and a Parisian gendarme, a Norwegian explorer and a Georgia businessman, a carpenter, a prince, a retired security guard, and a half-dozen clergymen of assorted religious persuasions. He's been Dickens' Old Fezziwig and Shakespeare's bully Bottom, Harry S Truman and Ebenezer Scrooge. His performances have been all over the map, so to speak, having included, in addition to the aforementioned Scandinavian and Frenchman, a German, a Japanese, two Russians, three Irishmen, four Texans, six New Yorkers, and eight Englishmen.

As of last Friday, Parker is at it again -- this time masquerading as a feisty octogenarian in the Live Oak Theatre revival of Herb Gardner's comedy I'm Not Rappaport. The production is a notable one for the actor: It's his 25th show with the company. As is appropriate for such a milestone, his part in the production is a juicy character role that lets him showcase his considerable skills as an actor. But it provides a personal touchstone as well: It gives him the chance to reprise the first role that he played for the company nine years ago.

In 1989, when Parker first donned the beret and spectacles of cantankerous Nat Moyer, he had already established for himself a reputation as an actor of impressive range. Five years before, he'd been cast in a Zachary Scott Theatre Center production of Present Laughter by then-artistic director Mavourneen Dwyer, and the experience was so positive that Dwyer cast Parker in eight successive productions over the next three years. She gave him more comic supporting roles, such as paranoid Uncle Harvey in the Alan Ayckbourn farce Season's Greetings and the hapless carpenter Carl in Paul Osborn's vintage Morning's at Seven, but she also handed him several more complex, meatier roles, such as the coldly pragmatic explorer Roald Amundsen in Ted Tally's Terra Nova, the fussy, mercurial title character in Ronald Harwood's The Dresser, and that old skinflint Scrooge. His work was being recognized by critics and his peers in the Austin Circle of Theatres, who nominated him for acting awards, but his creative momentum was broken when Dwyer, his great collaborator, left town in 1987. Then he was cast in the Live Oak show, and that changed.

Live Oak artistic director Don Toner, who directed Parker in that production of Rappaport and on more than a dozen occasions since, was immediately taken with the actor's versatility and craftsmanship. He saw to it that Parker was cast regularly at Live Oak, and his admiration and respect for the actor has only grown with time.

"Tom is a chameleon, first of all," Toner says. "There's no part he can't find the essence of or move into the spirit of to discover that essence. He's a good technical actor, but that's not what he relies on. He relies on the spirit of the human being he's playing. He puts Tom Parker into everything that he does. You hear the first reading and say, `Well, that's Tom Parker,' and then during the course of the process, it evolves that you don't recognize Tom anymore. You know you're looking at Tom, but you don't recognize him.

"I remember Steve Shearer telling me, `I've been in dozens of shows with Tom, and I stand there in the wings and I watch him, and I see this guy in whom a complete metamorphosis has occurred; he's just somebody else.' His fellow artists have such a tremendous respect for him. They hold him in such high regard, as do I.

"Tom is one of the linchpins of Live Oak Theatre. I look for plays for him, and I don't have to look hard, I don't have to look far. Pick a role, any role. Tom has played everything from 18 years old to 80. In The Immigrant, he starts as a very young man and ends up an older man, and you see it, scene by scene, the change, the growth in this human being onstage. As far as risks, Tom is completely fearless. He's not the kind of actor who goes wild, who flails around and gets out of control. But he will go anywhere in search of the moment, in search of the spirit of the character."

Evidence for that can be gleaned from a story both Toner and Parker enjoy telling. Live Oak was producing Calvin's Garden, by Austin playwright Ellsworth Schave, and Toner and director Jill Parker-Jones hadn't cast the play's key figure: a mysterious matron who shows up in the Texas town of Stockdale and expresses a keen interest in Calvin, an artist who left town years before. Since it turns out the matron is Calvin, the role required an actor who could inspire ambiguity as to gender. Toner asked Parker to give it a shot, so the actor gamely put on one of Parker-Jones' dresses, had his face made up, and auditioned. According to Toner, "The only thing I couldn't buy was that he was too tall, just too damn tall to play this part." He chuckles, then adds, with pride, "Tom will try anything. He said, `I don't think I can play this, but if you want me....'"

The amiability of Parker's willingness to try anything -- that "if you want me" quality -- offers another reason the actor is so valued at Live Oak and around town. "Tom's attitude? `I'm waiting in the wings, just tell me which part I'm playing, and I'll be ready.' There's never a moment of temperament, he never pulls seniority," Toner avows. "Tom is the epitome of the artist I have sought to gather into this theatre: Jill Parker-Jones, Janelle Buchanan, Babs George, Steve Shearer,... a long list of people who think of this as their artistic home and I think of as part of the family. A strength comes to the company from having actors committed to building the company and building the theatre, and Tom is at the top of that list of people totally committed, totally willing, available, and more than enthusiastic about the work."

Parker credits much of his even temperament to his experience flying helicopters in the Vietnam War. "As a younger man, I used to be very intense and very impatient. I also had a pretty bad temper," he admits. "After spending two years in combat and being exposed to life and death situations on a nearly daily basis, I've been able to develop an entirely different way of looking at `crisis' situations. First of all, it has become much easier to identify a real crisis from an imagined one. I find that I can grasp the magnitude of a situation more quickly and deal with it in a more calm and reasonable way than I used to. Of course, age also has a lot to do with this. When you are in a combat situation, you learn to size up your colleagues very quickly and determine who you think you will be able to rely on and who you won't. This has carried over into my civilian life as well. I often find the same thing on stage. There are actors who you know will be able to deal with any situation that will come up and help you out of a jam, and there are those who can't or won't. In combat or on stage, dying is never pretty... but at least on stage it isn't permanent."

Talking to Parker, you get a very clear sense of a man who has been able to keep sight of the basics in life and in art. He speaks very directly and plainly about theatre and what he cherishes about it: "the `vibes' from the audience," "that intangible electric feeling you get, especially when things are really clicking," "the chance to do it fresh each performance," and the sheer pleasure, the fun, the joy of acting. "I love creating a character," he says, his eyes flashing. "I love trying to bring this person to life."

Parker's approach to characterization is equally simple. "I start with a mental image or portrait of the character," he says, "an image which also includes mannerisms such as vocal quality, dialect (if any), style of walking, et cetera. I then work on all of the physical and vocal qualities during the rehearsal period. But the end product is the result of making me look as close to my mental portrait as possible."

Parker's string of rich performances (see box) is enough to prove to audiences how effective his approach has been. But for the actor himself, the proof of its effectiveness came the one time it appeared not to be working. Parker recalls that "while I was working on the character of Jimmie Jack Cassie in Translations, I had developed this mental portrait and in the mental portrait the character had male pattern baldness. There were even lines in the script which alluded to his being bald. When we got into the early stages of tech/dress rehearsals, I was having a horrible time bringing the character to life. I felt that everything I was doing had a false ring to it. On Tuesday night, before the Wednesday dress rehearsal, I finally realized that my actual appearance did not match my mental portrait. The next day I went to the barber shop and had them cut and shave my hair into male pattern baldness. Before the rehearsal that night, I assembled the cast and removed my baseball cap to introduce them to the `new' Jimmie Jack Cassie. That night everything fell into place, and the character emerged.

"The really funny part was when I was at the barber shop and instructing the barber what I wanted done. There was one of those guys who hangs around the barber shop and chats with the barbers, and he had exactly the kind of baldness I was looking for. When he heard me say that I wanted my head to look just like his, he said, `I don't know why you want it or for how long, but I'll be glad to trade you for as long as you want.'"

Still, shaved heads and goatees, shuffling walks and stammers, don't tell the whole story regarding Parker's honor roll of dramatic characters. There is a quality in all the figures that Parker portrays that takes them beyond being simply impressive for their detail. Personally, this writer can't think of Parker without recalling his 1986 performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, as rounded and rewarding a realization of that character as I've ever seen onstage. I went back to my own review of that production to see how I had put my sense of Parker's work in words then. I wrote:

The true measure of a performance of Scrooge is in his humanity, and it is here that Parker truly shines. The painful moans he emits when faced with the loneliness and failures of his youth are heart-rending, the childlike glee with which he joins the dance at Fezziwig's and the parlor game at Fred's delightful. His "sea change" at play's end is joyful and touching just as it should be.

Thus, it's almost like hearing an echo when Don Toner describes what he gets from Parker's work: "Onstage, he's so human. We see ourselves in Tom, and we want to. We say, `That's like me a little bit, this character or that, it's like some aspect of me,' so we get to see ourselves in Tom and we like what we see. We see a part of our-selves that we like, and it's just so accessible.

"He's funny, he's rich, he's intelligent, and he's very human. He struggles. I've never seen Tom play a character who is entirely sure of himself. Nothing in the way of arrogance comes across in anything that he plays. He's just honest. This is who I am and this is what I want and this is why it's important to me, and you see such a sympathetic human being. All these characters that Tom has created just make me love humanity, make me love human beings."

I'm Not Rappaport runs through February 8 at the State Theatre. Call 472-5143 for info.

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