Wearing workout clothes and dripping sweat, an apologetic Ron Eldard begs off to catch his breath after an arduous American Buffalo rehearsal with co-stars Freddy Rodriguez and Bill Smitrovich and director Randall Arney. He graciously offers an unopened bottle of water, quenches his thirst soon after, then settles into a couch in the Marcia Israel-Curley Founders Room at the Geffen Playhouse. Hugging a sofa pillow, the former Golden Gloves boxer does his own version of “covering up” in anticipation for whatever punches may come. As the interview goes on, however, some of his defenses drop.
Roll With the Punches
Eldard grew up as an instinctive, observant fighter who willed himself to win.
Living in New York as the second youngest of seven children and Irish stock, he suffered a horrific sucker punch at three years of age. His mother died. His family was scattered among various relatives (he avoids any discussion of his father). Eldard landed in arid, mountainous Utah. But 10 years later, he returned to New York to live with his married sister Lana in Queens.
“I don’t talk too much about this stuff,” states Eldard, “mostly because it’s best for me, for acting, to keep certain things”"¦He pauses. “Moving around with a lot of relatives, different family members, my brothers and sisters was a difficult childhood. Moving from Utah back to New York was hard as a kid.” However, “in the bigger picture for what I do, and as a person, the experience was helpful.”
How so? “I learned how to be polite in Utah, very polite, which is a good thing. There’s a certain kind of behavior there — more country, with manners. Then with New York…” Eldard smiles with a shrug of the shoulders. He indicates the dichotomy of opposite worlds, beyond the 2000-plus miles between them.
Explaining further, “I’m very comfortable in cities; I’m very comfortable on a farm. They inform me as a human and certainly in what I do”¦ Really tasting the gamut of both, I think it was good.”
“Good” is relative yet can be widely interpreted. How “good” is it at 13 years old to work 30 hours a week while attending school? The punches landed solidly on his young body, but Eldard kept working.
“We didn’t know how poor we were — us kids. Well, I knew we were poor; I just didn’t know we were that poor. All my family, we worked. We started early — paper routes, whatever. I worked a lot of hours at a chicken restaurant near the house. I could lift things, move things; I could do work, real job work. I was even a street magician to make money.”
The Upstart Enters the Ring
Eldard’s grip on the sofa pillow begins to relax. He reveals more of his toughness along with a depth of gratitude.
“As a boy, I was into sports: martial arts, judo, contact sports. Still am. I also got into boxing then, went to professional gyms. And I would get into fistfights all the time.” He moved a lot, and “you have to find your way. In Queens — the last place I lived was Ridgewood (a neighborhood) — it was rough.”
“The cool guys and the jocks had to respect me because I was strong” — he bench-pressed more than 300 pounds. But “even though I was good at sports, they didn’t like me. I hung around with who you might call the geeks, the weirdos. A cool guy — a bully — would pick on one of the geeks, and I’d then beat the hell out of the bully. I’d think, “˜Someone’s gotta do it.’ That would happen pretty much every year. I became a bully of the bullies.”
“Understand that’s not very healthy. It leaks out in other places. If you’ve got that in you — picking fights, picking battles, picking causes — at a certain point it’s an endless road. You gotta take care of yourself. If you have addictions of any kind, issues of behavior…go get well.”
One path presented to Eldard led to a life’s work. “I always loved movies, putting on plays and shows, writing with my brothers and sisters, but it never occurred to me to be an actor. It was Queens! I was either going to Stuyvesant (High School) to figure out what I’d do, or pursue sports in a serious way.”
“I had some wonderful teachers — school teachers — at different times in different ways, who let me know there were other things out there. There was this English teacher, in junior high school, who recommended acting to me. I was like “˜Really?!?’ Now I look back and think, “˜How could that not have occurred to me?’”
While continuing long work hours, Eldard attended New York’s High School of Performing Arts. Agents noticed the youngster’s talent, but he staved them off. He loved schooling and classes.
“I studied two years of conservatory at SUNY, then at a bunch of schools with private teachers in Manhattan — HB Studio, Actors Playhouse, a class on Theatre Row, a clown school. I wasn’t in a rush to act professionally.”
The Towel Won’t Be Thrown
Good fortune soon came his way. Broadway! In 1986, the opening bell for his career had rung. Hired as an understudy for Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues, he felt the world was his oyster. But after the emotional high came a dire low.
“There was a mass firing of a huge amount of that cast. Neil saw something and didn’t like it. My very first job.”
Eldard hit the canvas, and a standing eight was being counted. The now unemployed actor wanted to quit. “My agent told me stories how rough it was for Katharine Hepburn — with four Academy Awards and one of the greatest actors ever.”
“It’s a brutal, rough business. You either have it or you don’t. You can either take that beating” or else “let it go and move on, best you can.”
Eldard bounced back. Pouring his emotions and energy into the gym and into the theater, highlights occurred in both arenas in the late ’80s. Representing Gleason’s Gym in the light heavyweight division of the Golden Gloves Competition at Madison Square Garden in 1988, Eldard advanced to the finals but eventually lost.
Once a fighter, always a fighter. “It was the only fight I lost. I screwed that up by cutting too much weight; dropped nine pounds in a day and a half when I only needed to drop three. That dusted me. [His opponent] won two rounds to one and deserved to win, but he wouldn’t have gotten me a second time.” The shaggy, blond Eldard ruefully grins, then heartily laughs.
The other highlight came in the form of a wedding — Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding — with Eldard appearing as a replacement in the role of the groom Anthony Angelo Nunzio. Stage and screen work opened up: Servy-n-Bernice 4Ever at Provincetown Playhouse, Aven’U Boys at the John Houseman Theater, The Years at Manhattan Theatre Club, his own one-man show Standing Eight Count at Naked Angels, along with impressive film roles including Sleepers and Bastard Out of Carolina as well as NBC’s ER as Ray “Shep” Shepard. There was also On the Waterfront — a return to Broadway.
In 1995, Eldard geared up for the part of Terry Malloy, the once promising boxer who “coulda’ been a contender.” This production became a Main Event, but some would later consider it doomed from the outset.
Vincent Canby, theater critic for the NY Times, wrote, “It can’t be easy for Mr. Eldard, acting in the shadow of the greatest of all Brando performances. To the extent that the text and the production allow him, he creates his own character, shy, quick-witted at unexpected moments and very moving in the scene that’s the highlight of the play as it is of the film.”
Sixteen previews, eight performances, and Eldard’s experience on Broadway was over, yet again. His grip on the sofa pillow loosens even more, as Eldard’s face lights up.
“That was a legendary, le-gen-dary, troubled production. And one of the great experiences of my life! It was an insane production. In-sane! I have stories I’m actually writing into something. You would not believe what happened, happened. Who would think this with actors like David Morse, James Gandolfini and others, with Budd Schulberg who adapted his Oscar-winning screenplay? Unfortunately it was never really a play, the proper play it should’ve been. It was insane, great, awful — all of them. It had beautiful possibilities but was headed toward an iceberg. I still have my journals from that time. Some”¦ great”¦ stories! And valuable lessons.”
The lessons continued to enrich Eldard’s stage choices. In 1999, he starred in the Off-Broadway production of Neil LaBute’s Bash: Latter-Day Plays, with Calista Flockhart and Paul Rudd, which later transferred to the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. In one of the three dark plays, Eldard portrayed a dishonest, pleasant mid-level manager revealing his secrets to an unseen hooker in a hotel room.
That year was a barnburner for Eldard as he went toe-to-toe with Brian Dennehy in the award-winning Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s 1949 play Death of a Salesman that also starred Elizabeth Franz. Eldard, known for changing his look as he interprets a character, was like a physical yo-yo as he played Biff.
“I went from Bash into that production. It was cra-zy! I dropped tons of weight going from a business guy to Biff.” When asked about his fluctuating weight, Eldard presents an example. “Think period piece. A plumber steps out of the shower. Now the actor playing this guy has a professional trainer, spends 50 hours a week at the gym. I look at the actor playing the plumber and go, ‘He couldn’t possibly look like that.’ That’s when I kind of check out. I don’t want to confuse that with the human being.”
When reflecting on his Death of a Salesman experience, which played as well in LA at the Ahmanson in late 2000, the husky, rugged Eldard sets the sofa pillow aside.
“It was magical. Bob Falls directed the hell out of that. Brian Dennehy, who is a lovely mensch of a big ol’ barking bear, was a beast.”Â Performing what he calls “one of the top three or four American plays in the last 60 years” was “a joy to play, a joy to listen to. Elizabeth Franz, who played the mother, did great work too. What a beautiful production!” In 2006 Eldard was back on Broadway in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, working again with Jena Malone, with whom he had appeared a decade earlier in Bastard Out of Carolina.
In his corner, Eldard waits with anticipation for the ring of the bell. His next event starts at the Geffen Playhouse in David Mamet’s American Buffalo.
Randall Arney, the Geffen artistic director who’s directing the play, explains the reason for a revival of Mamet’s work (which premiered in 1975 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago). “When researching, I couldn’t find record of a LA production in a space the size of the Geffen. I believe the play is an American classic, and with David now a local playwright, a Geffen production seemed a natural fit.”
“The play’s continuing relevance lies in the fact that the hopes, the tenacity, the craving for love and security, and the disappointments of these characters resonate deeply with us. Like any great work, it reveals what connects us all — despite our vocations or standings. Friendship and loyalty and how they are tested in the ruthlessness of American capitalism continue to be relevant in our current political climate as the less fortunate among us struggle.”
Eldard had just wrapped his work on FX’s Justified, as former military police officer Colton “Colt” Rhodes, when he received a call from Arney. It was four days before the first rehearsal.
“Someone else was doing the part; for some reason it didn’t work out. I wasn’t really ready to do this, having put on all this weight for Justified. But it was a no-brainer once I spoke with Randy. This is one of the roles I’ve wanted to check off, but it’s way harder that I thought.” He laughs. “They’re always harder than you think.”
A statement from Arney mirrors what Eldard says. “The range of skills — intellectual, verbal, physical and emotional — required for the role of Teach is daunting. Ron has the talent and the skills, is a wonderful, fearless collaborator, and is incapable of being uninteresting.”
“Teach is one of the great roles written in American theater,” mentions Eldard. “There’s a reason why guys want to play this role — Duvall, Pacino, Hoffman, Macy, Giammati.
“Characters who are more lost than found, that’s what most humans are — in the gray. To play these guys, you have to make them human. Give them a flash that is honest. That’s where everyone lives — Teach, everyone.”
“No one is in the clear,” he continues. “People will forgive. People do that with humans all the time. Hold on to some kindness, something real, whether it actually happened or is perceived. That to me is the most interesting place to play. It’s harder and it’s more fun.”
The bell has rung, and Eldard is at the ready. Just know he plans to go the distance.
American Buffalo, Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood 90024. Opens April 10. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Through May 12. Tickets: $47-$77.Â www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.
**All American Buffalo production photos by Michael Lamont.
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