Austin Hargrave / AUGUST
En español | Tom Hanks is in a new movie called A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It’s a story about the life-changing friendship between Fred Rogers, the beloved children’s-show host, and a skeptical journalist. We asked Tom if he would write about the importance of friendship in his own life, and here’s what he wrote for us — and for you.
In 1978, when I was completing my second season with the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland, with all of two leading roles on my yet-to-be-created résumé, I was in the company of peers who had been assembled from theaters all across America and talent grown right there in Cleveland.
I had gone from being an unpaid member of the intern program to a place in the professional company. Being in an ensemble of actors — “The actors are come hither, my lord!” — is to breathe rarefied air, to be in a family of artists that, at times, can be dysfunctional to the point of warring factions. Sure, we had some creative fireworks, but six shows to mount and eight performances a week from July to Thanksgiving had us laughing more than fuming. Much of the laughter came from two members of the professional company: George Maguire and MichaelJohn McGann.
In my first production the previous summer, Hamlet, I had been cast as the servant Reynaldo, who has a single scene with Polonius (usually cut from productions). I also carried a torch, waved a sword and marched in shadow as a soldier of a passing army. George was Guildenstern (I understudied Rosencrantz), while MichaelJohn was the Player King. From our first Hamlet rehearsal in May 1977 to our final performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona in November 1978 (me, Proteus; George, Thurio; MichaelJohn, the Duke of Milan), these two actors shared their joyful lives and professional passion with all of us in the company. When I was around them in the dressing room, in the wings, at the bar after the show or taking in the Feast of the Assumption in Cleveland’s Murray Hill, they were the professionals I admired, examples of the kind of actor I wanted to be — and the kind of human being I hoped to become.
Courtesy the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival
With a freshly printed Actors’ Equity union card in my thin wallet, I had a Rubicon to cross. I was an unemployed actor. I had spent two seasons playing shoulder to shoulder with actors from all over the regional-theater map, from Minneapolis’ Cricket Theatre to repertory companies in Missouri, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. I had never been out of California before getting the job in Cleveland. The comfort of the West Coast was calling me back to find what work I could in San Francisco or Berkeley, near where I grew up, or to woo the Harsh Mistress of Showbiz, who reigns over Los Angeles — to gamble against the odds like so many had before. I could go anywhere. All of my worldly possessions fit in my 1970 VW Beetle. So I asked around: Where should I go?
George and MichaelJohn made quick work of telling me: I would go to New York! Just as they had! New York City is where actors and artists go to test their talent and their wherewithal! In New York City, I would be a part of the grand community of Players, learning as much from the pulse of the city as from any performance I’d ever given! With the luck of serendipity, I’d audition for off-off-Broadway and off-Broadway and Broadway! And movies and TV and commercials and industrials! For cruise ships, for dinner theaters! For every professional theater in America! I would sell my car to bankroll the move to the City That Never Sleeps!
OK! That’s what I did! MichaelJohn and I drove east on I-80 together, from the Cuyahoga to the Hudson, delivering a transported car to the docks of Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. I slept on his couch for too many weeks, in the apartment he shared with a playwright and actor who didn’t know me from Adam but made me laugh all day. MichaelJohn typed up my résumé on his battleship of a Royal typewriter (which he has since given me). When I finally found a horridly dark and busted-up fourth-floor walk-up in Hell’s Kitchen, he cosigned the lease for me — a moment of risky generosity I will never, ever forget. The New York City winter was new to me, so cold that a walk outside made my jaw hurt. I did not have winter clothes. George gave me a jacket. He also came by with milk to go with the Entenmann’s blackout cakes that MichaelJohn would bring by. George gave me his old portable black-and-white TV (with coat hanger antenna), a pair of chairs with broken cane seats, and a kitchen-size table that was nuts to have in a fourth-floor walk-up. MichaelJohn showed me the ropes of the Actors’ Equity lounge, with its casting board and credit union. In the depths of February, the three of us met at George’s ground-floor studio apartment, just off Central Park West, the walls covered with the 8-by-10s of so many of his actor friends, and we did our taxes as a snowstorm howled outside. I had never done my taxes before. When these two pros showed me how to file my return so I’d get a refund from the IRS for nearly $600, the first moment of solvency in my adult life, I thought I had won the lottery.
And I had. They were, and are, my friends. You would not be reading these words otherwise.
We asked three pairs of pals to tell their stories.
Although they first met in Chicago as young chefs, their friendship really took off after Vowell moved downstate to start a farm — a difficult and isolating enterprise. “Sarah understood how exhausted I was,” Vowell says. “By then, she was running her own restaurant and was exhausted, too.”
The two started getting together for weekly hikes, exploring nearby trails and talking about everything under the sun. “I always end up feeling refreshed, peaceful and ready to get back to work,” Vowell adds. “The value of knowing someone is always ready to share, listen, help, celebrate, encourage, support, discuss, gently persuade, actually be present, is not measurable.”
— Sarah Mahoney
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