Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Smartest Guy In The Room

John Eagle was the best actor in the cast of the show Paint Your Wagon at Dirty Jack’s Theater back in the summer of 1976. I’m not sure everybody knew John Eagle was the best actor, but I did, and I had special powers of perception since I was not another actor but a lowly musician who watched the actors ply their craft every night. John Eagle was the best.

Off stage John Eagle was a skinny, intense guy who hunched over a bit when he stood. His Adam’s apple bobbed when he spoke and he always seemed to be looking over your shoulder when he talked to you. But I knew this all meant he was a genius. Nobody else knew.

When John Eagle walked on stage his back straightened and his voice deepened. His eyes flashed with energy and sly amusement. Think of a young Jeff Goldblum; John Eagle really did have that kind of presence on the stage, that kind of strength.

And he was the most devoted of the actors, I think. He was the most actorish. One day he announced to all of us that he planned to host an Open Podium at the apartment he shared with a couple of the other stars of the show. It was a basement apartment known to the cast as The Dungeon or something like that. But it was palatial compared to the old broken-down motel the band and bit players called home.

I had never heard of an Open Podium or Open Mic. It was an invitation to perform in any manner you chose for the audience who gathered to watch. To me, that had always meant Jam Session, but this was something different. I imagined the actors might get up and start spouting Shakespeare or something like that.

I was watching John Eagle discuss this planned Open Podium with others and I noticed his mannerisms. He talked with his hands in a more forceful and animated way than any human being I had ever seen. He punched and sliced the air, and swept his hands from side to side as if giving the words just the right spin. His hands perfectly punctuated every sentence; every point. He had a way of always pivoting slightly from side to side while gesturing with his hands, as if to ensure that everybody could see the performance. And he did all this every time he spoke.

I knew immediately that I would present my imitation of John Eagle at the Open Podium. I would do John Eagle.

So, for a couple of days I rehearsed in front of a mirror in my room. And I had it down pretty well: The halting speech cadence; the gestures, all of it. It wasn’t perfect, but a good impression isn’t supposed to be perfect, right? I worked up a short routine about John Eagle directing the show and cracked myself up in the mirror. I was ready.

The next day John Eagle was with a bunch of the actors and I cheerily announced that I would be performing at his Open Podium. He asked what I would be performing, and I said, “I’ll be doing you.”

Long pause.

John Eagle said, “What?”

I said, “I’m going to do an imitation of you.”

Another pause. John Eagle’s expression at that moment was not a sneer, exactly, but it did convey considerable doubt and skepticism about my choice of material. I looked around at the other actors in the group and saw similar expressions. Hmmm….

Later that same day, right before curtain time, John Eagle reminded everybody of his upcoming Open Podium and added with a hint of sarcasm that Rick planned to present an imitation of him, John Eagle. Snickers all around, but I wanted to yell at them all, “Look at him! His hands are fluttering like birds escaping a cat! He is easy to imitate!”

So, of course, I chickened out. The Open Podium came and went and I did not attend. I’ve never had the opportunity to use the routine I prepared, gently spoofing John Eagle’s mannerisms, because I’ve never met anybody like him, and it would be funny only if the audience recognized him in the gags.

Kidding aside, John Eagle was a brilliant actor who I admired and tried to emulate back when I dared to think that I could be an actor too. I’d love to hear from him again. I am told he was from Rancho Cucamonga, California. If you have any contact information, please drop me a note. If you know him, please tell him I said “Hi.”