Cliff Osmond, Actor and Teacher, 1937 – 2012

Yesterday I experienced a shock when a friend who’s also a “friend” on Facebook posted a link to an interview with Cliff Osmond, a prolific character actor who appeared in nearly a hundred feature films and network TV shows since his first job in 1962. The shock – the kind I am beginning to experience too often for it to remain shocking – was in the preface to the interview on The Classic TV History Blog which revealed that Cliff had died of pancreatic cancer on December 22, 2012, shortly after his last talk with the blogger, Stephen Bowie.

Seeing the photos of Cliff on Stephen’s blog hit me like Proust’s petit madeleine. 47 years ago, at UCLA, Cliff and I acted in an amazing production of Bertolt Brecht’s first play, Baal. Cliff played the title role. He was almost 30 and I was 21 and just about ready to give up theatre. I think every theatre-maker has a story about the time (s) they were that  close to quitting the whole crazy struggle to make a kind of art that disappears in nearly the same moment that it comes into being.  As Samuel Beckett has Pozzo in Waiting for Godot say, “They give birth astride of a grave. the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”

In 1966, after an invigorating year in France, courtesy of the University of California’s Education Abroad Program, and a summer traveling the still largely undiscovered “Hippie Trail” through Spain to Tangiers, across Algeria to Tunis and then back across the Mediterranean to Sicily, up to Rome and over the Alps to Paris and finally north east to Luxembourg to catch my flight home on the most affordable carrier of that era, Icelandic Air, with its brief stopover in Reykjavik. After a year and a half on the loose, I could no longer ignore the bitter smell of defeat that hung in the hallways and classrooms of the Theatre Department’s brand new McGowan Hall with its two state-of the-art theatres. The film school, still housed in portable classrooms on the other side of a parking lot, was a different, livelier story with Jean Renoir, young grad student Francis Coppola, and three others who spent more time playing rock music at parties than making student films.  They called  themselves “The  Doors.”

But that production of Baal changed everything for me. It was directed by a new faculty member, James Kerans, who was the only teacher I encountered in my four years there who inspired, energized and creatively disturbed the students he worked with. He came and went rather quickly, not cut out for  academia. I heard he had a heart attack while jogging and died shortly after he left  UCLA.

He lit a fire under Cliff who embodied the raw, elemental, cruel and narcissistic  Baal with great passion and power. I played a drunken beggar oscillating between ecstasy and horror on the Catholic holy day of Corpus Christi, as he sees the trees that pious Germans nail to the front doors of their houses become transformed into the actual “white body of Jesus”  Baal, sharing the beggar’s bottle sees the trees as the women he’s destroyed with his insatiable appetites. If Jim Kerans was the first director I’d worked with who really understood what theatre was, Cliff was the first actor I’d known who also knew, as Rilke would say, “secret things.”  Between the gorgeous excess of Brecht’s youthful, still forming genius, Kerans’ expansive understanding of life and theatre and his generosity of soul and Cliff’s combination of maturity, skill and a willingness to risk everything, we all became infected, feverish, obsessed,  joyful and terrified of the raw and beautiful thing we were making together. It was the first time I ever made a part my own, broke that membrane, that thin crust that build up between “the character” or “the role” or all the analytical  constructs — intention, motivation, given circumstances, back story, subtext, sense memory — and the moment-to-moment life we are sharing with the actors, the audience, the elements we’re breathing. It was the first time that all the work, the preparation, the thought, the inner and outer research, having done its job, melted away. That experience, to which Cliff was so central, is still my beacon, my true north, though, gratefully, there have been a few more in the 47 years since then.  

I’ve lost touch with everyone who was part of that undertaking. At least three have died:  Kerans, Cliff, and a woman who was my best friend back then, Marlene Rasnick, who played one of two sisters who frolic a night away with Baal in one of the few delightfully funny moments in the play. There’s more to be told, written, sung about all this.  But right now, attention must be paid to Cliff Osmond, and the uncanny absence of one whose unwavering presence made him one of the finest actors I’ve had the good fortune to work with. I imagine that most anyone who ever shared a moment on stage or in front of a camera with him feels the same.

One thought on “Cliff Osmond, Actor and Teacher, 1937 – 2012

  1. Dear Corey,
    Thank you for sending your news –I am now subscribed to your blog again(?)– how wonderful that your talent and enthusiasm have found, not only applause a nd appreciation but the kind of support that allows travel and the collaboration you and Stan Lai have hoped for for so long. You may recall that Alan and I returned from China raving about one of his productions at the Li river. It represented, for me,one of the most successful collaborations between hundreds of villagers and an array of lighting and theater artists so thrilling that I can’t even begin to describe it. You already know what fans we are of your work. I hope that the collaboration will fulfill your hopes and dreams. They will! They will!
    The good woman of Setzuan is an old acquaintance. Brecht was the subject of my
    Humanities thesis at Stanford a hundred years ago and she has accompanied me through women’s studies ever since. I have seen snatches of Helene Weigel’s production:unforgettable. In this as in all the plays and poems, I am still held captive by the rawness and incandescence of Brecht’s language; I can imagine that you and your diverse cast did them justice.
    My dear, I am writing this from dialysis, praise the days when you can travel and work freely;me, I have a primary relationship with my IPad which I received for accumulated miles I cannot use. But I’m 78 so who’s complaining? Just reread Barbara Myerhoff’s study of the old folks in the Southern California Day Center: wonderful in every way.
    So my dear, that’s enough chat. Alan and I send our love and good wishes to you and China,
    Eva

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