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.