Long before he makes his entrance, the character of Harold Ryan reverberates through Happy Birthday, Wanda June, the first published play by novelist Kurt Vonnegut, currently in revival at The Actors' Gang. Presumed dead, Ryan is a larger-than-life character spoken of by others with an array of superlatives. He's portrayed as a mighty hunter, the ultimate man's man, a powerful force to be reckoned with, and, as one character puts it, "a legendary hero out of the golden age of heroes." Most actors would hesitate at the challenge of bringing such a role to life, but not William Russ. A veteran stage actor with numerous film and television credits, Russ is probably best known for his several seasons as the patient father on Boy Meets World or as Kevin Spacey's right-hand man on Wiseguy and for his work in films such as American History X and Pastime (for which he received an Independent Spirit Award nomination). But playing Ryan is an actor's dream, a role that is by turns completely "out there" yet poetically real. "I loved the part," says Russ. "Of course, you read it and wonder if you can get away with it. But, as an actor, I saw a great chance to chew up some scenery. When I read this part, I knew it would be too much fun."
This is Russ' first time onstage at The Actors' Gang, although he toured previously with its 9/11-themed play, The Guys, and his wife, actor Clare Wren, is a 20-year veteran of the company. When director Greg Reiner offered him the role, he had only one hesitation. "My only qualm was that some job would come up that I would have to take," he reveals. "Unfortunately or fortunately, that hasn't happened, and I'm still having a great time doing the play."
It's fortunate for audiences, who get to witness Russ' brash, crass, and charming portrayal of Ryan, the kind of man unabashedly proud to be from a time when men were in control of their women—and believes "whoever has the gun gets to tell everybody else exactly what to do." It's a testament to the writing and to Russ' performance that the audience finds itself not only enjoying Ryan's obnoxious, sexist manner but also comes to kind of like the jerk. "Some of the greatest characters in the world are unlikeable," reasons the actor. "Like Richard III and Hamlet; what's so likeable about Hamlet? He's a whiner. But what I try to do, and what I see great actors do, is bring a sense of humor to a character, which brings a sense of humanity. I find almost any character you play, there's something about them that's human. Hopefully a good writer understands that, too, and brings that in."
In terms of writing, it's tough to beat Vonnegut, who originally premiered the play in 1970 and has been very supportive of this revival, sending notes and flowers to the cast. Decades later, Wanda June has become a period piece, something Russ and the rest of the cast embraced. "It made it fun to do it in the suits and using the music of the time," he says. "Of course I had to do a lot of explaining to the cast of what was going on in the '70s, being of a certain age."
Like many actors, Russ came to acting by accident. "I went to the University of Michigan; I was a springboard tower diver and an athlete. I realized I wasn't good enough to make the 1972 Olympics, so I quit diving and didn't quite know what to do," he recalls. "Someone said, 'Why don't you come audition for the sophomore show?' I didn't even know what an audition was, but they told me I would just have to sing a song and learn a dance. I had nothing to lose, so I tried out." He ended up landing a role in the play, which starred a young Christine Lahti, and was hooked. He eventually moved to New York, where he studied with Sanford Meisner for two years and worked an array of jobs before getting his first play. He then landed a role on the daytime drama Another World, which he credits with teaching him about on-camera acting. "It's a great training ground," he enthuses. "You learn how to think fast, learn lines, hit your mark, and go to work three or four times a week. And, for a young actor, the best part is, it helps you get out of being a waiter."
Russ made the move to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, where he has worked steadily ever since. "I'd just finished about six plays in New York, and I had $10 in my pocket," he says. "I came out to do a TV movie called Rehearsal for Murder with Lynn Redgrave. I said, 'I'm just going to go for a while and see what can happen. I know how to do plays; I want to learn something else.' And I just kind of stayed, which happens with a lot of people." He doesn't rule out returning to the New York stage someday, but for now he's having a great time in Wanda June, which continues through Dec. 4. "One thing I love about acting, and sometimes actors forget: We're there to entertain," he says. "Of course we want to be truthful and tell the story, but we really want to entertain. I love doing this show, because it's a chance to actually entertain the audience."
"Happy Birthday, Wanda June" continues at The Actors' Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Oct. 9-Dec. 4. $20-25. (323) 465-0566.