My family lived across the street from an old-time stage and screen actor whose home was a gathering place for artists, much like the salons of earlier centuries. Among the actors congregated in the living room, the voice that stood out for its timbre, even to a child's ears, belonged to Alan Mandell. I'd see him in local productions—the occasions remembered but the details lost to history. Even Mandell seems to no longer have records of all of his stage appearances. "Do you have a complete bio," I recently asked him. "No," he exclaims. "I have a bio for acting, a bio for directing, and one that includes some [theatre] management, but…." We can't find a listing of most of the work he's done.
Luckily much is documented—in scholarly magazines, in published plays in which his name appears in cast lists, in carefully preserved correspondence, and in notes in the margins of scripts, including those in the handwriting of Samuel Beckett. In the late 1950s Mandell had brought Waiting for Godot to San Quentin State Prison. The production eventually led to his co-founding, with then-inmate Rick Cluchey, of the San Quentin Drama Workshop. When Beckett came to San Francisco to direct a production of Endgame for SQDW, Mandell played his Nagg, and the two developed a lifelong affiliation. Says Mandell quite modestly, "I never thought of it as anything special." What the actor recalls as special, however, is the young woman who drove him to rehearsals—and who soon became his wife.
By age 8, in his native Toronto, Mandell had appeared in school plays. An exchange teacher from London took the boy under her wing, and he studied with her for a year. "She wanted me to go to London to study there," Mandell recalls. "My parents wouldn't hear of it. They said, 'What do you mean, go to London? You're 8 years old.' But I loved it. It never occurred to me to do anything else. My life was going to be in the theatre." His Southland stage appearances include The Road to Mecca and The Cherry Orchard at SCR; The Illusion and Three by Beckett at Los Angeles Theater Center; Dreamcoast with Taper, Too; King Lear (title role) with Orange County Shakespeare; He Hunts at the Geffen; and Stage Fright at Malibu Stage Company. He also appeared on radio dramas and eventually held the post of general manager of Lincoln Center.
What I remember from the first times I watched him onstage, though, was the style of his work. He was not showy, nor was he lifeless. His characters were real, complete, complex, quiet—everything but the broad, hammy work a child thinks of as "acting."
Where is he now? Endearing him to me forever was the day Mandell signed up for tap-dance classes last year, a complete beginner willing to publicly start from scratch in an exacting, physically demanding new art. He patiently focused, working the basics, finishing every class sweat-soaked and mind-numbed. The endurance he built paid off in his most recent L.A. performance: In The Royal Family, at the Ahmanson Theatre, he played Jo, the butler, carrying luggage up the massive staircase and trying to restrain leashed dogs headed down the staircase. He graciously attributes his agility and stamina to those dance classes, but it's probably also his total devotion to his craft that keeps him moving in new directions.