Face to Face: Actor Cotter Smith Resurrecting "The Dying Gaul"

"As painful as it was to be sitting in the audience opening night, it was important for me to be there. I was a member of the team. And for me to say, 'I'm hurt. So I'm out'‹that's just selfish."

The speaker is Cotter Smith, an actor, not a ball player, and he's explaining his bizarre non-participation in "The Dying Gaul," by Craig Lucas, which opened and closed at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre Company last spring. Thanks to popular and critical acclaim, it's reopening at The Vineyard, Sept. 18.

Smith rehearsed and appeared in the first preview performance, suffered a herniated disc, and had to drop out. He was replaced by actor Tony Goldwyn for the run. Now healed‹"through acupuncture, massage, ultrasound treatments, and life reassessment"‹Smith will be reprising the starring role of Jeffrey.

"He's a dark soul and a man in complete denial. He's unable to admit who he is. I'm not sure he knows," says Smith, a 50ish Washington, D.C., native with whom we meet in a Back Stage conference room. "He's a married man with two kids and he's a bisexual. Perhaps he'd like to say he's homosexual. But he can't. He's charming, witty, disarmingly honest, and totally amoral. The challenge is to make him human so that audiences sympathize with him. I can't judge him, except as he would judge himself, and I can't be in cahoots with an audience, winking at it, saying 'We know who this guy is.' That's a real danger."

Many Facets

"The Dying Gaul" is the story of a Hollywood producer (Smith) who seduces a young male screenwriter (Tim Hopper). It's also an account of corruption in a world where the Internet has become central, morality has little bearing, and guilt is not part of anyone's emotional vocabulary.

Best known for his two-year stint (1989-91) in the TV series "Equal Justice," Smith notes that playing a multi-faceted figure like Jeffrey is not alien to him. Most recently, he was seen Off-Broadway as the complex Uncle Peck‹who was at once seducer, loser, and sexual predator in Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning "How I Learned to Drive." Earlier he appeared in the plays of John Bishop at Circle Rep. "Those characters were also dark. But they were macho. Jeffrey is looking for love and living a lie. This is a man who has not found a home."

Smith's Jeffrey is both outrageously sleazy and, in the end, totally alone and taken by surprise. Paradoxically, he's almost childish. In contrast, Smith's offstage persona is sophisticated and thoughtful. He answers all questions, yet seems guarded. Still, a few revelations: He quotes Melville and is an avid fan of author Stephen Ambrose, whose historical subjects range from the Lewis and Clark expedition to D-Day to Nixon.

As noted, Smith cottons to alternative medicine and believes, "Things happen for a reason. I got the herniated disc because I had overstressed myself. I had to learn I was not superman!" But, he emphasizes, he is no New Ager. He suspects that his injury, the healing, and the passage of time have reshaped his understanding of Jeffrey.

Laying Down the Law

The son of a federal judge, Smith admits he had a rough time growing up. "As a kid, my goal was to survive in a patriarchal Irish Roman Catholic family," he says frankly. "My grandfather was a lawyer; my brother and sister are lawyers. And it was assumed that I would be a lawyer. I broke the tradition." He adds, "I didn't play golf."

In Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., he majored in literature, but spent much of his time in college productions. "I loved acting, but it was never an option. That would have been like telling my father I was going to be a ballet dancer."

Smith taught English in a Danbury, Conn., high school and founded its theatre program. He was not happy. "I realized teaching was not for me and that I had chosen teaching as a compromise between being a lawyer and an actor. It wasn't working for me and it wasn't working for my father either."

The next few years were hardly glamorous. "I was 26 years old, living at home, and my father kept shoving law school brochures at me." At 28 he made the move to New York, appeared in a range of Off-Off Broadway plays, and studied with Stella Adler‹"She was very helpful with script interpretation"‹and several Actors Studio teachers, including Lee Strasberg. "He was great, but‹" Smith pauses to add circumspectly, "he was getting very old."

Smith points to an example of the renowned conflict between the two legends, Adler and Strasberg. "Stella once asked a student who was 'fe-e-eling' on stage, if he had studied before, and when he said he had‹with Strasberg‹she said, 'You don't need an acting teacher. You need a doctor.' "

Mileposts

Off-Broadway Smith co-starred with Danny Glover in "The Blood Knot," by Athol Fugard, and later with Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson in "A Soldier's Play." The latter moved to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where Smith landed the leading part of Bobby Kennedy in the four-hour miniseries "Blood Feud." It co-starred Robert Blake, Ernest Borgnine, Brian Dennehy, Jos Ferrer, and Danny Aiello. The experience was transformative, personally and professionally.

"Working with those actors was just terrific, but one of the best things about appearing in 'Blood Feud' was my father's reaction when The Washington Post did a big profile on me‹local boy makes good. To hear my father tell it in that story, he was behind me all the way." However, what pleased Smith Sr. most was Cotter's role in "Equal Justice," the latter recalls. If he didn't become an attorney in life, at least he played one on TV.

Cotter Smith arrived in Los Angeles in 1983 and did not return to the East Coast until 1996, when Wendy Wasserstein offered him the role of the slick newscaster in "An American Daughter," thus marking the actor's Broadway debut.

"I came to L.A. to do a play. I never thought I'd stay. I never thought I could make real money as an actor. After 'Blood Feud' my thinking changed: I can do this. The fact is, 'Blood Feud' opened up lots of TV opportunities for me, including roles in 'Hill Street Blues' and 'St. Elsewhere.' " Still, outside of "Blood Feud" and "Equal Justice," Smith has not enjoyed TV work that much.

"It's fast and unsatisfying, although I have nothing against making money. And I would definitely do TV again, but I'm at a point now in my career where I can say, 'It has to be good TV.' "

So what's coming down the pike for Smith after "The Dying Gaul" enjoys its re-run?

"Who knows? That's the life of the actor," Smith muses with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I'm comfortable with that."

ENDIT

PULL-QUOTE:

"The challenge is to make him human so that audiences sympathize with him.

I can't judge him, except as he would judge himself."