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Remembering John Raitt

John Raitt was not only a great star of the musical theatre; he was a generous, wonderful man to work with. It's easy to see where Bonnie gets her inner beauty.

I was fortunate to spend nine months on the road with John, touring in the national company of "Zorba." Some people were doubtful about the casting, but because he was totally committed to the art of acting as well as singing, he was a great Zorba.

I understudied the role of Nikos, the young teacher whom Zorba teaches to love and be truly alive. I was lucky enough to go on a few times during the tour, and playing opposite John was a truly intense experience. In the scene in which Zorba teaches me to dance out my grief over the loss of the woman I loved, John (who, like me, was not Fred Astaire) was as patient and loving as a father with his son, making it easy for me to cry in the scene. We both awkwardly stumbled through the dance, and of course it made the scene more touching.

He was also funny, sometimes unintentionally, because he was a truly innocent soul. One night, out of nowhere, he said to me, "You want me to teach you how to sing? I'll tell you how to sing: You talk on pitch and then when you get to the money notes you give it everything you've got!"

This was in 1970, and one night in Detroit it was John's birthday, so he announced that we were having a party on stage after the show and that his daughter was here from college and was going to sing. We all groaned at that but said okay, because nobody ever wanted to hurt John's feelings.

So we all gathered, had some cake, and sang "Happy Birthday" to him. Then he introduced his beautiful, red-haired, hippie-looking daughter, Bonnie, who brought her guitar out of the case and proceeded to blow us all away! She was 19 and amazing! John was ecstatic. He was always positive and happy, but that night he was bursting with pride.

The day after we closed in Los Angeles, some of us were helping him pack up his car to drive home, and he took me aside and said, "We'll work together again sometime. I know it. I've got a long career ahead of me still and so do you." He gave me a big hug. Sure enough, eight years later, we did a summer stock production of "Shenandoah" together. He never stopped working. I saw him in Denver in one of his many incarnations of "Man of La Mancha" and, as usual, he was great, even into his 70s.

He loved being on stage and he loved being an actor. He bragged about having never missed a performance, and I'm sure it's true. He said that when he'd had an intestinal disorder once during "Carousel," there were stagehands behind the flats with diapers in case he needed to change to go on! He was that rarity—a completely devoted theatre man through and through, never cynical, always positive.

(John Raitt died Feb. 20 at age 88.)

Michael Graves formerly wrote for Back Stage.

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