Theater was my father's religion, and Shakespeare's works were his Bible. When it came time to teach us a lesson, out would come Hamlet or Othello or King Lear. Using these plays as a moral compass, Dad set me up with some quite precise ideas about how a young man should behave in the world.
My father had studied acting at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. He was an extraordinarily good-looking young man, tall and athletic. In photographs taken before I was born, he looked like a movie star, except for his nose, but I'm getting ahead of my story. He was a talented actor, too, and proud of it. Other dads might sing in the shower, but my dad would recite from Hamlet: "What is Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?" This he would say with almost British-accented diction—his stage voice—the words echoing loudly through the thin walls of our apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. After certain passages, there'd be a little gasp, a catch in his throat. Yes, he frequently moved himself to tears. And we, my brother, sister, and I, were transfixed. Dad was bigger than life.
He arrived in New York from Chicago in the midst of the Depression, nearly penniless but for a tiny allowance from his mother. Within months, he was an announcer on The Prince Albert Show and soon had parts in daytime serials such as Mert and Marge, Valiant Lady, and The Goldbergs. He was sometimes doing two or three live performances in a day. If you believed him, and you couldn't always, he would sometimes use the trick of hiring an ambulance to cut through the swirl of New York traffic in order to make it to the next reading.
His dream had been to perform on the stage, and he would brim with emotion as he described the greats, such as the Lunts and Olivier, he'd seen on Broadway. Even when he later began writing for The Shadow and other serials, he disparaged radio as lowly and commercial—just something he did to pay the bills. Unfortunately, his dream was not to be, since he had wrecked his good looks at about age 19 when, showing off for a girlfriend, he dove into the shallow waters of Lake Michigan and slammed into rocks hidden just below the surface. His nose was shredded and, plastic surgery being what it was back then, it never healed quite right.
He didn't complain about his looks, or what the accident had cost him, but he never made it to Broadway. And when television began to overtake radio, he knew better than to stick around. By his mid-40s, when I was still little, he was out of the business. But he continued always to define himself by the rules of the theater and to live by the code and ethics of an actor.
I determined at a young age that I, too, would become an actor. My first performance was in a school play. My fifth-grade class had spent the whole semester studying the ancient Greeks. We had read young-adult versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and now we were performing an adaptation of Aristophanes' Peace, in which a farmer travels to heaven astride a giant dung beetle to discuss with Zeus the follies of war. I landed the part of the leader of the chorus. In rehearsal one day, I slipped and fell while prancing about the stage and got a big laugh from other cast members. I built up this pratfall, making it bigger and bigger with each succeeding rehearsal.
We performed Peace for the entire school. Parents were invited. I mugged my way through my scenes and, of course, for my big finale, I upended myself spectacularly, landing square on my butt. As expected, this completely broke up the audience. The laughter was thrilling.
Mom came backstage to congratulate me, but Dad for some reason had left. It wasn't until I got home that I had any inkling there was a problem. Still aglow from my smashing success, I rushed into the living room, where I found him seated in his favorite chair—an overstuffed number that was a little like a throne—wearing his reading glasses and holding a large volume in his lap that I recognized immediately: The Complete Works of Shakespeare. He didn't look up when I came in. There were no effusive congratulations, no welcome to the new actor in the family, no hug. A frown creased his forehead.
"Sit down," he said severely, beckoning me to a hard wooden chair he had pulled up beside him. A knot formed in my stomach. I recognized this dark mood.
He told me I had violated just about every code of conduct in the actor's book, from scene stealing to shameless overacting. He opened up the book, turning to Hamlet's advice to the Players, Shakespeare's lesson on the actor's craft. If I was ever to be an actor, all I needed to know was right here, he said. He began reading:
"Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines.... O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters...I would have such a fellow whipped."
After he finished, he had me read it aloud. I don't remember how I got through this, since I was feeling pretty stung, but somehow I did. Then we read it in unison. We stayed until I could recite it from memory. Finally he released me.
The lesson is not just for the stage. The lesson is for life: don't be such a damn showoff!
I didn't resent my father for panning my performance so dramatically. Everything Dad did was dramatic. When he loved me, his love seemed bigger than anyone else's in the world. When he disapproved, he let me have it. That's just the way he was. But clearly, his reaction to my performance also had something to do with a painful lesson he'd learned diving headfirst into shallow water one day long ago in Lake Michigan. I got over my hurt feelings soon enough. For a time, however, I detested Shakespeare.
— Steven Slon
–This article first appeared in AARP The Magazine