Dandy of a Daddy

After a 36-year hiatus, actor Michael Winters comes back to OSF in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'

By John Darling
for the Tidings
Posted: 8:35 AM June 14, 2010

Michael Winters, back at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival after a 36-year hiatus, seems born to play Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

He’s got the commanding voice, gravitas and white mane that Burl Ives gave the role in the 1958 film version. Still, he confesses he had to dig deep in his soul to find the part of him that’s anything like Big Daddy.

“It’s the favorite role of my life,” says Winters.

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At 66, he’s the perfect age for the patriarch in Tennessee Williams’ unsettling play, which runs through July 4 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre.

“He’s not a pleasant person,” Winters says, “and it’s very challenging, finding that part of myself as vile as he is, laying underneath my essential humanity.”

Winters got his first acting job at the festival when he was fresh out of Northwestern University in 1970. He acted in the first production in the newly built Angus Bowmer Theatre, Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” Now, four decades later, on OSF’s 75th anniversary, he notes the festival has become a “juggernaut.”

“There’s no stopping it now,” he says. “It did better last year at a time when the recession was slamming every other theater. It’s reliable and people know what they’re getting here.

“And the places you can eat,” he says. “Six or seven are world-class restaurants and many more that are great. The dining is an offshoot of the festival — and people come here for the destination. There’s so much more to do and see.”

When Winters last worked the festival, in the early 1970s, he knew everyone in town, including the people in the downtown shops. This time around, he figures he might know half of them.

He says OSF has benefitted from slow growth over time. “It grew carefully and didn’t explode,” he says.

Winters acted here in the final two years of OSF founder Angus Bowmer’s legendary reign and also worked under his successor, Artistic Director Jerry Turner.

“It was a historical time,” Winters says. “There were only 20 actors. Now it’s over 100.”

In those simpler times, before Actors’ Equity, he recalls not having a lot of cash in his pocket and eating at “one of the great greasy spoons, the Rolling Pin” (where Chateaulin has been since 1973). The friendly owner/cook carried the actors’ tabs until payday.

This season, in addition to playing Big Daddy, Winters is the Old General in “Throne of Blood” and Old Gobbo, Duke and Balthazar in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

His past roles at OSF and theaters in Seattle and Los Angeles are legion, with those in the works of Chekhov, Shakespeare and Shaw standing out as the plums, he says.

“Shakespeare and Shaw are very language-oriented and call on you for a great deal of thought,” he says. “Chekhov was the deepest in the reality of personal relationships.”

Driving back and forth for decades between his home in Seattle and acting jobs in Los Angeles, Winters would gaze longingly at Ashland and often stopped to relax with old acting friends. When a seven-year TV gig in L.A. ended, he put his name in the pot here and was invited back.

A charismatic presence, he’s often cast as a judge or someone’s dad, but Winters brushes off any connection between himself and those authority-laden roles.

“To me, I’m just me,” he says. “I’m what my life experience has added up to, and I love what I do and I have a voice that can be heard. I’ve always gotten nervous if I have to give a speech, but, in a theater, I’m right at home!”

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at [email protected].

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