"We love your performances!"
David S. Howard is being greeted on the street in downtown Fort Myers by two devoted fans of his work. But Howard seems unsure, at first, whether they've confused him with someone else.
Although the 77-year-old actor hasn't stepped off the stage since he walked away from a burgeoning law career half a century ago, opening night of "Tuesdays with Morrie" at the Florida Repertory Theatre tonight will mark the first time he's ever appeared in Southwest Florida.
But the two admirers do, in fact, know who he is. They rattle off a list of shows they've seen Howard in at his adopted theatre home, the Asolo Theatre Festival, where Howard is a company member.
After a few moments of effusive praise for Howard's various performances, his fans walk off, leaving the actor looking bemused, pleased and somewhat surprised.
In a career where on any given day, roughly two-thirds of professional actors are out of work, Howard has built a résumé of nearly nonstop performances in almost every area of show business.
He's had supporting roles in films like "Moonstruck," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," and "Meet Joe Black." He took over for Jack Klugman in "I'm Not Rappaport" on Broadway. And he's performed in countless stage shows around the country, finally landing permanently in Sarasota as an Asolo company member.
Yet when you meet him, although he looks familiar, you can't quite place him. The whitish gray hair is thinning on top, standing straight up in Bill-the-Cat tufts where it's sparser, and gray eyebrows send wayward curls in every direction, as though all his hair carries a slight static charge from the palpable energy that animates him. His eyes might be green, or hazel, or blue — you don't notice the color so much as their focus when they are on you.
Howard Millman, producing artistic director of the Asolo, calls him "the consummate actor."
Sarasota magazine dubbed Howard "a reliable source of acutely timed comic delivery," and nominated him in two separate acting categories last year in their "Best of the Best" issue.
But Julia Guzman, PR manager at the Asolo, says, "He still has mojo, I swear it," says Guzman, who has worked with the actor for the past three seasons. "He is amazing."
In the bare-bones rehearsal space of the Florida Repertory Theatre, Howard is doing a photo call for "Tuesdays with Morrie. Standing to the side, he watches his costar in the two-man show, Rep regular Greg Longenhagen, run through one of his monologues as the photographer's bulbs pop.
Wearing a nubby plaid tweed jacket that's part of his costume ("I think I might steal this jacket," he muses), the compact actor stands with hands in pockets, a smile resting comfortably on his lips, looking every inch the Brandeis sociology professor that he is not.
In the show, based on Mitch Albom's bestselling novel, beloved professor Morrie Schwartz teaches his star student how to live while he himself is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.
Both actors have played the roles before in separate productions, Howard at the Asolo last season.
The Sarasota Weekly Planet staff named Howard best actor for that performance in their "Best of the Suncoast" awards. The publication called his portrayal of Schwartz "impeccable, startling in its precision, wisdom, and above all, artistry."
Yet Howard was not the first choice to play the role. After longtime Florida Rep fixture Niels Miller fell ill, artistic director Robert Cacioppo immediately approached Howard, whom he had seen in nearly a dozen shows at the Asolo.
"I was so blown away," Cacioppo says of Howard's performances. "I really, really admire him."
Howard's other commitments at the Asolo meant a shorter-than-usual rehearsal period of only two and a half weeks.
"He comes in absolutely line-perfect," says the Asolo's Millman of the actor's work habits. "You tell me how many actors his age can do that."
Cacioppo agrees: "It's been remarkably easy. He's a complete professional."
Right now, Howard is lying on a hospital bed, deteriorating in an instant to a man in the final stages of ALS, as the flashbulbs pop over and over again.
"Move my head so I can see out the window," he croaks to Longenhagen, who plays Mitch. They are running through one of the play's final scenes for the publicity shots, yet the moment is still moving, even at low energy, even out of context.
That is, until the "complete professional" chokes out, "Wait — the $2 million is buried in the ..." and feigns a collapse. Longenhagen — along with everyone else in the room — cracks up, and the moment pops like champagne bubbles.
Throughout the photo session Howard repeatedly shifts gears that quickly, jumping with both feet into the various scenes without any perceptible preparation.
IF YOU GO
- What: 'Tuesdays With Morrie'
- Origin: Play based on the book by Mitch Albom about the Tuesdays he spent with his former professor who is dying
- Who: Florida Repertory Theatre
- When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays, today-June 11
- Where: Arcade Theatre, 2267 First St., Fort Myers
- Tickets: $15-$34 (half price for students)
- Information: (239) 332-4488
- Calendar: Catch a performance of "Tuesdays With Morrie"
It's a skill he's had years to hone, from his days as an artist-in-residence at Brandeis University — where he actually met the real Morrie for a few brief minutes in the late sixties — to what he terms "the jungle" of New York City, to his first term at the Asolo as company member, from 1975 to 1982.
The latter was where he says he "really began to experiment and find my own way of working.
"I much prefer the stage to film because of the artistic input you can give it," Howard says. "I love that you can take a role and make it grow over time—that you can learn from the audience and engage with the audience."
Yet the demanding schedule at the Asolo — which he rejoined in 1997 and where he usually runs three shows in rotation simultaneously — has him ready to take a break from the stage and get back into comparatively easier film work, through the agent he still has in New York.
"Onstage I learn from the experience of doing it," Howard says. "In film I learn by watching other people."
But before he shifts his focus, Howard is taking on what may be his most challenging role to date: playing Yogi Berra in "Nobody Don't Like Yogi" at the Asolo, his first attempt at a one-man show. "That's going to take a lot of work," he says. "That's gonna be tough."
It's an odd career move for a man who is looking to torque back on the exacting demands of theater. "That's crazy!" he admits with a laugh when the dichotomy is pointed out. "But that may be my swan song."
In the next breath, though, the veteran actor recants. "I'll never retire. What do I want to retire for?" Howard asks rhetorically. "I love what I'm doing."