When he was a young man, the actor Bob Gunton took joy in settling in front of the TV with his dad to watch reruns of the one and only season of Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners. And as much as Gunton adored Gleason’s antics, it didn’t create any desire in him to consider a life on the stage. Instead, Gunton set his sights for the priesthood and, after time at the seminary, was drafted into the United States Army as a radio operator in Vietnam. Two years later, upon arriving home to Southern California, he didn’t have a clue to what to do, professionally speaking. Through a series of chance events, he embarked on an acting career now more than fifty years in the making, which includes his having created the role of Juan Peron in Evita (1979) alongside original cast members Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin.
“The Great One” was the moniker coined by Orson Welles awarded to Jackie Gleason, who reveled in the honorarium. One year on the Tony Awards broadcast, Gleason was introduced not by name, but rather by an off-camera voice simply announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen: the Great One,” and out he strolled. Bob Gunton is a great one, too, as anyone who has seen him in starring roles over the last five decades can attest (Sweeney Todd, anybody?), as well as achieving screen immortality by way of the juicy supporting role of Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption. On stage he’s played everything from the smooth-talking Harold Hill in The Music Man at Lincoln Center, to a former boxer desperate for a sex-change operation in the 1987 Broadway musical, Roza (photo below). That kind of versatility was on full display earlier in the eighties, when he played twenty-two characters in the off-Broadway play How I Got That Story, by Amlin Gray. Casting directors quickly took note, as well as director Alan Pakula, who after seeing How I Got That Story, hired Gunton to play opposite Jane Fonda in Rollover. Thus began a long string of work in major motion pictures.
And movies weren’t even a part of Gunton’s growing up. “I didn’t go much but I did like John Barrymore. More from my reading about him than seeing his movies, though… I was mostly into folksingers. They were the onstage personas that I looked up to; groups like the Limeliters.”
“I went to a very good high school but, at the time, their arts were pretty primitive. I’d gotten into folk music and played the guitar and then these couple of nuns arrived from Ireland to the school who were filled with poetry and plays and musicals and operettas. And so, the first thing I got into was an operetta… and because my voice was almost tenor at that time, I could sing all the stuff. I was lucky that I came from a very musical family. I could just sing; never gave it much thought. And that’s how I got on stage before I had ever been in the audience for a play, much less a musical.
After I did another operetta, I started feeling very much at home up there. And when I went to the seminary, we used to have these kind of entertainments where we would do these parodies of popular songs related to our lives in the seminary. And I think I startled a few of my seminarians who said things like, ‘What are you doing wanting to be a priest?’ And I got the message. I had chosen (rather than the thing I loved passionately and actually had a talent for) rather a thing I wanted to aspire to that I didn’t have as much talent for… so I ended up in the right bucket.
The summer before I left the novitiate, my best buddy in the seminary was a guy named Jim Crabtree. His father was Paul Crabtree, who had been a member of the Theatre Guild, a writer and an actor. And he went to the West Coast as a director and worked in the early live days of television. But, as it happens, he burnt out a bit and ended up in a little town called Crossville, Tennessee, where his wife was from. And he put on a play with the locals and the entire community was riveted because they had never seen anything that professional coming out of their kids, none of whom had even seen a play or a musical.
On one of Paul’s trips to see his son at the seminary, he heard me sing just about every song I ever knew at the biology lab one night and about a week later I got a letter from him asking if I’d like to come to Crossville and do a show he was writing called Tennessee USA. The lead character was a wandering troubadour (who’s actually an angel) who leads a modern Tennessee family back through history. I had never been in any kind of a situation where I had been anything like a star, but the show became such a huge hit that the community built him a theatre based on what they saw with this show. There were a lot of rich people there and so the Cumberland County Playhouse was born. I even helped install the seats. And it’s been going for fifty-seven years now.”
Gunton made the decision to try things out as an actor in New York and though there were times of struggle, for sure, he figured it all out as he went along. “I was lucky I never waited on tables. I always had an acting job that I could manage to squirrel away a few bucks from till I got the next one.” His Broadway debut came about on the same street (West 45th) that he’d moved into when he first arrived, when he got cast at age twenty-seven as an ensemble member and understudy in the Bertlot Brecht/Kurt Weill musical titled Happy End. First written in the 1920s, the musical was making its New York debut in 1977. It had played at Yale and in Brooklyn, and it was now coming to Broadway with a young actress from Yale who was just beginning to make a name for herself: Meryl Streep. But the day before the first preview, her leading man, Christopher Lloyd, tore two ligaments in his right leg at rehearsal. Knowing the part well by this point (he’d been paying attention), Gunton stepped in on a few hours’ notice and did the show through the preview period, including the opening night. But the next night, Lloyd was back in the show, not due to possession being 9/10ths of the law, but due to his coming down with the measles — unbelievable! Lloyd, a trouper through and through, returned to the role performing it on crutches until he fully healed. As for Gunton, he was invited back into the company, only this time, instead of being in the ensemble, was offered a nice salary to say on as standby, which meant his job would entail phoning in to ask if Christopher Lloyd was healthy or not. Gunton never played the part again in its nine-week run.
Working (1978) and King of Hearts (1979) followed, two poorly received musicals with combined performances of less than two months. It was then Gunton got a call to audition for a big Broadway musical whose leading actor’s contract was up. The idea thrilled him, as he explained to me: “It was actually a huge moment in my life for a lot of reasons. John Cullum was going to leave On the 20th Century and I felt as passionate about John Barrymore and that show as I did when I finally got to do it years later. So, at my audition I gave my all and hung from the rafters and the casting director, Joanna Merlin, really enjoyed it. Then she took me aside and said, ‘Actually, the show is definitely going to close in three months. So, we’re thinking of letting George Lee Andrews [who covered Cullum] to finish it out.’ However, Evita was just about to begin auditions for the American version of it and Joanna told me ‘Hal [Prince] would like to see you for Juan Peron.’ I wasn’t that familiar with Evita at that time, and I’ll tell you… If I could have done three months in On the 20th Century, I would have passed on Evita, which probably would have been a very, very stupid thing to do. But that’s how passionately I felt about that show.”
In the next “Theatre Yesterday and Today,” more with Bob Gunton on Evita and Big River (both of which won Best Musical) and his personal “Mount Everest,” the 1989 revival of Sweeney Todd (his second Tony nomination after Peron). Also, his wish fulfillment role, finally and happily getting to play Oscar Jaffe in On the 20th Century.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.