A life on the boards

Trinity’s Fred Sullivan, Jr. hits 100
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  April 14, 2010

OSCAR AND FELIX Sullivan (left) with Brian McEleney in The Odd Couple.

An actor who has done 100 productions at the same theater? That’s all but unheard of in this country, where actors usually have more in common with an itinerant tinker than with such a professional stick-in-the-mud.

But that’s the story with Fred Sullivan, Jr. as he comes to Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, which Trinity Repertory Company is staging through May 9.

Over 26 seasons, his roles have ranged in challenge and tone from the dignity of King Creon in The Dreams of Antigone, through the brooding severity of Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, to the lighthearted jesting of Touchstone and Sir Toby Belch in Shakespeare, to the exuberance of super-salesman Harold Hill in The Music Man, to the sheer, sniggering fun of Captain Hook in Peter Pan.

A career like his could only happen at Trinity. It’s the only theater in America that goes to the trouble of maintaining an actual theater company, a troupe of regulars who can expect steady work. Instead of being treated like day laborers, the 13 actors have seasons designed with each of them in mind. These days for economic expedience, regional theater actors are the equivalent of the guys who collect at a certain corner at dawn and hope to be waved onto a pickup truck for a job.

That number 100 means something to Sullivan as well as to Trinity regulars. He is a counter. He knows that Harold Hill was number 50, that he has done four Crucibles, three Tempests, three Winter’s Tales. He knows that he has acted in or directed 208 plays in his life — the additional 108 accounted for because he began by directing a play in elementary school when he was 12.

“I probably have a little Rain Man gene somewhere,” Sullivan says of the obsession. “We don’t get paid an enormous amount like movie actors, and we don’t have a very glamorous life. We get recognized at the supermarket, you know? We dedicate our lives to a body of work. And to know what the number is in a body of work is important to me.”

A heel-clicking 22 when he came to Trinity Rep, he was attracted by the exciting, risk-taking productions that founder Adrian Hall was mounting.

“He really was very smart and worked from inside the text in a unique way,” Sullivan says. “And that really kind of rocked my world. Changed how I work.”

The young actor started out in the 1983 production of Jonestown Express, just one of the anonymous supporting ensemble.

But, “I was treated pretty much like family and given a lot of respect,” he says. “My voice will crack when I talk about it too much, because I have loved my adult life in the theater here so much. It gave me a permanent home.”

Sullivan’s home is under more than one roof. He refers to himself as “head coach” at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, where he does a lot of directing in what could laughably be called his free time.

“People say, ‘Do you have any hobbies?’ I get up and I go teach — theater — and then I go to rehearsal and rehearse theater, and then I walk out onstage and I act or something that I’ve directed is on the stage. This year was a very busy year, where Much Ado and Shooting Star were both on Gamm and Trinity stages while I was rehearsing Christmas Carol and teaching acting at RISD.”

And now and then he takes acting jobs at other theaters, for fresh perspective and to perk up his morale.

“I actually like going to work at another theater, because they don’t take for granted what I do,” he says. “If I play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Boston, people kind of open their mouths agape. ‘Oh my God, this guy is going to be good.’ Whereas when I do it here, they’re like, ‘There goes Fred again.’ ”

He sounds amused.

“I made a lucky choice,” Sullivan says. “Because I was asked to be in the Boston Shakespeare Company the same year that I decided to come down here.”

He adds, laughing lightly: “The Boston Shakespeare Company ended two years later.”

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