Not much has gotten away from Doug Rowe. As a fisherman, not many steelheads; as a hunter, not many pheasants. And, as a golfer, not many birdies. (For proof, he showed me a trophy buddies gave him this summer when he shot a 68 at the age of 74.)
But as a professional actor for the past 53 years, Doug, who came out of retirement to take a lead role in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival hit, “All the Way,” recalls a starring role on Broadway that did, in fact, get away.
That story begins when Doug, an understudy in director Joe Papp’s New York Public Theatre production of “The Black Picture Show, found himself on the stage at Lincoln Center.
“At the opening (curtain), I had to walk straight down the center. The house was packed. I said to myself, ‘I can’t do it the way that guy’s been doing it.’ And as I passed this actress–it was Carole Cole, Nat King Cole’s daughter–I put my hand right on her behind. I was supposed to be a miserable Hollywood producer, after all.
“Well, every actor on that stage saw me do it, and the whole play went ‘Boom!’ It was like we all took a quarter-degree turn and re-did the play. Joe Papp came by afterwards and called me on stage and put his arm around me and said, ‘This is the reason I chose theater.’ ”
Impressed by the adlib and his theatrical chutzpah, the next morning Papp offered him the role of Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” playing with Richard Dreyfuss cast as Cassius. “Papp gave me the script to read and I thought my life had turned,” says Doug.
The high didn’t last long. A week later, when Dreyfuss signed on to make the film “Goodbye Girl,” for which he won an Oscar, Papp’s “Caesar” was canceled.
So Doug, the rare actor who’s rarely been unemployed, took a less glamorous offer to return to previous position as artistic director of the Laguna Playhouse. But don’t begin to pity the guy. Not only did Doug get to work with folks like Harrison Ford and Mike Farrell, he was in the right place at the right time to meet Catherine, the woman who would become his partner and Mom of their two sons.
Now that you’ve heard that story, please bear with me for a blatant and worthwhile plug. It is, in fact, the reason I’ve written this column now:
Beholden to playwrights whose words have sustained his career, Doug shows gratitude by serving as artistic director for the non-profit Ashland New Plays Festival. www.ashlandnewplays.org/ He wants to help ensure that future generations of actors have solid scripts to work with. (As for full disclosure, I’m on the ANPF board.) This year’s edition will present staged readings of the four winning plays from Oct. 24-28 at the Unitarian church, featuring OSF actors and directors whom Doug recruited from among his peers.
Ironically, perhaps, if the charmed story of Doug’s career were adapted as a play, it might be written off as taking far too many fortuitous turns.
A New Jersey kid whose family later moved to Massachusetts, Doug was enrolled at Bates College in central Maine on a baseball scholarship when he caught the luck of the draw.
For a required public speaking class, the freshman first baseman drew the drama teacher as his instructor. After giving his first speech, Doug was invited to audition.
“I’d only seen one play in my life,’” says Doug, referring to a high school senior play in which he had a one-line role as a Texas Ranger. Besides, Doug told him, “‘Are you kidding me? I live in a dorm with athletes and I’m going to put on funny pants?”
Still, Doug’s father, an inventor who’d never seen a play encouraged him. “He said, isn’t that why you go to school? To try things out?”
“I went back, tried out and got a part. After the first rehearsal, I walked out and said to the person next to me—and this is the God’s truth—‘This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.’”
That spring, Doug’s dream was helped along. “The second day of baseball practice, I dislocated my shoulder; it was great; it meant I could go out for the spring play.”
After apprenticing in summer stock in New Hampshire, Doug was invited to join the company at a professional theatre in St. Louis.
A year after graduation—he stayed home at his family’s behest after his Mom died and worked as a teacher—Doug headed West. But why Hollywood and not New York?
Blame the Dodgers.
“I was sitting in at bar in Maine drinking dimies (10-cent beers) trying to figure out which way to go.” Neither choice was obvious: “New York was all musicals and I’m tone deaf. And in Hollywood, you had to be good looking.
“But the Dodgers had just moved to L.A.” Enough said. Doug had idolized Jackie Robinson since he was a 9-year-old. He was, and remains, a fervent fan.
While Doug might not have been leading-man handsome, it didn’t take long for him to get gigs. In fact, he was in demand for commercials precisely because he didn’t have a memorable mug. In fact, as an actor who’d done 28 national commercials in one year, Doug was invited to appear on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” But his agent wouldn’t let him go, saying, “‘When they find out you did all these, they won’t hire you.”
Along the way, Doug has appeared in numerous movies—his favorite was the comedy “Critters”—and stage shows as well as eight TV pilots, only one of which made it into production. “Legends” starring Richard Dean Anderson, ran for a year. Playing sheriff, he got to ride a horse, drive a wagon, and even do a quick-draw.
One high-profile appearance had him assuming the servant role on the “Jack Benny Show” (after the black actor playing Rochester was re-cast as the comedian’s friend).
“We did a skit that was a take-off on ‘The Graduate.’ Jack played Benjamin, Phyllis Diller played Mrs. Robinson, and I played a bell hop; Jack gave me a stinking little tip.
“During a pause in the scene, I threw in an adlib. Jack turned to me with that classic pose with his fingers to his chin. Then I heard a voice from above, the director, saying, ‘Doug, oh Doug, it’s Jack’s show.’”
In 1997, he was given the plum part of Willy Loman in the OSF production of “Death of a Salesman,” and shortly thereafter made Ashland his home
After three more seasons with OSF, Doug retired for more than a decade until OSF’s artistic director, Bill Rauch dangled the role of Sen. Richard Russell—among other smaller parts in the—in the world-premiere play about President Lyndon Johnson. (Rauch also convinced Doug to play the small part of Adam in “As You Like It.”)
“After 11 years away, it was tough getting back into it,” says Doug, who’s thrilled with the opportunity Rauch gave him, but adds with a wry smile, “I probably won’t be answering any more phone calls from him.”
As a Doug Rowe fan, here’s hoping he takes those calls.
(Alan “Rosey” Rosenberg is a Realtor with Real Estate Depot in Ashland. You can reach him at 541-778-8949 or at email@example.com