Gregory Harrison is probably best known for playing Dr. Gonzo Gates on the long-running TV series, Trapper John, M.D. But his career has spanned television, film and theater, both as an actor and behind the scenes. As an actor, he has been in over 40 movies of the week, five TV series, at least seven feature films, and dozens of stage productions, including Steel Pier on Broadway. Behind the scenes, he produced over two dozen television movies through his company, Catalina Productions, which was also an important force in the Los Angeles theater scene, winning over 150 theater awards between 1981 to 1992. I caught up with Gregory while he was in Seattle playing Sky Masterson in Fifth Avenue's production of Guys and Dolls.
Jonathan: Thank you for joining us here at Talkin' Broadway.
Gregory: My pleasure.
J: Are you familiar with Talkin' Broadway?
G: Yesterday I had it explained to me, and I logged on and looked at the Seattle reviews, but you didn't have us up there yet. I saw that you weren't too wild about Evita.
J: No. It's a great show, but that production just didn't quite click. Did you see it?
G: No, I didn't see that production, but like you, it is my favorite of Lloyd Webber's shows, and the only one that I felt was about something too.
J: But I did like Guys and Dolls, so you don't have to worry!
G: Oh good! I wasn't fishing ... (laughs)
J: Are you pretty active on the web, then?
G: I roam around, and e-mail is my life since I'm on the road all the time. So, yeah, I'm pretty savvy about that. I put Talkin Broadway on my favorites list, so I will be visiting.
J: Great! Now first off, I am curious as to how you made the transition from television to musicals. Have you been performing in musicals for a while, or is this a recent development in your career?
G: Actually I have been singing since I was a kid. I learned to play guitar at a young age and converted poems and stuff that I had written to songs. So I got interested in singing and I have always used my voice. Not professionally as much, but around the living room, the campfire, that kind of thing. Then when I got to Hollywood, the first musical I did was Festival in 1977. It was Brian Stokes Mitchell and myself ... Bill Hutton ... several really talented people ... Michael Rupert. A lot of people ended up having nice careers in musical theater after that. Brian and I got cast out of that show into Trapper John, M. D.
J: I had forgotten that Brian was in Trapper John, M. D.
G: Jackpot Jackson!
J: I actually spent some time last week with one of your 'ex-girlfriends' from the show, Andrea Marcovicci.
G: Oh really! (laughs) Small world!
J: And I hear you are going back to television next season.
G: Yes. I got a series with the WB next year. We start shooting in July. It's going to be called Safe Harbor, and it's an hour show. It's a Spelling show and will follow 7th Heaven. It's made by the same producer as 7th Heaven, Brenda Hampton, and will be written by her. It is going to be a part of the Monday night block that Warner Brothers is trying to put together with these two one-hour shows. 7th Heaven is quite a hit for them now, and they are hoping to appeal to a very similar audience with our show; skewed slightly older I guess, since it's a 9:00 to 10:00 show.
J: What is it going to be about?
G: A family of males, believe it or not, since it's seems that the television industry is almost all 'feminine teen angst' lately. It will have the four sons and the dad living on the coast of Florida. I am a sheriff, and each week I'll be solving some sort of crime and helping my kids with homework. It will be a family viewing show, like 7th Heaven is. It's nicely written, the characters are really three dimensional, and I think it's a nice blend of comedy and drama.
J: Now, I noticed that neither your bio in Guys and Dolls, nor any other bio I found on the net, contains one of my favorite shows of yours, Logan's Run.
G: (Laughs) It's interesting. The original Star Wars movie came out at the end of the first season for Logan's Run. We had started shooting nine months before Star Wars came out. It was the most expensive series ever done at that point, and was considered very high-tech with its special effects. Suddenly Star Wars came out while we were on hiatus, and we looked like the old Buck Rogers series, where they had cigarette smoke blowing out the back of the rocket ship. Star Wars just totally reinvented space movies and TV series. It made us look so bad overnight! That first season was very successful, but literally during the course of that summer hiatus, we became out-dated, and didn't even come back.
J: That's too bad, because I loved that series and keep waiting for the Sci-Fi Channel to show reruns of it. Now, returning to musicals, since that is what you are doing here in Seattle. You were in the Papermill Playhouse production of Paper Moon, which had been expected to transfer to Broadway. Is there any chance of it returning?
G: Maybe, but not with me. I developed that show for seven years at my theater in Los Angeles. It died an ugly death, a sort of internal implosion, at the end of the Papermill run.
J: Was that one of the shows you did through your company, Catalina Productions?
G: Yes. At Catalina Productions we did about 25 television movies, a couple of features and 60 plays over an eleven or twelve year period. When my business partner Frank Levi died in 1992, I moved out of LA to Oregon in order to raise my kids there, and I let the company go. I have kept a part of Catalina Productions going, through which I develop a few projects just for me. But we were doing plays and movies which I had nothing to do with other than being a producer, and I don't have that kind of interest or time any more.
J: And then you went from Paper Moon to Steel Pier. Was that a good experience for you?
G: It was a good experience. There were some things about it that were difficult. I had invested a lot of time and hope into it. I have a big family and had to move them all from the coast of Oregon to New York three times for the workshops and for the actual production itself, which had about a four month development rehearsal schedule. Then we ran for three months after that. And to have the show nominated for whatever it was ... 11, 12, 13 Tonys, and not win one was very disappointing. We needed at least one to keep it running, and we got totally shut out. So there wasn't much hope that we could keep it going through the hard time of the year. But, God I loved doing it. I had done a lot of plays, particularly at my own theater in LA, and it was the first time in my theatrical life where I didn't feel that my role was also to keep everybody else working hard. It was the first time that I was on Broadway, and I got to run as fast as I could to keep up. And I loved it! I loved that all I had to worry about was me; everybody else was going to deliver no matter what, and they didn't need any help from anybody else to do that. That part of it was really a joy, and the people that I worked with were really professional, disciplined, nice people.
J: Would you like to do another show on Broadway?
G: I have to be very careful about how often I drag my family to places. They need some stability in their lives. So I am very picky about what I decide is worthy of moving them. But there will be something worthy of that in the next few years, and I will be back there.
J: Anything in development?
G: No, I'm just hoping. My ear is always to the tracks and I'm always listening to what is coming down the road. And if something really interests me, I'll pursue it.
J: Is there anything on Broadway now or coming up that you wish you were involved in?
G: Well, I want to do The Music Man. I think it's an amazing opportunity, but I think that they are probably looking at major movie stars right now, and I don't blame them.
J: That seems to be the one part that drives the rumor mill lately ... I think everybody has been linked to Harold Hill!
G: (Laughs) Well, right now, Stro (Susan Stroman) has dropped out of it, at least for the time being. She went on to another show and they postponed Music Man, so she may be back. And of course now I have this series. Right after I got the series is when I heard that they were revving up to do The Music Man. For two or three years, I have had my eye on it; I did a production of it down in Florida a couple of years back to see how it felt, and I loved it. It would be something that I would love to do. Things happen the way they are supposed to happen, so we shall see.
J: Now one thing that impressed me with your performance as Sky in Guys and Dolls was how intimate and conversational your singing was. It made me think that I would love to see you do a solo cabaret-type show. Have you ever thought of doing something like that?
G: I haven't really, and it's very flattering that you would ask that question. I love to sing and I do think that my strength as a singer is ... I think I have a voice that is certainly sufficient under most any circumstances ... but I think my strength is that I really am an actor and I really do have to own what I am saying. And I think that does make it feel more natural. So that probably is what you were hearing, and that probably is a style that will always be my style, no matter what roles I am playing. I have to own something before I can say it, and I have to own it before I can sing it as well, emotionally. I only enjoy acting and singing if I am believing what I am doing. I have a ... I don't know what else to call it ... I call it my 'bullshit-o-meter' ... that goes off like a fire alarm the moment that I start to indicate or lie, and that works on stage too. Sometimes it's hard to make that adjustment, especially when you are doing something really big and broad like Guys and Dolls can be. There have been a couple of times when my meter has gone off, and the director has said, "You know what, I think your meter is lying to you. You really can play it that big."
That's what I love about doing theater between film jobs. It really does enlarge me and makes me take bigger chances. If you do TV and film all the time, you just feel like you are shrinking. With each performance you are getting tighter, and smaller, and more compact; working for the close-ups only. And I think that shrinks you talent-wise after a while.
J: About the only medium you haven't tackled is the recording industry. Have you thought about recording a solo album?
G: Well, yeah! Honestly, when I got to Hollywood I was trying to sell my songs. I was performing at The Troubadour ... this was back when The Troubadour was the place to be ... on their amateur nights. I was getting warm responses and interest from various recording places. But they all wanted to change my music around. They all wanted to get their hands all over the music, and I was writing my own tunes and was very arrogant (laughs) and stuck on myself and said "I'm not going to let you change anything!" What I ended up doing was becoming an actor who didn't mind doing other people's words. I didn't feel compromised as an actor, and allowed other people's fingerprints all over that aspect. But I always held my music up and protected it from compromise. So I just do it for my friends. I've written hundreds of songs, and I'm sure I have a few albums worth of songs. How good they are is up for someone like you to decide! But one day I might do that.
J: I was instructed to ask you if your production of Hasty Heart, for which you won a Best Actor Award from the Los Angeles Drama Critics, was ever filmed for TV.
G: Yes, it was recorded for Showtime on Broadway. We recorded the Ahmanson Theater productions of Hasty Heart and Picnic for cable.
J: You have been doing quite a bit of hard hitting drama recently. I also enjoyed you in the film It's My Party.
G: Oh good!
J: My partner used to live in Los Angeles and was friends with Randal Kleiser (the director and writer of It's My Party) about the time the events in the movie took place, so the movie really hit home for him.
G: A lot of people who were actually at the original party were in the party scenes for the film. And Randal, of course, was very emotionally connected with it while he was directing it. There were times when we would finish a scene, and I would turn around and look at Randal and he would just be in a puddle in his chair, unable to even comment on it for ten minutes. We had scrapbooks of Polaroids of the party, which contained all these people posing with the person who was the basis for Eric's character. It was all very resonant stuff, with all these wonderful actors. It was an amazing experience to make that movie. And there was absolutely no money in it, so we were all staying in this one big honey wagon; each of us had a little cubicle. Nobody ever complained. We would make our own lunches of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the set. It was like going back 15 years in my career, back to guerrilla film making, when you did things you really cared about.
J: Are you going to be moving back to Los Angeles for the new series?
G: No. Actually, the series shoots in Florida. We're moving to Jacksonville, Florida for half the year. So I am dragging my family with me.
J: How many kids do you have?
G: I have four kids; three girls and a boy. The oldest girl is 13, and has her own social life now, so there's a bit of begrudging cooperation there. It's tough.
J: Are you going to be doing any more producing and directing, or is that on hold with this series?
G: I still develop projects for myself, and I'm involved in one other project that is a potential feature down the road. I probably won't be in it, but I just love the story. So I'm still developing stuff and buying an occasional book rights. I directed an episode of Touched by an Angel a couple of months ago, and I will be doing more of that. I just like to keep a bit of variety going; it keeps things interesting.
J: Do you think you will develop another musical down the road?
G: Probably not. It's so time consuming; I think it really is a full time job. I'm always in touch with Roger Berlind (producer of Steel Pier), who is an old friend. Sometimes I envy him, but most of the time I just go "How do you have the tolerance, the tenacity to stick through all the years it takes to get one show on the boards, only to have one critic in one paper hate it and kill it. How do you do it???" It just kills me, that it can be so whimsically destroyed. And after all that love, hard work and time. Not that that automatically makes something good, but it does seem whimsical sometimes, doesn't it?
J: Yes. Now it seems that unless the production is geared to a mass touring audience, it doesn't have a chance. Plus, today you no longer have the luxury of trying the show out of town to get the kinks out.
G: Exactly. And that's the mistake that was made with Steel Pier. Roger was caught between a rock and hard place. It would have cost a couple of million dollars more to take it to Boston or someplace first. So we opened about a month too early. We hadn't ironed out a month's worth of stuff. If we had had that extra month we would have fixed a lot of things that, a month after we opened, we knew could be fixed and how to fix them. I don't know ... there's just so much money involved in all this now, that it's scary.
But I can't wait to watch the Tonys this Sunday. I'm really glad Broadway is doing so well this year, especially with its straight plays. It's been a wonderful year.
J: And I hope the upcoming year is good for both you and Broadway. It was wonderful talking to you. Best of fates on your TV series, and I'm looking forward to seeing it next season.
G: Thank you.