Spotlight On

by Nancy Rosati   

Harry Groener
If you’re a fan of theater, television or film, chances are you’ve seen Harry Groener, because he’s done it all. The son of two performers, Harry was born in West Germany and moved to San Francisco when he was a small child. He fell in love with dance in junior high school, and soon learned that he had the talent to become a triple threat.

Harry received the first of three Tony nominations for his Broadway debut performance as Will Parker in the 1979 revival of Oklahoma!, followed by nominations for Munkustrap in Cats and Bobby Child in Crazy For You. Other Broadway credits include Harrigan ‘n Hart, Oh, Brother!, and Sunday in the Park with George. His ninth Broadway show, Imaginary Friends, opens on December 12th at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Harry plays all of the male leading roles opposite Cherry Jones and Swoosie Kurtz, while they re-enact the famous feud between writers Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy.

His many film roles include Road to Perdition with Tom Hanks, Patch Adams with Robin Williams, and the upcoming About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson. Harry is a frequent guest star on television shows. He played the hapless Ralph in Dear John opposite Judd Hirsch, and has had a recurring role as the Mayor in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He is married to actress Dawn Didawick.

Nancy Rosati:  When I first saw you in Crazy For You, my initial reaction was “This guy was born 40 to 50 years too late. He belongs on the lot at MGM with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.”

Harry Groener:  Oh ... wouldn’t that have been incredible?

NR:  Did you ever feel that way?

HG:  Yeah. In the vein of the movie musical, I do feel better in that period with that kind of dancing and that kind of style. Just watching those guys – they’re heroes for me. There’s no one like that today, with the exception of Gregory Hines or Savion Glover. They truly have the technique, but the style is very different. There’s really nobody around now who can do what they did.

NR:  Those roles don’t exist either.

Oh, Brother
With Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in Oh, Brother!
HG:  I know. They don’t make the movies or write the shows anymore for specific people, whether it’s dancing or singing or comedy. When they write the shows now, you’ve got to fit in. That puts a very specific requirement on the actor because you’ve got to be able to do everything.

NR:  When did you decide you wanted to do this?

HG:  I started very young. I was about twelve when I wanted to be a dancer, because of movies like West Side Story and Flower Drum Song, which had great dance numbers. It was those movie musicals that pushed me and made me want to study dance.

I started out taking jazz. Both my mom and dad were performers and they told me that if I wanted to be good, I had to take ballet. I didn’t want to because I knew what was going to happen - I’d be the only guy in a class full of girls. They talked me into it, and of course I was the only guy, and at that age, you just want to be cool and girls are very much on your mind. (laughing) You’re not cool when the crotch of your tights is down to your knees! But I fell in love with ballet and I wanted to be a ballet dancer.

The school had a company that toured and they asked me to be a part it, so I went on the road. I was only 14 years old, and to go on the road with all these other dancers, doing shows like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Giselle ... it was wonderful. It was bus and truck and we had one night stands, occasionally two or three nights in one town.

That was going to be my life. I was going to be a ballet dancer. Then I fell out of love with ballet and went back to jazz. At the same time, I also started doing plays and I sang on stage for the first time in a musical version of James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks my last year of junior high school.

NR:  Did your parents encourage you?

HG:  My parents were excellent critics at that time. Being very German, they were quick to criticize, but the criticism was extremely valuable. They would say what a kid that age needed to hear - “You’re talking too fast. I can’t understand you.” “Don’t make so many faces.” “You’re moving too much. Stand still.” All those are tangible criticisms that you can actually work on, as opposed to “I don’t feel I believe your character.” All of that comes much later, but for a kid starting out, their comments were the kind of things that were important.

NR:  Did they praise you when you did it right?

HG:  Sure. They would come back and say, “That was good. You didn’t make so many faces,” or “I could hear you.” Mainly it was “Don’t talk so fast. If you talk too fast I can’t understand you.” It was all about speaking slowly and articulating, which is what they teach you in beginning acting classes.

NR:  You do so many dialects in Imaginary Friends. Do you pick them up easily?

HG:  Yes. I’ve done a bunch of parts where I’ve had to speak different dialects. That comes very easily to me, probably because Russian and German were spoken in my house. When I started, I would hear my mom or my dad and I would try to match it.

NR:  You’ve done theater, film and TV. Was that planned, or did you just go where the jobs were?

HG:  Theater was first. I did a lot of that and I still do. Then the opportunities came up and if my agent said, “Do you want to go up for this film?” I would say, “Of course,” because that’s part of what an actor does. If you’re lucky and you can get them, then you can continue a career in that as well.

NR:  They’re very different genres. Do you find you enjoy one more than the other?

HG:  No, I like them both. I don’t prefer one over the other.

NR:  You don’t mind not having an audience?

HG:  No. In the beginning, when I first started doing some television stuff, I found it extremely foreign and I didn’t like it at all. I stuck with it, though I didn’t feel at home. But the more I went out there, the more I realized that there’s a wonderful community of people, and there are many crossovers. Many people work in the theater as well, so we have friends and experiences in common. The goal is really the same whether it’s television, film or theater, and that’s to tell a good story. The medium is different but all the rules are the same. It just so happens that in the last hundred years, someone invented the camera and there was a new way to look at things and that led to moving pictures. But it’s all about telling the story.

NR:  It’s not hard to tell the story in short little snippets when filming a TV show?

HG:  It’s just a different way of working. On the stage you have more control because it’s just you. The director is gone and no one can say “Cut” unless it’s a disaster, like a set breaks or an actor seriously hurts himself. It starts at eight and you go. Whatever happens happens. That’s the fun of it. That’s also the danger of it. You’re in control.

In film and television, the technicians are in control. If you are a major star you can certainly say, “I’d like to try this again.” The lighting or a sound thing may mess up; there are many reasons for doing a take over. But if everything technically works well, it’s usually your first two or three takes that are chosen in the final editing. I find that working in front of the camera helps me and informs my work on stage, simplifying it.

With Christine Ebersole in Oklahoma!
NR:  Your first Tony nomination was for the 1979 revival of Oklahoma!. Tell me about that experience.

HG:  It was my first Broadway show and I got a Tony nomination – I was in heaven. Also, we were at the Palace and Bill Hammerstein directed it. Agnes DeMille was still alive and she was a part of it. Gemze de Lappe, who was in the original production, was the dance captain and she taught us all the dances. On the tour, Agnes was with us for most of it. When we had note sessions, we’d go to the lobby. She’d sit in this chair and we’d all be on the floor, just like Lillian had them do at Sarah Lawrence in Imaginary Friends. We’d sit around and listen to her give notes and tell stories about the original production – what they did then and why this was this way. From the stage, I’d look into the pit and there was Jay Blackton, the original conductor.

Agnes never choreographed the “Kansas City” number in the original or in the movie because she didn’t know any tap. Lee Dixon did his in the original Broadway production, Gene Nelson did his in the movie, and Miriam Nelson, Gene’s ex-wife, choreographed mine. She knew an old cowboy named Monty Montana who used to ride in the Rose Bowl parade every year. He came in one day and showed me how to do a lariat.

There were all these connections to the original production, not to mention all these wonderful actors. It was cast in a way that you had three separate performing entities. There was a dancing chorus, a singing chorus, and the principles, which meant that the dancers danced beautifully, the singers sang the hell out of that score, and the rest of us did as best we could. It sounded great and the dancers were fabulous. There were many nights we listened backstage to one song after another. It was a great, great run and a wonderful time – a great experience for a first Broadway show.

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