Spotlight On

Norbert Leo


by Nancy Rosati     

Had Mr. Norbert Butz of St. Louis, Missouri realized that some day his sonís name would be all over New York, would he have insisted on giving him that name? I suppose weíll never know, but itís obvious now that the son has made a name for himself.

After several years at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Norbert spent almost two years in Rent on Broadway, won numerous awards as the Emcee in the first National Tour of Cabaret, and was the only actor to receive unanimous raves in the poorly received Thou Shalt Not earlier this season. He originated the role of Jamie in the world premiere of Jason Robert Brownís The Last Five Years at the Northlight Theatre in Chicago and was nominated for a Joseph Jefferson Award. Heís now appearing Off Broadway where The Last Five Years recently opened at the Minetta Lane Theatre. I met with Norbert before a recent preview performance.

Nancy Rosati:  I hear youíre from a big family. Can you tell me a little bit about growing up?

Norbert Leo Butz:  Iím the seventh of eleven children - eight boys and three girls. I obviously have the worst name in show business! Norbert is my dadís name. I have six older brothers but I was the first one that he helped deliver. He was so moved by the experience that he asked my mother if they could name this one Norbert. She said, ďHell no! Iím not naming a child Norbert.Ē My older brothers are Steve, Mike, John, Tom, Tony. Unbeknownst to my mom, when she was in recovery, he changed my name on the birth certificate.

NR:  What was it originally?

NLB:  My given name was Timothy James. Tim. I was almost a Tim Butz. He changed it to Norbert. I think for a week after I got home, they argued about what my name was going to be, but my mom subsequently got pregnant again three months after I was born so I have a brother a year younger than me named Tim.

NR:  Did you ever think of changing it?

NLB:  I suppose itís too late now. I always had low expectations of myself. I never thought Iíd be in the position that anybody would actually hear my name so I never thought of it.

NR:  Did you have to fight to get attention when you were little? Is that where the acting comes from?

NLB:  I think thatís part of it actually. I was very shy and very quiet. When I found out it was something I could do well, I got some recognition for it in high school and college. I think that when youíre from a big family, you really do latch on to things to help identify yourself, to separate yourself from the clan a little bit. It was the thing that always made sense to me.

NR:  Thereís a story going around that you all auditioned for The King and I. What happened with that?

NLB:  My oldest brother was a senior in high school. Heís about ten years older than me so I was around 7 or 8. They needed kids - this was in St. Louis, Missouri so we could have kids with blond hair and blue eyes and still be in the court of Siam. The director asked if anybody had any kid brothers or sisters. He brought in four or five of us. One got the role of Annaís son, another one was the head prince, another one was one of the cute little kids and they didnít need me. I was devastated. I was rejected for the first time at 7.

NR:  Are you the only one who became an actor?

NLB:  I have a brother whoís just starting out. His name is Jim and heís in New York as well. He just finished college and heís doing great. Heís a wonderful actor. Weíre looking for something to do together.

NR:  Did you decide in college that you wanted to be an actor?

NLB:  Yeah. I dabbled in high school first. I was about a week away from being a journalism major at the University of Missouri in Columbia. I had my dorm room set up and was already to go. Iím from south St. Louis, from a very middle class Catholic family. People donít go to New York and become actors from my neighborhood. They just donít do it. I secretly auditioned for a conservatory in St. Louis called Webster University for a BFA in Acting and I got accepted. I was lying to my parents for that whole summer. I was petrified to go and tell them that I was going to turn down a scholarship for a different degree. I just caught the bug early. In my senior year of high school I started thinking, ďDo I really want to go and join a fraternity, and take a lot of classes that I donít think are going to help me do what I want to do?Ē

NR:  Did they give you a hard time when you did tell them?

NLB:  My father didnít speak to me for a couple of weeks. I donít think he could even look at me but theyíve come around and then some. Theyíre my biggest fans now. Theyíre very supportive. It was terrifying to them. My parents both grew up very poor. My fatherís parents were German immigrants and that whole middle class work ethic is very strong. They would tell me, ďFind something practical, make money, do it as a hobby. There are community theaters all over the place.Ē