From Mr. T to Paddy Chayefsky

I was faced with the choice: Either settle down into the doldrums of retirement, or become a star on stage.

tact 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
tact 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Two months before I closed my store, Mr. T, in Jerusalem, a buddy invited me to join him for a directors, writers and actors workshop in Tel Aviv sponsored by the Tel Aviv Community Theater (TACT). The truth was, this offer came at just the right time. I was very worried about going into one of those retirement depressions. I had seen this happen to many of my friends. Suddenly one has nothing to do, nowhere to go. "I've lost my identity." The wife takes over. "Why don't you come shopping with me, dear!" Yikes, I just wasn't going to let this phenomenon happen to me! So there I was, a week later, in a small room at the Tel Aviv Museum library watching a couple struggle through a small scene from The Audition, by Neil Simon. It was a pathetic first reading. "Next!" Suddenly I was called upon to read from a scene by James Thurber. I was beyond belief atrocious. I wanted to slink out the door and head on back to Jerusalem. Most of us were catastrophic that night. However, there were a few who had had some acting schooling somewhere, or had been in numerous amateur productions in Israel and abroad. They were quite impressive. I felt that I should have acted better. For God's sake, I have an MFA from UCLA, one of the leading theater, film and television universities in the world. I had worked for the Israel Broadcasting Authority as a producer and writer. But, alas, that was over 30 years ago. Back then I was a person. Today, I was a boring businessman, and tonight, I stunk out the joint. At the end of this first evening, we were informed that the workshop was leading toward a proper showcase production to be performed in front of a live audience two months from now. I said to myself "there is no way I can do this." I hadn't been on stage, as an actor, for over 50 years. Like a bolt from who knows where, I had one of those Shalom Aleichem, Tuvia the Milkman moments. I had a silent discussion with myself. If I quit the workshop, it's "why don't you go shopping with me, dear" - however, if I stick it out, I will make new friends and challenge my creative juices. On the other hand, "I'm a terrible actor and I will only make a complete fool of myself." On the other hand, "where's your courage, Stevenson, go for it!" Two months later I performed a monologue on the stage at Beit Yad Labanim in front of 300 people. I wrote it. It was based on Paddy Chayefsky's script written for the Movie Network, and I put an Israeli twist to it. The producer of the evening, Madeleine Mordechai, felt that I should be the last act to perform that night. I wasn't sure if this was because Maddy wanted to end the show with a bang or because I was just that bad. However, I did know that I had to wait for all my colleagues to finish their nine scenes before I did mine. It was Chinese water torture waiting for everyone to finish. When it was my turn, I was ready and bursting with confidence. I was a giant wound-up spring waiting to attack. I was a Shakespeare sonnet. I was a raging thoroughbred at the starting block. I was "Mad as hell and I wasn't going to take it any longer." When it was over, the audience loved it. And me, well, I felt as if I had just completed the Boston marathon for the first time, or just conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The entire evening was a smashing success, everyone was wonderful, and TACT had yet another exciting production under its belt. During Hanukkah, TACT is producing the musical Cinderella. There is outrageous slapstick, music and plenty of audience participation. I play Major Domo, a minor character, but I also sing and dance in the chorus. Today, I know with certainty that my past with Mr. T is history. Now I wake up in the morning and belt out "there's no business like show business." One thing is for sure, I feel like a young, energetic university student all over again. As Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal's theater critic, noted recently, "I hope I never forget that to be a passionate amateur is one of the wisest and best things that a human being can be - even if it leads him to make a fool of himself on stage. We should all be such fools for love." I guess I passed the test! Jerry Stevenson has an MFA from UCLA in Theater Arts and was a producer and writer for the Israel Broadcasting Authority. For the past 30 years he was the owner of the Mr. T Israel Army Navy surplus and T-shirt company in Jerusalem.