Joel Rooks was in his mid-30s when he arrived in New York in 1978 to pursue a theatrical career. He has worked steadily ever since, acting extensively in theatre, both on and off Broadway as well as throughout the U.S. and overseas. In addition to appearing in film and on TV, he has played a character in the video game Grand Theft Auto V. Onstage, among a variety of roles, Rooks has portrayed an Orthodox man visiting a brothel, an Israeli intelligence officer, and Sigmund Freud. And since the mid-2000s, he has starred as George Burns at many theatres around the country in the one-man show Say Goodnight Gracie: The Life, Laughter and Love of George Burns and Gracie Allen by Rupert Holmes. Rooks is a member of the faculty at the William Esper Studio and a member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre.
Terry Stoller spoke with Joel Rooks in April 2017 about his career in the clothing business, his introduction to acting in community theatre, his move into professional theatre, his long association with the William Esper Studio, his experience with the avant-garde, his attitude about working as an understudy, his role as George Burns in Say Goodnight Gracie, his entry into the video game world, and his appreciation of the Westbeth community.
Terry Stoller: Before you became an actor, you worked in the clothing business.
Joel Rooks: My family was in the clothing business. My grandfather started a clothing store in Massachusetts. He died before I was born, before my mother and father even met. He had five sons and two daughters, and all seven families were part of the business. That business was not for me, but I started off in that direction.
When you decided to take up an acting career, what kind of career
did you envision for yourself?
I don’t know if I had that kind of forward-looking vision. What I knew was that I didn’t want to do what I was doing. I was not the best kid in the world when it came to having goals and doing what you envision for yourself. In the early sixties, I came to New York because my father knew somebody at Gimbels and got me a job. The idea was that I would work at Gimbels for a couple of years, learn the retail clothing business, and come back to the family’s business. So I went back to Massachusetts and started working in the family’s business, met a very nice woman whom I’m still friendly with, and we had two children. But the longer I stayed in that world, the more convinced I was this was not for me. I was an unhappy guy.
From the time I was 5 years old, acting was something that had always spoken to me. I would listen to the radio, hear those people and know they were not real, that they were actors, but I said that’s what I want to do; that’s what I think I would be good at. But there was no avenue, and I went into the family business because that was the door that was open to me. There’s a line from the movie The Flamingo Kid that has always stuck with me. The father says to the kid (I’m paraphrasing): The two most important things in life are knowing what you’re good at and knowing what makes you happy, and if God is smiling on you, they’ll be the same thing. I always felt acting was what I’d be good at, but I never did it, and I knew somehow it would make me happy. And I’ll add a third thing to the father’s advice: if you can earn your living doing that thing, then that’s the best.
I guess I was married about six or seven years when things started to get rocky, not from anything she did, but from my need to do something else with my life. We split up. I was in very bad shape. I was miserable and depressed, my marriage had broken up, I was unhappy at work, and I needed something to do. So my cousin lent me an old ten-speed bike that she had, and I started riding the bike like crazy. I rode and rode every night after work, and those endorphins started to fire, and I felt good. It was the seventies, and it was not a bad time to be single. I was living then in the quaint little seacoast village of Marblehead, Massachusetts, which had a big singles scene. I had a great little apartment, and I was going to the bars, but I said, I’ve got to do something else with my time. I was still working all day in the family business in Lynn. Someone suggested, There’s a community theatre group in Marblehead, and they do interesting stuff. I said, That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. You know what, let me go and audition. I figured even if I didn’t get cast, it would be a different world than hanging around in bars, playing darts and drinking beer.
So I auditioned and got cast in a play called White Liars by Peter Shaffer. I got cast in the lead, and all of a sudden, I was getting all this applause. I didn’t know stage left from stage right. I didn’t know anything, except that I had some feeling for saying words and pretending to be someone that I wasn’t. And I felt, This is for me. The next play they did, Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, I didn’t get cast in the lead. There was another actor who looked the part of Sir Wilfrid, the tall majestic barrister, the Charles Laughton part. I was cast as his friend. But the man they cast in the lead turned out to be a raging alcoholic, who would show up at these community theatre rehearsals stoned to the gills. And after a week of that, they got rid of him, and I took over that part. So it came to be that I was working in the retail clothing store every day, and after work, I would get on my bicycle and go to rehearsals. And I would go from play to play at Marblehead Little Theatre. They did some interesting plays there, not the typical kind of community theatre fare. They did Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet and the musical 1776. I played John Adams in that.
How did you go from community theatre to pursuing a professional acting career?
For two or three years, I did Marblehead Little Theatre. There’s a side story that comes with this. One day I was outside my apartment working on my bike, and this man came along, a big red-headed guy, like he dropped from nowhere. And he was standing there beaming, and he said, Do you mind if I watch as you fix your bike? I said, Not at all. You look very happy. I could use some of that. What’s going on with you? He said, I just came back from an Outward Bound adventure. It’s a program where you test yourself against the elements with a group in different settings. He was an instructor, and he’d just come back from Hurricane Island in Maine. So he gave me the address, and I wrote to Outward Bound. I joined a program that was through the Dartmouth Outward Bound Center in New Hampshire. It started at Mount Desert Island in Maine. We took a ferry to Nova Scotia and then bicycled about a thousand miles over twenty-two days. There were eleven of us and a leader. I was probably one of the oldest ones. I was in my early 30s. Most of them were 18-, 19-year-old kids. It was life changing for me. We did technical rock climbing, rappelling, all kinds of stuff that I never dreamed I would be able to do. I came back from that experience changed somehow, with a sense of assurance and self-confidence and happiness that had been missing from my life.
I’m waiting for you to decide to go to New York to pursue your career.
I’m getting to that. I told a director in Marblehead that I wanted to learn more about this craft. He said, I know these people you should study with. They were the original cast of the Boston company of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and they had a class, which I took. It was about eight weeks, and we did acting exercises and finished with a scene. I did a scene from Hamlet. I played the gravedigger. A friend of the people who ran the class, Gary Blumsack, who did a lot of Boston theatre, was there as an observer. He said to me, Listen, I’m doing a production of The Indian Wants the Bronx [by Israel Horovitz]. I’m going to play Joey, and this other guy, Robert Desiderio, is going to play Murph. We’re looking for someone to play Gupta, the Indian. I think you’d be great. I said, I’m in. In the meantime, I did another show in Boston, so I was doing a little bit of Boston theatre. And this thing with Gary didn’t happen right away. About a year later, he said, OK, we’re going to do this show. We opened at the Charles Playhouse in Boston in a tiny little space in the theatre’s bar, which they called Stage 3. We were supposed to run for three weeks. Suddenly we got reviews through the moon, and our three weeks became three months. We were a hit.
By this time, I had moved to Boston. Gary and Robert were going to New York to start their careers. This is where the Outward Bound ties in. That experience gave me a sense of self and confidence that I never would have had without it. When they said they were going to New York, I thought, If I don’t do this now, I never will. This is the one time in my life I’d better take advantage of this opportunity. I worked things out with my family. I gave up my piece of the business so that my ex-wife, Marjorie, and my two sons, Matthew and Adam, would get a certain amount of money every month, and it would take care of my obligations. When the show closed at the Charles Playhouse, I said to the manager of the bar, I’m going to New York in a few months, and I need a job. Make me a bartender. So I was a bartender at the Charles Playhouse theatre bar for the next three or four months, and I saved enough money to come to New York in July 1978.
It seems that you started to work in theatre right away.
I started to work for free right away. At that time, there were a lot of off-off-Broadway shows. You could pick up Back Stage, and there was also Show Business, and you could go out and audition every day, and I did.
Did you also work as a bartender here in New York?
Never had to. I had enough money to survive for a couple of years. Within a year, I was looking for places to study. I went around with Gary to audit a few acting classes. We would see people rolling around on the floor being secret colors, being animals. I thought, What the hell is this? Then I was doing a showcase where I got my Equity card because it turned into a mini-contract. It was the Tennessee Williams play Period of Adjustment, which he came to see. So I met Tennessee Williams backstage at a showcase. And the lucky part was that I told the director, Kirsten Anderson, that I was looking for a place to study. She said, I know a teacher. I studied with him at the Neighborhood Playhouse. His name is Bill Esper, and now he has his own studio. He’s a great teacher. So I called Bill’s studio, and I made an appointment to go in and interview. We spoke for half an hour, and I thought, This is the person I want to study with.
Can you explain why you felt that?
First of all, it had to do with Bill himself. He’s a charming man, and he made acting understandable. He said, Here’s what you’re going to do. We’ll start with a simple acting exercise devised by Sandy Meisner called the repetition exercise, which is the seed of the Meisner technique. This technique initially reduces acting to its two most important elements: listening and responding. You’re constantly listening, and your response is coming off what you hear and how you feel about it. Over the course of the first year, we’ll add things along the way, and that simple seed will gradually evolve into a much more sophisticated exercise that includes independent activities, emotional preparation, justification, objectives, relationships. But there will be no acting in the sense of performance or of your pretending to be someone else. The first year involves exploring how you behave and what makes you tick, and lays a foundation to build upon. If you’re invited back for the second year, then you’ll get to work on scripts and characters.
After the interview, Bill said, I like you very much, but my classes are full. (This was in July. Classes didn’t start till September.) He said, I have a waiting list. If someone drops out, there’ll be an opening. I said, Put me on the waiting list. Contrary to my MO—usually if a door closes, I walk away—there was something about this man and this interview. I didn’t want this opportunity to go away. I would call every week and say to his assistant, “This is Joel Rooks. I’m wondering what’s going on with the waiting list.” I was persistent. I heard later that it came to pass that someone did drop out, and there was an opening. So Bill said, Who are we going to put in there? His assistant told him, We’ve got a list this long, but this guy keeps calling. Bill said, That’s the one I want.
I studied with Bill for two years, and at the end of the two years, he said, Did you ever think of being a teacher? I immediately took offense and was mildly insulted. I said, No, I just spent two years with you training as an actor. What are you telling me? He said, Schmuck, I’m not telling you anything other than I think you would be a good teacher. I’m not saying anything about your acting. I think you’re a terrific actor, but I also think you would be a terrific teacher. I will never stop you from taking an acting job. If you get a job, we will always work something out. And we did.
How long have you been with the William Esper Studio?
I studied with Bill from 1980 to 1982. And that summer session, I started as an observer. I would sit in his classes and take a lot of notes. A year later, in the fall, I had a class of my own, but I would often go back to observe Bill teaching. I taught there for twenty-five years. My last official class was probably around 2008. I got very busy out of town, and I hit that age at which I didn’t need to teach on a regular basis. So I told Bill that I would be happy to be a pinch hitter.
From the time you arrived in New York, you’ve pretty much been working steadily. You’ve done conventional productions and also unconventional plays like Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Farmyard .
That was one of the first things I did in New York—with director Larry Sacharow and with the actors Anita Keal, Tom Noonan, and Pam Pascoe. It was at the Theater for the New City. I also had done a few productions at La MaMa.
And in 1997 you were in an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions directed by Ivo van Hove at the New York Theatre Workshop. Was that a cultural shock to work with him?
No, I never thought that. He was an interesting man and also very accessible and open. He was a different kind of director than I was used to: noncontrolling, non-hands-on, do what you want. He did have a concept, but he didn’t overdirect at all. He was very open to whatever you brought to the table.
That’s interesting. I was thinking that in the service of his concept, he might overdirect.
As a matter of fact, we took that to the Edinburgh Festival—not the fringe—the international festival. The production was very sexual. Joan MacIntosh and I had scenes together. There was a moment when I would be on my knees in front of her, and I would reach out and fondle her breasts—that was in New York. Then a couple of years later, we went to Edinburgh without rehearsing here in New York. We got on the plane and rehearsed over there, and for some reason, I left that part out. At some point, about a week into rehearsal, I said, Oh, I forgot that moment, and I started doing it again. And Ivo said, I thought you decided to leave that part out. I said, No, I just forgot. He said, I liked it so much, but I thought you decided that it wasn’t appropriate anymore. So he was very open to changes.
You’ve done quite a lot of work throughout the U.S., in regional theatre and touring with the one-man show Say Goodnight Gracie.
And also touring with Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, as an understudy. How I got that job is an interesting story. I had auditioned for the Broadway production and did not get cast. About a year later, my agent called me and said, They want someone to fill in as a temporary vacation replacement understudy on Broadway. I said, Why not. It was a couple of months’ work on Broadway scale, so I did that. The understudy going on vacation was Stan Lachow. He hadn’t been on. He’d been an understudy for over two years and had never set foot on the stage. He’s a friend of mine, and as I was saying goodbye to him, he said, By the way, when I’m gone, if you should go on, I’m going to kill you. I didn’t get on. Later, I was hired as an understudy for the tour.
How do you survive as an understudy when you’re not getting on?
You mean artistically? As you’re sitting backstage? I’ll tell you the truth. For the first thirty-five years of my life, I was aimless, without direction, and suddenly this dream that I’d had from the time I was 5 years old became a reality. And here I was at 7:30 every night, walking through a Broadway stage door, signing in, and sitting in this world that I had only ever dreamed of being a part of. So it never bothered me that I was the understudy. I said, Look where I am! Look what I’ve done! I would definitely prefer to be onstage, but I can’t be upset or sour or cranky or feel cheated that I’m not. I’ve done OK.
In the early 2000s, you understudied Frank Gorshin in Say Goodnight Gracie on Broadway. You took over the role for subsequent productions. When you were understudying, did you have to replicate what Gorshin did?
I’ll tell you one of the best pieces of direction I’ve ever gotten. John Tillinger—everyone calls him Joey—was the director of the show, and he came to one of my understudy rehearsals with the stage manager. I knew him, and Joey said, I’ll give you one note: Don’t try to act Frank acting George. You be Joel acting George. So I never felt that I had to copy exactly every millimeter and every gesture and move that Frank did. I had to be in the same place in terms of blocking, but I didn’t have to be a carbon copy of Frank. I could bring my own sensibility, my own inner life. If a moment hit me differently from the way Frank would deliver it, I was free to do that.
Since 2006, you have performed the role in regional theatres and have had other directors. How did that work?
Usually they hired me and booked the show because they wanted that show, the Broadway production. Most of the other directors put their names on it, but I was the one who showed them what was going on. We used Tillinger’s blocking. It made sense for them. They brought me in for three or four weeks or several months and didn’t want to spend two or three weeks paying for rehearsal time to redo a show. But in Flat Rock, North Carolina, it was done on a thrust stage, and Michael Marotta, a wonderful man who is also an actor, did change things around quite a bit. He did it very successfully, and it was great fun.
You’ve worked in shows with big casts as well.
I love doing a one-man show because if you screw up, you’re not screwing anybody else up. But I like working in ensembles very much. The last thing I did on Broadway was Larry David’s Fish in the Dark . That was great. It was such a good group of people backstage. We all got along really well. Larry was a sweetheart, in spite of the image that he tries to project to the world. I like the camaraderie of being part of a big ensemble. Plus it’s nice having someone to go to lunch with.
A few years ago, you did the video game Grand Theft Auto V.
That’s what my sons and my nephews are the most proud of, that they can see me as Solomon Richards, the movie producer, in Grand Theft Auto.
Is it CGI?
No, it’s a different kind of process. It’s called mocap, motion capture. You wear a body suit with ping-pong-like balls velcroed onto it, and they ROM you; they capture your motion digitally. Then you go into the set. It’s not really a table; it’s a just piece of plastic. You’re not really picking up a cup; you’re picking up a piece of plastic, and there are these sensors all around the room, capturing your motion and digitalizing it.
And you’re supposed to be acting during this process?
You do. The hardest thing is learning the lines and remembering that you have to be careful about your gestures because you could be putting your hand through a wall.
You’re working in film and TV and theatre, but you’ve made New York your home base. You didn’t consider living in Los Angeles?
No, I tried that for about three months. I had just finished a movie or something—I forget what—and I had three months before I was going to start my fall classes. So I went to L.A. and did a few auditions. But I thought, Boy, if ever there was a place I did not want to live, it was L.A. From the time I was a little boy, New York was the place that called to me. If there was a movie about New York or a TV show about New York, like Naked City—or the book A Stone for Danny Fisher or any other book that had to do with New York—it drew me in. And New York drew me in. When I was a kid and my father would come here on business and take me along, I would think, This is the place for me.
When did you move to Westbeth?
I moved here in 2008. I had been on the list for about eighteen years.
And now you’re part of the community. I noticed that recently you were handing out LED light bulbs. How did you get involved with that?
When Hurricane Sandy happened, I was in Kansas doing the play Social Security [by Andrew Bergman] with Barbara Eden. The show closed, and the two men who ran the theatre, Richard Carrothers and Dennis Hennessy, said, You’ve got nothing to go home to—stay here for an extra week. During that time in Kansas, I looked on Facebook to see what was going on at Westbeth, and George Cominskie was posting information. I sent George an email saying that what he did made me feel that I was part of a community rather than just part of an apartment building. I came back two weeks after Sandy. The day I got back, we still didn’t have an elevator, but the next day we did. And I went out into the courtyard and started helping people separate their Polaroids from the basement, which had been flooded. I volunteered to help in whatever way I could. So when George got in touch with me for handing out light bulbs, I was happy to do that.
Photo credits, from top: Tom Bloom, Richard Feldman, Michel Negroponte, Aleksey Moryakov, Scott Myers, Dan Almekinder Photography. Courtesy of Joel Rooks.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2017 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council