One of Alan Alda’s most personally important early stage roles was at the Little Theatre in Sullivan, Il.
The son of actor Robert Alda, Alan was a young father himself in 1959, and struggling in New York.
“I was taking jobs that would make normal people wonder if they were perhaps not going anywhere,” he wrote. “But actors don’t think that way. We were getting by; in fact, we were happy.
“When money got low, I would stop drinking the single can of beer I had every night at dinner, that would save us $1.05 a six-pack, enough to get us out of a rent crisis that month. One of us could always find a way to make a few dollars.”
One of those ways arrived out of the proverbial Midwestern blue — an offer to star as Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls” at the Little Theatre.
“Their leading man had fallen sick and had to drop out,” Alda wrote. “They had seen me listed in an actors’ directory called Players Guide and wondered if I happened to know the part of Sky Masterson — since my father had played it on Broadway.”
“’Yes,’ I said, lying. ‘I do know the part.’
“’Wonderful,’ they said. ‘Can you fly right out here and do it?’
“Sure. Glad I can help out.’”
Seven years before, Alda had watched from the wings as his father performed the part, but he’d never learned it, didn’t know the songs and couldn’t sing in tune. And the show was going to open within days.
“I got on a plane, and as soon as the door closed, I started shaking. I shook all the way to Illinois.”
When he arrived, a rehearsal was underway. “I stepped in as Sky Masterson, stopping to ask for my line whenever I couldn’t remember it, which meant stopping to ask whenever I had a line. After rehearsal, I went out with the other actors, who were mostly from there and knew the town. Apparently, this was a town in which nothing happened. Except for the summer theater, the closest thing to entertainment was driving in circles around the main square.”
But opening night was exciting enough for Alda. In fact, he was in terror.
“I came out on stage as Sky Masterson, and I got through the first scene even though one of my legs had an involuntary twitch that made my knee bang against the leg of my pants. In the second scene, I was supposed to be cocky and confident as I bantered with the ingénue, but my hands were shaking so much that I had to keep them in my pockets.
“Usually the first line of dialogue relaxed me, but I had a song coming up and I had to sing harmony. I was terrified, because usually, if I was lucky, harmony was what came out when I tried to sing the melody.
“I was too poor to own my own suit, so they had given me a suit that had been hanging in a warehouse for six months. To calm myself, I started playing with a piece of lint in my pocket. It felt like a thick nub of lint, or maybe a wad of thread. In an attempt to appear relaxed, I casually took it out of my pocket and glanced down at it. And then I saw it.
“It wasn’t lint. It wasn’t a wad of thread. It was a cockroach.
“The sight of the cockroach and the crackling sensation of its squirming between my fingers had a distinct effect on me. I was onstage in front of hundreds of people, in the middle of a play. I couldn’t jump back and scream like a 6-year-old girl, which was my first choice. Instead, I was focused like a laser. I looked at the actress I was playing with, and for the first time I really saw her. The cockroach had given me a reality more compelling than my fear. And the doorway to my imagination swung open. I wasn’t in a little theater in a cornfield in front of an audience that might find out I didn’t know the words or the melody. I was in the Save-a-Soul Mission, and I was talking to Sarah, the mission doll. I opened my mouth, and to my amazement, a song came out. And almost in tune.”
Alda returned to New York having learned concentration from a cockroach in Sullivan, IL, perhaps the most influential insect educator since Jiminy Cricket.
Source: “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and Other Things I’ve Learned” by Alan Alda.