Finding the light in a dark journey


Harold Gould never meant to be old before his time, but that's the way the actor has usually been cast. "I've done older parts all my life," the mellow-voiced performer says.

Now, for a change, he's playing someone younger than he is. OK, not a whole lot younger. But for 81-year-old Gould, playing 78-year-old Morrie Schwartz is certainly more age-appropriate than the generation-older characters he used to play.

And, Gould has something else in common with Morrie, the title character in Tuesdays with Morrie, Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom's stage adaptation of Albom's bestselling book. Like Morrie, Albom's former college professor, Gould was also a professor.

Before becoming an actor, Gould spent 10 years teaching drama, acting and directing, primarily at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va., and the University of California at Riverside. He admits, however, "I never really enjoyed teaching acting. I'd much rather do it."

Morrie Schwartz was a sociology professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. He died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, in 1995. Albom, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, learned of his professor's illness from an interview on ABC's Nightline and began paying him weekly visits.

While Morrie - as Professor Schwartz preferred to be called - dedicated his life to the university, Gould found another channel for his interest in teaching. "I consider [acting] as a kind of branch itself of teaching - not to be didactic, but you tell an audience to take my hand and we'll go through this experience together," he says from Philadelphia, one of the show's stops before Tuesday's opening at the Hippodrome Theatre.

The experience he's taking audiences on in Tuesdays with Morrie - the final journey of a dying man - might seem pretty dour. And Gould acknowledges, "When I first looked at this, I was reluctant to take it because of that." But, the actor, who initially portrayed Morrie last summer in a production in Ventura, Calif., says, "It's not what I had thought at the beginning - a five-Kleenex thing. There's lots of laughter with it."

Albom saw Gould in Tuesdays with Morrie last month in Boston. He praises the humor Gould brings to the character. "One of the great things about my visits with Morrie is that even though he was dying and decaying, we spent a lot of time laughing. He was a tease, and Harold is very good at that; he captures that a lot," the writer says.

Mining the laughter, however, isn't the only challenge Gould faces. He is nearly immobilized for much of the play. "I am lying down most of the time, which is welcome in a way," he says, displaying his own dry wit.

There is action, he insists; it simply takes a different form: "Even if [Morrie] is just sitting, the action is what is going through the mind." This is reflected in everything from tone shifts to pauses and phrasing.

"There's such a centeredness in what Hal does that he really doesn't have to do anything," says the show's director, Michael Montel. "He reveals the essence of the man. ...

"The journey of his voice from the start of the play to the end, it's really quite remarkable. There's a change in the timbre, there's a change in the strength of it, and what happens is, you have to listen harder, even though it's amplified, and I think that's good."

During the show's Boston engagement, Gould became familiar with Brandeis and Brandeis became familiar with him. The actor visited the campus and met people who'd known Morrie Schwartz. And, a group of Brandeis staff and alumni - including Albom (played on stage by Dominic Fumusa) - attended the show. "The Brandeis people liked him," Albom says. "If Harold passed the Brandeis test, he's probably OK."

Gould didn't see Morrie Schwartz on Nightline; instead, he took his inspiration from his grandfather and from one of his former Cornell professors - "an imposing, terrifying, big hulk of a man; everyone held him in awe." Although Gould's "mild and gentle" grandfather was the stronger influence, both his grandfather and professor have helped inspire many of the older men Gould has played.

The best known of these are Rhoda Morgenstern's father, Martin (a role he first played on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then on the spin-off, Rhoda) and Betty White's beau on The Golden Girls. Gould also created the lead role of the cantankerous old coot in the 1984 premiere of I'm Not Rappaport in Seattle. He co-starred with Katharine Hepburn - though he was more than a decade and a half her junior - in Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry, a 1986 TV movie about a late-in-life romance. He even played Sigmund Freud in a one-man show that concluded with the father of psychoanalysis in his 80s (Gould brought this show to Johns Hopkins University in 1989).

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