The Time Between
Armed with his usual positive outlook on life, actor Michael Nouri heads for Broadway.
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Nouri portrays King Marchand, a supermacho Chicago gambler who finds himself, much to his consternation, falling in love with the title character, a down-on-her-luck singer who pretends to be a man so she can impersonate a woman. It's the role the ruggedly handsome James Garner played in the movie, and it's a good match: the dark, curly hair (now fairly salt and pepper), the smile of ingratiating charm, the trim and muscular physique, the easygoing demeanor and the self-effacing sense of humor.
Nouri is sitting in a restaurant off the lobby of a Manhattan hotel, his home for the moment, during rehearsals for Victor/Victoria. It is early May, and he and the show are going on the road to try things out in Minneapolis and Chicago. At summer's end, they will return to New York for previews beginning October 3 and the scheduled October 25 Broadway premiere, and for what everyone hopes and expects will be a long run at the Marquis Theater.
"We have some of the best people in the business working on this show," Nouri says. "Blake Edwards, who is directing it and wrote it, is really doing it the right way. It has been a dream of his to do this since the movie. He [originally] wanted to do it with Robert Preston, who died a few years after [in 1987]. And for one reason or another it didn't work out until this year. But now it's a very luxurious situation. The last musical I did, South Pacific at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera in California [with Sandy Duncan in May 1994], had five weeks of rehearsal. For this one, we have five months. And then," he smiles, "there's this wonderfully talented woman who I predict is going to have an amazing future: Julie Andrews."
Working with Andrews, he says, has been a revelation. "The first time I kissed her, it was something of an out-of-body experience," he says with a laugh. "I thought to myself, I'm kissing Mary Poppins. What am I doing? I could get arrested. But really, she is one of the most energetic, gracious and positive people I've ever met. It always astonishes me to watch people who can dance and sing and act. I can act. I can sing. I don't dance--don't ask me. I move all right, but to see somebody who does it all is really something. And the amazing thing about her is she doesn't know she's the legend. She doesn't know she's the diva. And she doesn't behave like a diva. What matters to her is the work, getting it right. Someone once said of her that she doesn't seem to know she's Julie Andrews."
He has many important moments onstage with the former Ms. Poppins, key among them a duet, "Almost a Love Song," one of the 14 new songs written for the show by the late Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse. Members of the press heard Nouri and Andrews perform the number in early spring in a mini-preview at the rehearsal studio, and there was a one-word consensus: "Wow!" Other members of the knockout cast include Tony Roberts (in the Preston role) and Rachel York.
Nouri not only loves working with his co-star; he also loves his role. "I really like playing somebody who has his reality stood right on his head," he says. "It's wonderful to play such a character, because you get to go somewhere with the role, to play different aspects of yourself. I get a chance to ask myself what it feels like to be in total control of a situation, and then to go into a tailspin, to be thrown into complete chaos. And then I ask myself, how do I pull myself into control again?"
Nouri is confident of the musical's success; he has taken an apartment on Central Park West, a continent away from his permanent home in Pacific Palisades, California, a house on a hillside overlooking the ocean. He does not expect to return to the West Coast for 18 months, but he has brought with him a reminder of his California life, his constant companion, an 8-year-old golden retriever named Chauncey.
Chauncey, the offspring of prize-winning English show dogs, is a cheerful and understanding friend, Nouri says. "He goes running with me every morning in Central Park. But it's his first visit to New York. I'm used to the city. For Chauncey, everything was new: the sounds, the sights, the smells. For a while he was overstimulated." One smell that Chauncey was already familiar with, however, was that of his owner's cigars.
"It all began when I was a teenager growing up in Alpine, New Jersey," the 49-year-old Nouri says. "I had to read Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea for high school, and in the course of learning about the book I found out that Hemingway spent a lot of time deep-sea fishing and smoking Cuban cigars. This sparked some very rich fantasies in me. My mom and dad were out of town at a convention--my father was in life insurance, so he would go to these annual conventions. And in those days, you could go down to the corner cigar store and for probably 50 cents buy an H. Upmann Cuban cigar. So that's what I did. Spending 50 cents for a cigar in those days was exorbitant. It was a luxury. But I sat in the living room reading The Old Man and the Sea and smoking an H. Upmann cigar."
"I've never really had an appetite for anything but Cuban cigars," Nouri says, holding in his hand a well-aged Montecristo No. 2. "To me, cigars were synonymous with Cuba. Not long after I smoked that H. Upmann, Cuba became forbidden territory. And for me, that made it even more intriguing and desirable. I'm very desirous of things that are unobtainable. But truthfully, getting Cuban cigars has never been a problem for me. It's just a question of whether you want to go through the anxiety of bringing them in illegally. And for me it was always worth the anxiety. I mean, there's anxiety in walking down the street, and there's very little payoff except getting to your destination. So I figure, hey, the anxiety of bringing in some Cuban cigars through customs is a relatively small price to pay for the reward."
His favorite cigar, he says, is any cigar given to him in friendship. But his particular favorites include the Montecristo No. 2. "It all depends on my mood. I choose the No. 2 when I want a lot of smoke. And you can control the amount of smoke you get by the cut that you make. I also like the Diplomatico No. 2, which is a counterpart to the Montecristo. It's virtually the same cigar. After lunch, I like the Cohiba robusto, because it's like, boom! It also gives you a lot of smoke. It's a good wakeup call after a big lunch. After a wonderful, long dinner, when I know I'm going to have a long time to smoke, I like a double corona--Hoyo de Monterrey, a pre-Castro Punch Super Selection No. 2--or a Cohiba Esplendidos. They're all different, with subtle nuances of spice, dryness and richness."
In his California home, Nouri keeps his cigars in an armoire that he has had specially converted to a humidor. "It holds about 5,000 cigars," he says. "I had it lined in Spanish cedar and put little openings in the shelves so the moisture can get up from the humidifier on the bottom. It's a perfectly controlled environment for my little cigar babies." He has not, however, brought many of them to New York. "I'm singing," he says, "and I cut back when I'm singing. So when I need one, I just hit up some of my friends."
For Nouri, smoking a cigar is an event of "enjoyment, appreciation and relaxation. When I was in my 20s, I met Zino Davidoff in Geneva, and he gave me a copy of his book The Cigar Connoisseur. It gave me an appreciation of what a cigar is all about. I had never known what went into the making of a cigar, that in fact it takes a minimum of two years to produce one, from the time the seed is sown until you're cutting it and lighting it. And of course, it's all done by hand."
The process, he says, inspires admiration. "I have a great respect for what goes into the cigar, so necessarily the circumstances under which I smoke one reflect that respect. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I have to say that I have a certain amount of reverence for the event. There's something ceremonious about it. After all, I wouldn't open a fantastic bottle of wine at a baseball game. I very seldom smoke a cigar while walking down the street, unless there's no wind at all. I like to reflect, contemplate, appreciate what went into the making of it all."
Nouri sees a certain symbolism in a good smoke. "It reminds me of the quality of life I strive for," he says. "I love quality in everything, whether it's watchmaking or clothes or shoes or a theatrical performance. Because it's easy to crank anything out. It's easy to mass-produce anything. We live in a knockoff society, a throwaway society, where quality really stands out."
Cigars, for Nouri, also symbolize fellowship and friendship. "When I sit down to smoke a cigar," he says, "it's usually with some really great buddies. And we talk about our cigar experiences, our trips to Cuba, our dreams of going to Cuba. Or we talk about something completely different, like J.D. Salinger. Or life. Or women."
(Speaking of women--which he most definitely likes to do--he prefers that they be cigar-friendly. Sometimes, they are more than friendly. A former romantic interest is India Allen, an actress, film producer and the 1988 Playboy Playmate of the Year, a regular cigar smoker who was profiled earlier this year in Cigar Aficionado.)
Occasionally, when he and his friends get together, they talk about another subject very much on smokers' minds these days: "the flak we get for smoking cigars."
With the growth of restrictive smoking laws, that flak has increased. But Nouri prefers to avoid it. "It's impossible for me to enjoy a cigar if I know that somebody in the environment is being offended by it," he says. "That's contrary to the whole experience. It's anathema to the event. So I'll go to a cigar smoker or to a cigar-friendly place so I don't have to deal with all that stuff. The cigar can easily be used as an instrument of aggression. That's not what it's about for me."
Sometimes, however, before he has even lighted a cigar, he encounters complaints from people who are anticipating that he will do so. "I use the occasion to try to enlighten them about the glory of cigars," he says. "I assure them I'm not going to light one up, and I tell them something about how long it takes to make one. And it's interesting to find out that the phobia so many people have about cigars has nothing to do with firsthand experience of smelling cigars. It's as irrational a prejudice as any other. Most people, in fact, are pleasantly surprised at how good a fine cigar smells. They say they hated cigars, but this one really smells good; it doesn't smell like a cigar. And I tell them that this is what a real cigar smells like."
Nouri smiles again. He rolls the Montecristo No. 2 appreciatively between his fingers. He looks, and talks, like someone who is very happy with his life. And indeed he is. It is, he says, "like waking up into a dream every day."
That dream of becoming an actor began four decades ago in Alpine, New Jersey. "Though I didn't know it was my dream until my junior year in high school," he says. "I was at a boys' boarding school and I was in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial by Jury. I played the judge. I just loved it. I discovered I had a voice, a big voice, and that my hamminess could make people laugh. And I love making people laugh."
There was at first, however, not much support from his family. "My role model, my dad, was a businessman," he says, "and his definition of practicality was a nine-to-five job and supporting a family. So he did not encourage me to pursue my dream. With the best of intentions, he encouraged me to be practical, though now there is nobody more proud than he is that I pursued that dream and succeeded."
The turnaround came when Nouri briefly went to work for his father. "I showed up late every day," he says. "I'd wait for the coffee wagon to come around. I couldn't wait for lunch. I would live from break to break. Then I would leave early. Finally, I went into his office. It was no secret to either of us that this wasn't working. I think I was an embarrassment to him with his employees."
Nouri left and made for the streets of New York. He got a job as a waiter at Churchill's Restaurant, "a nice little burger bar on Third Avenue; I don't remember how much I was making, but it was clean money, because I wasn't giving up my soul." He started going to auditions, even though he had no formal training. He made his first trip to the West Coast, looking for movie work. And, he says, "I conned my way into the business.
"I lied my way into the office of Freddie Fields, who at the time was one of the most powerful agents [in Hollywood]," he recalls. "I had heard his name, that he was one of the best. So I lied about having an appointment with him, and somehow I got into his office. He let me know that he knew I didn't have an appointment, but he gave me five minutes. And I, with all the bravado of someone totally ignorant of the obstacles and difficulties in this business, announced that I was going to be a big star and make both of us a lot of money."
Fields was amused. "He actually assigned me to a rookie agent, and we drove over to Paramount Studios that afternoon to meet with a director named Larry Peerce, who was going to direct Philip Roth's book Goodbye, Columbus, which was going to star Richard Benjamin and an unknown actress named Ali McGraw. I auditioned and flew back to New York. A couple of days later I got a telegram saying they wanted me to play Ali McGraw's boyfriend. It paid $750 a week for two weeks' work. It was heaven. It showed me that what it all comes down to in this business--or in any other business--is chutzpah, just chutzpah. If you're passionate enough and you want to do it badly enough, then you become resourceful, you find a way to do it even if it means breaking the rules. Very often it's the rule breakers who make the biggest impression."
After his first movie, he went back to waiting tables. But then came his first Broadway appearance, in 1968 in a comedy called Forty Carats. His part was small, but he also understudied the male lead and, later in the run, took over the role, playing opposite a Broadway legend, Julie Harris.
Then, however, came a crisis. In the early 1970s, he says, "I set out on a spiritual quest in search of myself and became involved in meditation for three years." He lived on ashrams, pursuing self-knowledge. "It was a very rich time in my life. I discovered serenity within myself. I had been going through a tough time. I had had my heart broken in a relationship. I was disillusioned. I had experienced a modicum of what to me at the time was fame: being on Broadway, having my picture out in front of the theater, making real money. I knew that wasn't the answer. So I became a troubadour of sorts, living out of a funky old Volkswagen bus. To make a living, I sang, wrote songs, played the guitar. Then, gradually, I made a reentry into the world, started pursuing my career. I resumed acting with the understanding that I didn't have to renounce the world to have peace of mind."
He began to land roles on television series. He played Giorgio Bellancini on CBS's "Beacon Hill" and Steve Kaslo in the CBS soap opera "Search for Tomorrow." He was Dracula in the NBC "Cliff Hangers" serial "The Curse of Dracula" in 1979, Salvatore "Lucky" Luciano in NBC's "The Gangster Chronicles" in 1981, Joe Rohner in producer Steven Bochco's "The Bay City Blues" in 1983. And in the movies, of course, also in 1983, there was Flashdance.
Now he is back on Broadway in a leading role for the first time in more than two decades. And he is starring in a show that he believes is more than a musical; it also has, he says, "a potential for healing."
"What we're really dealing with is the issue of homophobia," he says. "My character is someone who is dead sure of what his reality is. He is high machismo, he disdains homosexuality and homosexuals, and suddenly he finds himself enamored of, and then head over heels in love with, someone whose sexual identity is, to say the least, ambiguous. The show is an example of that old adage: First you make 'em laugh, and then, while their mouths are open, you pop in the pill of truth. The pill is really a mirror for us, a mirror in which we can look at our prejudices, our homophobia."
Providing a mirror on society is a prime function of the arts, he says. "We always need mirrors to see ourselves, and to me that's what the arts are about. Politics does not give us a really objective reflection of who we are. Neither, in my opinion, does organized religion, though perhaps that's its intention. It's the arts that does it."
When Nouri looks in his own personal mirror, he says, he is very much aware that the part of his life that occurs when he is not on stage or screen is considerably more important than the time he spends before the public. "It's the times in between, the commas, that count," he says. "It's the pauses that create the literature. They are as much a part of the literature as the thought behind a written line. In Asian art, in any art, the space between the colors is profoundly important. In speech, the space between the spoken words is the breath, the breath of life. That is the foundation of everything."
One way he occupies himself is as an ambassador for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. He began that work 10 years ago when his wife (they are now separated) came down with the disease, and he continues to devote time to the cause. "I work as a spokesman, and I try to increase people's awareness," he says. "I just do what I can."