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Long career includes films, commercials — and limericks

Jon Cypher’s career spans 47 years. The actor often starred in theater, film and television. We recently visited at Boulevard Coffee. He told great stories, sometimes punctuating them with a song. Cypher recently performed “Love Letters” with Dee Maaske at Theatre Convivio here in Ashland. This is the second of a two-part Backstage column. Part one, published Sept. 4, is online at www.dailytidings.com.

EH: Tell me about your experience with directors.

JC: George Bernard Shaw once wrote in an introduction to one of his plays, "advice to the director: Leave the actors alone. Let them evolve into the role." Most directors you work with, particularly in television, don’t. I call it: “Walk left. Take three steps. Stop, and turn around and say, ‘I love you.’” That’s the kind of directing you get, because they are worried about bringing it on time, with the lighting and the camera movement, it’s: “Let’s move it. Let’s move it.” That’s the whole thing. If you’re a television actor and you’re 20 minutes over the shooting schedule, somebody from the office is on the set wondering why. They’re going to shoot 45 minutes of film in seven days. In the old days, in the movies, we’d take four months. My first movie with Burt Lancaster in Spain was four-and-a-half months — what a deal, I’m in Spain on vacation.

It’s an interesting profession. I’ve starred in a lot of stuff that I didn’t want to do, because I needed to make a living. A lot of television and movies are not the finest stuff. I did 60 national commercials at a certain point in my career. In 1981, I got a Volkswagen commercial; I almost couldn’t say the words, saliva filled my mouth. I didn’t want to sell somebody’s product. But it was a lucrative way of making a living, if you were a New York actor in those days.

EH: What’s next for you?

JC: I’ve written a book of limericks with commentary on the genesis of the idea that created the limerick. A hundred of them on peace, war … Most of the time, I think that I’m living in an insane asylum, and the patients have taken over the helm of the institution in terms of how we are treating this precious planet, the creatures that must survive on this planet, what we’re doing to it, what we’re doing to the oceans, to the heavens. And now we want to put weapons in space. Now you can read any license (plate) on the planet; you can take out anybody on the planet. It is George Orwell’s wet dream.

EH: Would you like to perform your limericks?

JC: I never thought about it. What an interesting idea. I’d like to do a show of old songs that young people don’t know.

EH: How you do keep yourself together between productions?

JC: Try to stay in physical shape. Because I did a lot of musical comedy, constantly studying voice, vocalizing all of the time, because the phone rings, the agent says, “I have an audition for you tomorrow.” You have to be able to go in and do it. Prepare, always with your accompanist, choosing the right music for the audition. A friend of mine had me come in to audition for a new musical they were doing. He said “This is a guy who is very self-involved, very conceited.” I went out on stage, and I sang, “I feel pretty, oh so pretty .…” They hated it. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

Corrections from part one of the interview: Jon Cypher starred with Julie Andrews in “Cinderella” in a CBS Television Special, not on Broadway. He played Chief Fletcher Daniels on “Hill Street Blues” for seven years, not 10. Many apologies.

Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her at evalyn_robinson@yahoo.com.