|May 1, 2001|
Jeffrey DeMunn '69: Making a Living at What He'd Do for Free
"Where do I know you from?"
"Are you from Carolina?"
"Did you go to Michigan State?"
"C'mon, don't kid me -- you bought a Christmas tree here last year!"
He often gets reactions like these. His face is familiar. You've seen him before. But you can't quite place him. For thirty years, Jeffrey DeMunn '69 has been acting on stage, film, and TV - and making a living at it.
In The Green Mile, he played prison guard Harry Terwilliger at Cold Mountain Penitentiary in the Depression-era South. Filming was a good experience, he recalls, that was "very, very long - a twenty-week shoot. We got a lot of books read! But it was amazing to work with Tom Hanks. He's the funniest human being I've ever met."
DeMunn has played "a lot of lawyers, a few doctors." He has a recurring role on NBC's award-winning "Law and Order" ("as a really nasty defense lawyer") and plays a district attorney on the spinoff "Special Victims Unit." Filmed in New York City, these shows are "really valuable for the acting community, where's it's almost impossible to make a living on the stage. It's a way for a lot of New York City actors to support themselves between off-Broadway plays."
And he was Robbie Beals on "Stephen King's Storm of the Century," the ABC television miniseries. "Brilliantly written," says DeMunn, "and the character was a pompous, self-righteous town manager. Jesus, that was fun! An enormous undertaking - three-part miniseries - so much work in a short time (sixteen weeks) - every week was seventy to ninety hours, working under horrible conditions, constantly in 'snow.' It wasn't real snow - in fact, we were indoors the whole time. The 'town' was built inside a former sugar cane factory in Toronto. A recipe for an awful time, but it was a dream from beginning to end - thanks to director, Craig Baxley - everybody loved him."
Synthetic snow and uncomfortable working conditions are nothing new to DeMunn. He also costarred as Taylor, with Peter Boyle, in the Broadway play K2, climbing a sheer "Himalayan rockface" three times per show, eight performances a week. "It was a slightly negative wall - it leaned in a little bit, so I couldn't use my feet. I was climbing more than I had anticipated!" He received a Tony nomination for this performance.
For his role as psychopathic serial killer Andre Chikatilo in the HBO movie Citizen X, he was nominated for an Emmy and won the Cable ACE Award. Says DeMunn, "It takes place in the Soviet Union in the '80s. Chikatilo was a very successful serial killer. I think he killed fifty-two people over many years. He was finally caught, but the detective (played by Stephen Rea) had a nervous breakdown in the process. There was an amazing cast, including Donald Sutherland and Max von Sydow."
He's played a papal nuncio in Noriega: God's Favorite, with Bob Hoskins, the prosecuting attorney who helps convict Tim Robbins's banker at the start of The Shawshank Redemption, and one of James Garner's partners in Barbarians at the Gate.
And wasn't he Harry Houdini in the 1981 film Ragtime? "Well, scarcely!" he says, "after the edits!" But he relates the thrill of getting together with director Milos Forman in Manhattan, going into a hotel, and meeting with James Cagney. "We rehearsed our little scene, and Milos was ecstatic: 'It's going to be great!' Cagney gave me a little wink and said, 'I don't think it's going to be very good.' We shot the scene in Brooklyn - Jimmy Cagney's first scene in twenty-two years. He was in rough shape. He stepped out on a balcony, I was standing on the sidewalk below, and we spoke our lines. A crowd gathered. There were about 150 utterly silent people during our fourteen takes - no dog barked, the birds didn't even dare peep. But after every take, the crowd roared: 'You're on top of the world, Jimmy!' I was one big goosebump!"
Most of DeMunn's favorite roles have been on stage ("that's where I've had the most joy in the doing of it"), from playing Modigliani (in the play of the same name) to playing Victor Franz (in The Price). A favorite movie role was in Frances, where he portrayed playwright Clifford Odets. "It was a character who took all of the energy and imagination I had, and I got to work with a fabulous actress, Jessica Lange."
As a Union student, DeMunn planned to become an engineer, but it was acting that was in his blood. His parents, James DeMunn and Violet Paulus DeMunn, were both established actors in his native Buffalo. (The bloodline continues: his son, Kevin, is in Hollywood now, "doing extra work when he can get it.") DeMunn starred in several productions with the Mountebanks (the oldest continuously running student theater group in the nation). He has fond memories of those days: "I was fortunate enough to work with [instructor in speech and dramatics] Bill Meriwether. Nothing he told me has ever proven untrue."
DeMunn also directed Waiting for Godot at Union. But he hasn't directed since. "I don't know how I'd be now, but I was too much of a martinet back then. I don't think it was much fun for the actors! The show turned out very well, but it was horrible in the way I was running it. I think they were ready to lynch me!"
In England after college, he studied and worked in repertory for two years at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol. He began his professional career back in the United States, touring with the National Shakespeare Company.
Arriving in New York City, he worked off-off-Broadway before his first union job, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, starring Mickey Rooney. Since then, he's worked in numerous Broadway plays, films, and television movies. The Comedians was his first Broadway play, directed by Mike Nichols, and featuring Jonathan Pryce and John Lithgow.
What's next for DeMunn? In late March, he went on location for the shooting of The Majestic, a feature film directed by Frank Darabont, the same man who directed him in Shawshank and Green Mile. "This is my sixth project with Darabont. He's just so darn good, enormously talented. He casts his movies in large part from people he knows. I play the mayor of a small town in northern California. This film is his tribute to Frank Capra."
About his life as an actor, DeMunn says, "It's been very hard, but I've loved it -- at times, as much as or more than I did on my first day. I feel so fortunate. I've been able to make a living at the thing I'd do for free."
What would he tell a kid being pushed in a practical direction, such as engineering, though his heart is in the arts? "I think you have to follow your joy - and then find a way to make a buck. If you turn off one desire or emotion, you turn them all off. It's not like they're individual spigots. You can't just tighten that one little valve. You have to keep it open, let it flow."