Actor Jeff Daniels loves his tiny hometown, and shares his inspiring story of how he's giving back to the community there.
Let me tell you about the small town where I come from: Chelsea, Michigan, population nearly 4,700, just west of Ann Arbor. It has one hospital, three elementary schools, a high school, a train depot, golf courses, several churches and a tree-lined Main Street. And right out of central casting there's the lumber company (where my folks still work), Zouzou's coffee shop, a hockey rink and a first-rate theater (more about that later).
With its small-town atmosphere and solid Midwestern values, it's the sort of place where an actor with both promise and ambition grows up and then leaves, never to return…unless he's the grand marshal in the annual Fourth of July parade and his agent or studio needs to buff up his image.
Well, I left Chelsea when I was 21 to try my luck in the theater, which was pretty good. I appeared on the Broadway stage and in a couple of Hollywood films, and after bouncing around between the East and West Coasts, my wife, Kathleen, and I asked ourselves where we wanted to raise our children—our one son was almost two years old. The answer was easy: "Michigan."
We knew Michigan. And if it was going to be Michigan, it would have to be Chelsea, where we'd met. Even if the winters were as cold as the summers were hot and sticky and everyone knew everyone else's business, it was home. It was the one place I knew I could give my kids the good things I had growing up, things I believed in.
First, there were teachers like Miss DiAnn L'Roy. She taught chorus in sixth grade. One day she had us do improvisations. "Okay, Jeff," she said, "I want you to get up there and act like you're a politician giving a speech and his pants are falling down." I'd never done anything like that—standing in front of a class, tugging at my belt and making a pompous speech, but evidently I was pretty funny because everybody cracked up. "You were great," they said. Miss L'Roy saw something in me I'd never seen in myself.
She didn't forget, because sophomore year in high school when I had no intention of ever trying out to be in a school play, she caught me as I was coming out of basketball practice and stopped me by the auditorium doors. "Jeff," she said, "get in here." She was holding auditions for South Pacific and needed sailors. The next thing I knew she had me onstage doing this silly dance. My hair was still matted and wet from practice and I was singing a funny song, but it was good enough for Miss L'Roy. I was in the show.
The next year she raised the stakes by casting me as Fagin in Oliver (I listened to Ron Moody on the record for hours to learn the accent and songs). From there it was Harold Hill in our ragtag community theater's production of The Music Man and Tevye in The Fiddler on the Roof.
Miss L'Roy gave me stage time, but I had to learn on my feet. She asked me to try things I didn't think I could do, like the villain Jud Fry in Oklahoma! "I want you to look into the psychology of this character, the material that's not written in the script," she told me. She wanted me to study the character and figure out his motives…but first I had to look up the word "psychology."
Make no mistake. Just because Miss L'Roy was teaching in a small town, there was nothing small-time about her. Like a lot of teachers all over America she was opening my eyes to something new. She was giving me a chance to take bigger risks in a bigger world. She knew I'd learn something, even if I failed. When I had the opportunity to go to New York City I had to try because there was somebody back home who believed in me.