The acclaimed actor returns regularly to his home state of Michigan for a very good reason—it's his favorite place to be.
Posted in , Nov 1, 2007
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.
I didn't take to the city. It was crowded and noisy and you didn't know the people you passed in the streets. There were hundreds of actors from all over the country all going after the same jobs. I didn't see how I'd ever make it. After about six months I was desperate to come home. I called my mom and complained. She listened. At the end of my harangue, she said quietly, "Find a way to stay." My mom is a woman of few words and they're always well chosen—there was no room for argument. She'd seen what Miss L'Roy saw and knew what good people also know in small towns: There are times you have to leave home to grow.
I wanted to go home, but I stayed and had some lucky breaks. I got cast in some great plays and movies like Ragtime, Terms of Endearment and The Purple Rose of Cairo. But I never forgot home. I married my high school sweetheart and, after 10 years, like I said, Kathleen and I moved back to Chelsea. "What if you get cast in a movie or a play?" she asked.
"Detroit has an airport," I said. "I can fly from there to wherever I have to go." At least when I returned I'd be returning to a home that was really home, not some modern house tucked in the Hollywood hills.
Small towns might have a reputation for being set in their ways, not a good place to experiment or feel stimulated or inspired. Well, I have to disagree. Coming back to Chelsea I felt free to try things I hadn't done before—like writing. I wasn't sure how to make a play, but I figured if we had the space we could find the actors and experiment. Kathleen and I bought an old wooden warehouse. That was the beginning of what we called The Purple Rose Theatre—what I envisioned was a company for the 21-year-old kid I used to be, where he could explore and grow before he went to New York or L.A. Or maybe he wouldn't even want to go. Maybe he'd stay here and make great theater in Michigan.
Michiganders love their theater. And that's what The Purple Rose has become… a place for actors, directors and playwrights from Michigan and the Midwest to get the training and breaks I did. We'll see the hunger in some young actors who have talent and we'll help them get as good as they can before they leave. We take pride in helping make talented people better. It's a matter of good stewardship, passing on the gifts God has given us. Small towns take pride in what they produce.
There're other things Kathleen and I have been a part of. There was an old school, a nice solid brick building that was going to be torn down and turned into condos. We bought it and saved it for a group called the Chelsea Center for the Development of the Arts. It was just a husband-and-wife operation in one room of a church, giving lessons in cello, voice and violin. Now, you go into the renovated building and there are people singing, rehearsing and playing instruments. Kids—the non-sports kids—have gone on to win university scholarships because of the training they've gotten.
Then there's the ballpark. We used to have baseball and softball fields at the high school that were in bad shape. My buddy, who's now the athletic director at Chelsea High, wanted something new. With a little money and a lot of imagination, he built a new stadium with box seats, a press box, dugouts and scoreboards. A lot of people got behind him. Pooling our resources and doing some fundraising we've built something great.
In Boy Scouts they say, "Leave a place better than you found it." Well, I think it's true of the towns and cities where we live. I can look at Chelsea and see the things my parents have done for it—like the adoption agency my dad started for hard-to-place kids in southeastern Michigan. I hope someday someone will be able to say it about me. In the meantime, I'm not leaving. Sure, I go to California to make a movie or fly to New York to appear in a Broadway show, but then I come back to Chelsea, where my roots are, where God planted me, you might say. It's where your roots are deepest that you grow the most.
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