5/7: A Grandy-ose Return for GOPher

Sleuth1Fred Grandy (right, with Christian Pedersen) — he of both Gopher and US Congress fame — makes like Olivier in Anthony Shaffer’s SLEUTH now playing at Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven.  Photos by CHASE HEILMAN PHOTOGRAPHY

Long-time supporters and observers of Surflight Theatre — Beach Haven’s can-do professional purveyor of crowdpleasing entertainments — might be forgiven for believing that the LBI landmark exists beneath some colossal jinx cloud, Job-like test of faith, or Richard Bachman gypsy curse.

The venerable venue very nearly entered the realm of bygone nostalgia a few years back following a bout with suffocating debt and  bankruptcy — an interlude from which it emerged under the too-brief tenure of producing artistic director Roy Miller at the start of the 2011 season. Before departing Surflight the following year, Miller — whose sudden passing a few weeks back seems to be part and parcel of the theatre’s trials and tribulations — rolled out his great big Rolodex of connections and packed the playhouse’s “comeback” season with personalities that ranged from Justin Guarini to Judd Hirsch; Dawn (Mary Ann) Wells and Cindy (Shirley) Williams; Laugh-In’s Jo Ann Worley and Brady Bunch’s Eve Plumb.

A 2012 fire at a neighboring restaurant that also damaged the Surflight property would appear to have signaled the theatre’s ultimate phoenix-like rise from the ashes — but then along came Sandy. The Octo-pocalypse, its winds and waters of mass destruction — and the long dark aftermath of utility outages, inaccessible neighborhoods and transportation issues — put a piercing exclamation point on a lousy year; ensuring the cancellation of the Christmas production and casting all prospects for 2013 in deluge-dampened doubt.

Still, springtime saw the re-emergence of the Surflight brand under executive director Ken Myers with a newly rebuilt stage and shop, a work-in-progress renovation campaign (to which Broadway legend and serial Tony winner Tommy Tune contributes a benefit concert later this month), and a full slate of productions that kicked off in April with an earlybird salue to ABBA.

Beginning tonight and opening officially on Thursday, May 9, the 2013 Surflight season continues with a new staging of Sleuth, the Tony’d-up, twisted-inside-out, drawing room mystery by Anthony Shaffer that’s directed here by Clayton Philips and starring another familiar face from countless TV nights — none other than The Love Boat‘s affably goofy Gopher, Fred Grandy.

It’s a decidedly different characterization for the actor — that of one Andrew Wyke, successful British author of detective novels and smoking-jacketed lord of a country manor that’s choked to the gills with bizarre antique toys, slightly sadistic games and potential traps around every rococo corner. It’s there in this house of mystery that the grandiose gentleman coerces his wife’s lover, playboy hairdresser Milo Tindle (Christian Pedersen, sensational in New Jersey Rep’s Dead Ringer) into a grand deception that twists and turns upon each of the principals in ways that can only truly be appreciated by losing one’s self in the deliciously nasty play’s world of murderously good manners and oppressively eccentric atmosphere.

It turns out that the regional theater thing is also a new twist to the Grandy resume. The Iowa-born Harvard grad — a lifelong Republican whose first widescale public exposure was his role as best man for the wedding of his friend David Eisenhower to Presidential daughter Julie Nixon — served four full terms as a United States Congressman, serving on the House Ways and Means Committee and stepping away from elective politics following an unsuccessful bid for the governorship of the Hawkeye State.

A career as a reliably right-wing commentator followed, on outlets that ranged from National Public Radio to D.C. area talk station WMAL — with the host of The Grandy Group program (an editorializer against Islamicization, for whom the phrase “Shariah-compliant” is an oft-wielded verbal cudgel) resigning amid a broadcast brouhaha involving statements made on-air by his wife Catherine Mann-Grandy. It was a kerfuffle during which supporters of Grandy (who serves these days on the executive staff at Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy) branded even conservative WMAL as “Shariah-compliant.”

With a brief interview window between intensive rehearsals of Sleuth, Grandy and your upperWETside correspondent left the politics to fester like seaweed on the Ocean County beaches, and spoke of sitcom signatures and of Sleuth, the vehicle by which the GOPher emerges from the burrow of prolonged  showbiz hibernation. Read on…

Sleuth2upperWETside: Well, here’s a question for you…once upon a time actors were regarded as gypsies, tramps and thieves; fit only to be run out of town on that proverbial rail. There’s still probably a little residual feeling along those lines somewhere out there…but with Congress pretty much scoring negatives across the board with everyone, do you feel like you’re working the better side of the street these days? 

FRED GRANDY: Acting is probably the most honest profession I’ve ever been involved in! Why do you think they call it legitimate theater?

This is the first acting project of any real consequence that you’ve done in a long time, and I’m interested to know how it came about. Did you shop the idea around to various producers, or did Surflight come to you with the role in mind?

No, I auditioned for the part along with a lot of other people; I got it — and the next couple of weeks are as far ahead as I’m thinking right now, in terms of show business!

I’ve been out of the loop for a long time…I spent about eight years out of show business entirely, and then radio pretty much precluded my being active as an actor. But this is a great way to dip my toe back in, and I’m inching my way back in the water, you could say.

So of all the roles in all the plays in all of history, you’ve hooked up with one of the showiest, most dialogue-heavy parts ever devised. I caught Laurence Olivier in the old movie recently, and he’s just having a glorious time being his hambone self…by the end of the picture, he’s consumed about half of the props on that busy set…

It’s a pretty cunningly written role…and a lot of words! You’re on the stage pretty much throughout, and just giving it your everything all the way. But as far as Olivier, Michael Caine, I purposely stay away from watching someone else do a part…or at least I subconsciously stay away.

The Andrew character is also about as far a cry from Gopher as you can get. I need to tell you here that my wife, or at least her eight year old self, grew up being a tremendous fan of Gopher back in the day. Apparently she and all of her friends each had a crush on various LOVE BOAT cast members…somebody even had Captain Stubing. Me, I was going out to bars and whatnot on Saturday nights.

Well, I wasn’t always home on Saturday night to watch it either! But for eight years it ran almost always on Saturday night…and even back when we were making the show, Saturday was always the least watched night of network TV. And really, only after The Love Boat did Saturday become a destination for TV watchers; that combination with Fantasy Island made for a successful block of programming. Well, CBS had their big Saturday block with All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett…

Looking over the List of The Love Boat guest stars that walked up that gangplank over the course of the series, it seems that you only needed to stay in one spot and the rest of show business came to YOU. Was there anyone who you were just especially astonished to meet and work with?

It was a real Who’s Who of pretty big names…everyone from young Tom Hanks to Ethel Merman, who played my mother in a few episodes. It was especially exciting working with her; getting to know her personally.

Even when you left Hollywood for Washington, it was kind of like old home week for a while there…it seemed like half of America’s favorite TV characters were getting elected to Congress. 

Well, there weren’t THAT many of us, but I was first elected when Ronald Reagan was in the White House; our movie star president…then after me we had Fred Thompson going to the Senate, and Ben Jones in the House. Then Sonny Bono was elected as I was finishing my last term, although we weren’t in Congress at the same time.

And later on, Al Franken. 

Al Franken I haven’t met. Not sure if we’d have much to agree upon!

While I can understand how a distinguished member of Congress might want to downplay a nickname like Gopher or Cooter, do you agree that the goofy sitcom character can be father to the serious statesman?

Name recognition is everything in elective politics as in show business…so something like Gopher can go a long way. It has a certain logic.

Well, the name recognition can come in handy when it’s still the pre-Memorial Day interlude down on Long Beach Island. How’s everything coming together there?

The theatre was very hard hit, but they’ve recovered nicely. The whole town’s looking a lot better, and the people here are taking everything the way I’m taking my career — one day at a time!

Sleuth opens on Thursday, May 9 and continues at Surflight Theatre with a mix of matinee and evening performances through May 19. Take it  here  for tickets ($45) and more details on  other upcoming events at the Beach Haven playhouse — including a fundraiser engagement starring Broadway legend and serial Tony winner Tommy Tune.