TIMONEY GOES ‘ALL THE WAY’ WITH HIS BIG SCARY FRIEND

BillTimoneyCOLORMiddletown man Bill Timoney — actor, producer, writer, stuntguy, cartoon voice and friend to the scary-famous — is making his Broadway debut in ALL THE WAY, the LBJ bio-drama that also marks the Great White Way bow for his longtime friend and best man, Bryan Cranston.

He’s right there, in the closing split-seconds of the TV commercials for All The Way, the play by Pulitzer-winner Robert Schenkkan that dramatizes the early days of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s tense time in the White House.

Don’t bat an eyelash or you’ll miss…wait, go back…pause it…there! Lower left hand corner of the screen: Bill Timoney. All around Upper Wet Side kind of guy. Man of mind-bogglingly many talents. Broadway actor!

Bergen County-bred Bill is “thrilled beyond words” to make that belated bow on the Broadway boards “after ‘only’ 34 years in the profession;” a busy interval in which the son of 1950s quiz show hostess Mary Gardiner racked up numerous appearances on regional professional stages (including New Jersey Repertory Company and Monmouth University); had a popular role on the venerable soap All My Children; lent his strong tenor to dozens of voice-acting gigs on Pokemon and countless other Anime imports, and has worked for everyone from Woody Allen and The Onion to a Turkish cable news channel.

Along the way, Bill the master storyteller picked up scads of showbiz anecdotes on such not-yet-forgotten figures as regal stage dame Ruth Warrick (who was in the first Broadway show he ever saw as a youngster, and who he got to work with on TV) and suave but aging Euro-leading man Francis Lederer. For All the Way (which begins previews this very week), Timoney joins a cast of 20 actors, including Michael (Spinal Tap) McKean as J. Edgar Hoover, Brandon J. Dirden (Two River Theater’s Jitney and Topdog/Underdog) as Martin Luther King Jr., and Hall of Fame stage legend John McMartin, in a highly anticipated project that also finds him working alongside one of his oldest and dearest friends — fellow Broadway rookie Bryan Cranston.

Yeah, that Bryan Cranston. The actor, director and producer whose recently wrapped run on the epic cable fable Breaking Bad  completely tilted the dramatic playing field in favor of the man who previously ruled the comedy roost as Hal on Malcolm in the Middle. Really, with his monumental, almost Shakespearean shake on suburban drug kingpin Walter “Heisenberg” White (followed fast by his participation in the Best Picture drama Argo), the multiple Emmy winner took his rightful place among the true greats of our time…he Wins Show Business, and with All the Way he takes on a towering titan of 20th century American life with the flesh-pressing, space-invading perseverance of LBJ himself.

Timoney has worked numerous times with his “big scary friend” Bryan — who actually served as best man at the wedding of Bill and his wife, actor-producer Georgette Reilly — including as a producer and cast member on Last Chance, the 1999 desert-set indie drama that marked Cranston’s first foray into writer-director territory. And a little more than six years ago, Bill and Georgette (who make their home these days in the Locust section of Middletown Township) welcomed Bryan and his wife Robin Dearden to the Jersey Shore, to work together in a summer-stage production of Neil Simon’s Chapter Two at Monmouth U (take it here for our archived chat with the star from 2007).

The Cranstons, who rented a house in Avon for the occasion, could be seen strolling the boardwalk, dining at local restaurants — and even attending a Bill-hosted film screening at The Stephen Crane House, the historic haunt where we now make our home and blog our blog. Your upperWETside control voice, working from our lonely garret inside Crane’s crib, spoke to the multi-faceted Mr. Bill Timoney (who credits having seen the legendary team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore onstage in 1972 with having “opened a whole world to me….and changed my life”) on the eve of his first-ever performance on the Great (Walter) White Way…

chapter-two7-13-07upperWETside: Well, congrats and kudos, Bill, on the Broadway debut. And you’ve even got your name on the advertising…you’re a selling point!

Well, the guy behind the counter at Starbucks wasn’t impressed enough to give me a discount on the price of a coffee…it’s still four bucks. And I didn’t even know until I saw the poster that I was being identified as Senator Mundt! In fact, he’s not even mentioned in the script…but based on where I’m standing in the Senate scenes, you could make out that the character is supposed to be him. He’s actually one of six, no seven roles that I play throughout the course of the show. There’s also Bob Bennett, an FBI agent, a White House aide, a butler, a reporter — and a Secret Service man near the beginning, which is actually the only time I’m in the scene with Bryan. I’m also understudy for pretty much every white male role in the play…anyway, even with those twenty actors, there are a lot more parts than that in the script!

It’s really unusual for a latter-day Broadway drama…almost Golden Age; the way that the creators of an old show like THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER would think nothing of bringing on a chain gang of non-speaking convicts, a chorus of orphans, a whole layer of bit parts, just for shits ‘n giggles…

It’s a definite throwback that way…it’s reminiscent also of State of the Union,  a show that I did in 2007, at the Penobscot Playhouse in Bangor, Maine…I performed the Spencer Tracy role, if you remember the Frank Capra movie from it.

You just need that mass of humanity to work properly…think of Arsenic and Old Lace, which even in community theater has some of the roles doubled up a lot of the time. But it’s got that great gag built into the curtain call, where actors representing the men who were murdered by the nice old ladies come out to take a bow. You need to make that happen somehow, to put the perfect point on the play.

But even though it isn’t a speaking part, I researched the real Mundt, who was a senator from South Dakota for many years; looked at photos, saw how he dressed. Even though the production’s not gonna live or die over this sort of thing, I do the same with all of the parts that I take on…some are younger, some are taller, there are differences in posture, in the way they carry themselves. I do these things for myself, if no one else…but if you really notice my performance, then you’re looking at the wrong thing!

Well, obviously the thing to look at is Bryan Cranston, who just couldn’t be hotter after BREAKING BAD…I remember him talking about that as-yet-unseen project, way back when you introduced him to me. And man did that labor of love pay off for him. So at a time when he can really generate his pick of projects, he opts to do a very grueling gig, in heavy makeup and accent, as a man whose face and voice are well known to a lot of people. It can’t be an easy task, attempting to shine through the Rich Little aspects of portraying such a public figure…

Bryan is just indelible as LBJ. He really finds the core of the man behind the accent, the physical appearance. He just nails it. And all of the familiar people from history are really done justice here…Michael McKean as Hoover, Brandon Dirden as Dr. King, and Betsy Aidem is amazing as Lady Bird. These are rich, complicated, challenging characters, performed by a compelling cast.

Richard Poe is excellent as Senator Everett Dirksen, who is maybe not as well remembered these days as some of the other figures in the play, but who was such an important part of this story. Poe and his wife have a Jersey Shore connection also; they have a place on the Barnegat Bay. I saw him in Journey’s End a few years ago, and he just blew me away.

I noticed also that the cast features a number of people who’ve become familiar faces over at Two River Theater in Red Bank…Brandon Dirden, J. Bernard Callaway, Roslyn Ruff…

Roslyn joined us just for this production…Coretta Scott King had been played earlier by Crystal Dixon, who is Brandon’s wife, which just added a whole other dimension to their scenes. But she’s expecting their first child soon, so she had to bow out of the Broadway run.

Which prompts me to ask how’s by you and the missus these days? Each time I look in you, you’re living in a different place…

Georgette and I are living these days in Locust, just a little bit in from Route 36. We were in Highlands during Sandy, in a place that faced the ocean. Henry Hudson High School, where they set up a shelter, wouldn’t accept pets, so we rode it out with the dogs, which in retrospect was not the smartest way to play it. In the weeks to follow, all of these cats started to show up around our home; they were pets that had been lost or abandoned, or strays that found their way up the hills. We started rescuing the cats, and not long after that we moved to the other side of Hartshorne Woods, with all of the dogs and cats, where it’s easier to cross the bridge and get around.

Well of course last time I saw you, you were on New Jersey Channel 12 News, in a neck brace, talking about having been shot in the face with a pellet gun while driving through Little Silver, of all places…

Right, the AirSoft incident. There are some things I can’t go into detail about right now, since it’s still a pending legal matter, but yeah, I was in rehab for some weeks; I sustained some injuries from my body recoiling, and some serious aftereffects that have yet to go away. I ain’t happy!

I had to leave my TV news producer job, while I was recuperating. There was an extraordinary amount of pressure on Georgette also. And then right in the middle of this very difficult time, Bryan calls me up and asks if I want to come up to Cambridge, to help him out with this stage project he’d taken on.

Insert fridge-magnet adage here about one door closing and another one opening! Being asked to be in that show must have been the ultimate get-well tonic; enough to throw down your crutches and do somersaults down the aisle of the revival tent…

I wasn’t cast in the show right away. Playing LBJ is a huge role; there’s a lot of dialogue involved and Bryan really needed someone to help coach him with his lines. So we worked together on that for a while, and by the time the show opened the producers had gotten to know me, and they hired me to be an understudy for Poe and McKean. Then they told me that if we take this thing to Broadway, we want you in the cast…which, what can I say, just represented quite the 180 turn from where things had been for me just a few months earlier. So I am extraordinarily grateful to Bryan for the opportunity.

This is as good a spot as any to wind it back to where you first became friends with Cranston…I think I had it wrong, when I wrote once before that you guys met on the set of an episode of Airwolf that you both happened to be in…

We met back in 1983, while we were both doing the soaps in New York…I was of course ‘Alfred Vanderpool’ on All My Children, a role I’m still identified with to this day, and Bryan was on Loving. We got to be friends, and we’ve stayed friends for thirty years, reconnecting every so often to work together; acting, writing, producing…

It was Bryan who encouraged me to check out The Improv comedy club, and to try my hand at performing as a standup comedian, as a way to sharpen my acting skills…this was during what’s called the Comedy Boom. So I wound up becoming a regular performer at The Improv for a couple of years, and I had so much fun doing it. There was the novelty of this soap opera actor from All My Children getting up there on the stage with the real die-hard comedy guys…I had a recognition factor with a lot of the women in the audience, but the real challenge was reaching their boyfriends; making them laugh when they would never admit to having anything to do with the soaps.

I’ve somehow never pictured you as a classic Giggle Hut sort of performer, though I’ve had no trouble accepting your many other roles as a dramatic actor, a serious news producer, a cartoon voice guy, a film lecturer, even a stunt coordinator and fight choreographer…

I haven’t been able to do that sort of thing lately, but last year prior to the incident I did a good hand-to-hand choreography for a production of Mauritius, for the Strollers in Maplewood. But the bottom line for me, no matter what it is I’m doing…standup, stunts, voice work, writing, TV news, those low budget horror movies I worked on…I have a blast doing it. My resume is testament to my versatility…either that, or it’s evidence of undiagnosed A.D.D.!

ALL THE WAY begins previews today, February 10, and is scheduled through May in a limited engagement at the Neil Simon Theatre. Meanwhile, THE GREAT SOCIETY — playwright Schenkkan’s sequel in his dramatic LBJ cycle — makes its premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in July 2014.

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