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(Originally appeared in PerformInk, April 27, 2001)



It makes perfect sense that I met Daniel J. Travanti – a man who vigorously defines himself as an actor -- for an interview at the Actors’ Center. He’s just finished a rehearsal for Irish Repertory’s production of Hugh Leonard’s A Life in which he portrays Desmond Drumm – an arrogant civil servant facing imminent retirement and forced to assess his life choices. Travanti -- who has lived in Lake Forest for the past six years -- shows no signs of retiring. But he has been re-examining his own life while devoting the bulk of his energy to the stage.

Although most closely associated with his Emmy Award-winning role as Capt. Frank Furillo in the groundbreaking TV series, "Hill Street Blues" (which ran from 1981-87), he would rather be recognized – and challenged – in the realm of live theatre. Travanti received rave reviews for recent roles in Apple Tree Theatre’s Old Wicked Songs (remounted at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre) and A Touch of the Poet at American Repertory Theatre. He is very selective about the material he chooses, believing that the quality of writing and complexity of a character are more important to him than taking the commercial or career-advancing route.

After all, he already got the big TV break. Yet today he views his work in "Hill Street Blues" and movies like "Case of Libel" and "Murrow" with a sneer, arguing that a hit TV show is not the measure of success. He proclaims that his heart is firmly rooted in the theatre where, he insists, "the most meaningful work is being done."
"I’m in the cushy position," acknowledges Travanti, 61, "of being able to say that I won’t do a piece of TV crap."

The actor, while upbeat, initially shows a jaded side. He’s done too many interviews and is frankly tired of answering all the usual questions regarding his career choices. When I clarify that this is a more extensive process piece for a paper read by theatre artists, he snaps, "Here’s my process: passion, passion, passion with a bit of intelligence."

After a weighty pause, Travanti softens and, for the next two hours, he reflects on his own joyous and devastating experiences in the acting arena with a disarming honesty.

Born and raised in a blue-collar area of Kenosha, Wis., Travanti claims the desire to act "was always there." Interestingly, he was thrilled to go to the movies and was a devotee of radio and TV. But in the 1950s, he likened TV to theatre, referring to the beautifully crafted dramas shown on "Hallmark Hall of Fame." He also spent a lot of time at Kenosha’s Simmons Library, where he devoured classic scripts, like Time of the Cuckoo and Come Back Little Sheba.

Travanti, however, points out that acting was his best-kept secret.

"People in my neighborhood would laugh at me if I told them I wanted to be an actor," he recalls. "So I devoted my time to being a scholar and an athlete. I became this crazed over-achiever. And, in my mind, I was a snob. I wouldn’t do school plays or community theatre. I felt that was beneath me. And I just read great works of literature instead of garbage."

The actor abruptly shifts to a discovery he made later in life: "But intelligence is highly over-rated. The guts, the heart – that’s what matters."

While an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Travanti made his theatre ambitions more pronounced. He took as many acting classes as the school offered at that time. There was no theatre department, but he acted in five major productions. He managed to graduate in three years and was accepted on full scholarship to the Yale School of Drama. But he left after one year, saying he could no longer bear the pompous atmosphere. "There was this big slew of moribund, self-important professors," states Travanti, "and I couldn’t work in that kind of environment."

As his defiant nature took more visible shape, Travanti was determined to maintain a certain degree of happiness and satisfaction in his theatrical work. He speaks highly of his experiences in summer stock at the Court Theatre in Beloit, Wis., and decided to move to New York City in his early 20s. Then he got a few curve balls pitched to him along life’s path.

"I got to do what turns out to be a backwards career," he notes. "I was going to be a prominent thing in theatre, but I ended up in TV. Now I’m back doing what I really love – theatre.

"When I was starting out in this business, though, I kept a lot inside. I suffered a breakdown when I was 23 years old, but no one knew. I shared it with no one. I also had a drinking problem. So many of my struggles had to do with denying that I was a hell of an actor. At the same time, I feared that my TV work would drain my abilities as a substantial actor capable of great challenges. I’m also not one to go along and have never been complacent."

Travanti recently was inducted into the Kenosha Hall of Fame. At the ceremony, he remembers viewing – with some trepidation -- a video tribute highlighting his TV and film clips.

"I was amazed at how much of my work was up there [on the screen]," he shares, "because there were so many times when I was doing nothing. Acting can be such a mean, vicious business because it’s indifferent. And, as artists, we’re sensitive and suffer more.

"I call myself a failure because I’ve failed to achieve the biggest spotlight. By that, I mean that there’s more to be had for me as a serious actor, and I’m not having it. I’m still waiting for my big break."

Travanti cites A Life for Irish Repertory as a particularly rewarding experience.

"When Matt O’Brien [Irish Rep’s artistic director] delivered the script to me," he explains, "I said absolutely, I’ll do this. I love [playwright Hugh] Leonard’s poetic language and sense of heightened reality. There are so many emotional nuances in the language. My character says three things when he’s saying one thing. There are such complex emotions inside the character and inside his words."

Aware that many PerformInk readers aspire to film careers, Travanti does not set out to discourage them. But he offers some sharp warnings against artistic complacency and being seduced by money and celebrity.

"You’ll hear a lot of crap from agents and producers and directors," he says, "but don’t believe their lies. It all comes down to box office. You’re not a person; you’re just worth a buck. So you have to care for what it is you have and show it. You need to be a complete actor; a working craftsperson on the highest level. Do good work; never lose your integrity."

Travanti then talks about the earlier merits of television and its rapid decline.

"When I was very young, I had a chance to experience TV [as a viewer] when it was art. But there really are no challenging roles in TV now because not much more is being asked of that medium today. We have to remember, too, that ‘Hill Street Blues’ was the most celebrated series; it was not the most popular."

And, he admits, the TV drama was supposed to be a launching pad for a big-screen career that never took off. Because there are no guarantees of fame, Travanti urges actors to never compromise their craft.

He continues, "Actors will no doubt have their share of demanding roles in TV, but there are no great roles to be had there. The only place you can find works of throbbing, emotionally charged drama is in the theatre."

Travanti also acknowledges that there is an abundance of mediocre theatre. But he still blames it on TV.

"Everything is being written for TV," he says with disdain, enunciating the word TV with a nasally whine. "Audiences are not being stretched. They’re being fed junk. All I’m asking for is a wonderful role to play in a wonderful production that taps into all my abilities as an actor."

Yet theatre poses financial challenges that many actors ultimately find impossible to overcome. Los Angeles is often the most direct route to something resembling an income. Travanti understands that, but urges actors to never completely abandon the stage or sell themselves short.

"I am an actor," he proclaims. "I am an artful entertainer, that’s what I am. It’s not my job to try to dissect the multiple meanings of a play or what it has accomplished in the social realm. I’m not a documentary filmmaker.

"But I do know this. Theatre has always been the same. Acting is an absolute obsession. It has nothing to do with loving it or earning a lot of money. I hate it when people say, ‘I love acting’! It’s an intense craving. It’s something you do because you can’t not do it."

Travanti’s slight air of bitterness soon gives way to a more mellow demeanor. He reveals that, in the past, he could be rather direct and hurtful when refusing a TV or film offer if the script came across as shallow to him. He recalls saying "no" so many times that the offers drastically diminished. But now he makes an effort to "more politely" turn down scripts.

"My job is to go realize my standards," says Travanti, "to find the piece that’s worthy of my efforts. And let me say this. People tell you it’s wrong to be a quitter. Well, I believe it helps to be a quitter. If what you’re doing doesn’t feel good on a regular basis, go away -- disappear. It helps!"

Since settling on the North Shore, Travanti has devoted his time almost exclusively to theatre, including productions in London, San Diego, Denver and Washington, D.C. He is very pleased to be working with director Richard Block – founder of Actors Theatre of Louisville – on A Life (running through May 20 at Victory Gardens).

"I knew instinctively that this was a lovely, subtle and profound play," says Travanti of A Life. "I trusted the script. When I work, the first thing I do is plumb the depths and trawl the bottom of my character’s emotions. I clearly separate myself from my actor-self. And I sometimes marvel at what the actor in me can do that I cannot do in my everyday life."

When asked why he decided to relocate to Chicago, he clarifies that he deliberately does not live in the city. After appearing in a short-lived TV series (which he does not wish to discuss) filmed in Chicago, Travanti realized he liked the area but wanted more privacy. A visit to Lake Forest in the dead of winter – one of his favorite times of year – convinced him to buy a house there.

"I wanted spiritual, artistic and emotional piece of mind," shares Travanti. "I knew that I had to get out of California. I couldn’t be in that scene anymore. I sold my house. Arnold Schwarzenegger bought it and promptly ‘terminated’ it so he could expand his estate. I needed to pare down my life and get in touch with what really matters. I’m happy here."

We continue our conversation outside. As Travanti walks toward his car, he asks for the easiest directions to the Kennedy Expressway. I point him toward Southport – away from the construction on Diversey. Then he launches, albeit good-naturedly, about the insane organization of Chicago’s streets – especially all those six-corner intersections with no signs.

I then ask him to pass along some last-minute words of wisdom to aspiring actors before he plunges into Friday rush-hour traffic.

Travanti smiles and gently replies, "I wouldn’t tell them to develop a tough skin. That’s too extreme.

Instead I would say that, as an actor, you have to develop something removable – like armor. You must remain super-sensitive underneath and manage to be strong and resilient on the outside." •

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