By Daniel Reskin
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Living up to his reputation as a consummate gentleman, Bill Hindman asks for permission to loosen his tie as he settles into our booth at a little out-of-the-way Chinese restaurant near Dadeland. I find it amazing he is even wearing a tie during this break from his preparations to portray Clarence Darrow in a one-man play about the liberal attorney best known for arguing against capital punishment in the Leopold-Loeb murder case (1924) and defending the right to teach evolution in the famous Scopes "monkey trial" (1925).
But then again, Hindman is quite concerned with appearances these days. For Clarence Darrow, scheduled to open in mid-October at Coral Gables's New Theatre, the actor will attempt to resemble Darrow physically by using prostheses to broaden his nose, build up his cheekbones, and put a cleft in his chin. "I've wanted to play this character for twenty years," Hindman notes. "The closer I can come to the actual man within the constraints of theatrical performance, the better." As he softly but passionately discusses his subject, it becomes clear why the low-key actor was drawn to the powerful lawyer. "I see Darrow as one of those men who changed the course of how we think of things and how we approach each other," Hindman explains. "Some of them do it with flash and some of them, like Darrow, do it very quietly."
The computer hobbyist also has been downloading hundreds of pages about Darrow from the Internet, and is even making some of the show's props. "These days who knows what a Western Union telegram looked like in the Thirties?" he asks rhetorically. "I do." At age 75, Bill Hindman is a walking, talking contradiction of the old theater saw that goes, "You can make a killing in the theater, but you can't make a living." Although, as he laughingly protests, the living isn't much: "I have three pensions from unions I belong to -- the Screen Actors' Guild, Actors' Equity, and AFTRA [American Federation of TV-Radio Artists]. Now I can afford to do theater."
Despite the challenges inherent in a one-man show such as Clarence Darrow, Hindman clearly relishes the opportunity. "You have a beginning, a middle, and an end that's all your own," he says, holding his arms apart with palms extended. "And you say, 'There, I made that.'" The only other time the stage veteran performed a monodrama, he walked away with the 1988 Best Actor Carbonell Award for his South Florida performances as Ernest Hemingway in John deGroot's Papa.
That play has since appeared again locally and off-Broadway with Len Cariou in the role, but author deGroot praises his first star. "A one-man play about someone who wasn't very nice could be a very tough evening," deGroot avers. "A lot of actors can play big and strong, but not a lot can play the softness underneath. Bill had that vulnerability and the ability to inject that quality into the character."
While Hindman has engaged in other career pursuits -- he co-anchored three years of Ohio State University football broadcasts with Hall of Fame announcer Jack Buck, established WTMI's classical music format as that station's first program director, and managed the planetarium at the Miami Museum of Science -- he has spent the majority of his life in the theater. "I have tried other things, [but] not successfully," Hindman confesses, "to the point where I've wiped them out of my memory."
Given his unassuming personality, it's hard to imagine how Hindman got into the profession in the first place. "I was one of these very, very shy kids," he explains. "When I met anyone I didn't know -- I would blush and stammer." Then, after a childhood spent moving around Ohio as his tax-specialist father assumed different state appointments, the twelve-year-old enrolled in Columbus's Indianola Junior High School, where, to his dismay, he was forced into the dramatics class, the only available elective. One of the few boys in the class, he was called upon to perform the instant he stepped through the door. "In the middle of what I thought was going to be my mortification," he recalls, "I experienced one of the most freeing moments of my life, and I was committed from then on."
He studied theater for a year at Ohio State, then performed summer stock in a national touring company, which lasted until Hindman became a Marine in World War II, participating in the Third Corps Artillery unit that fought in the invasions of Guam and Okinawa. Even while in the military he found a way to perform: Bored on the troop carrier taking him and his fellow soldiers to New Caledonia, he took part in what he describes as "a very raunchy burlesque show." Upon landing, the ragtag company did the show again, this time catching the eye of Admiral William Halsey, head of the Pacific naval forces, who sent them for a quick tour entertaining the troops in the Pacific theater before they returned to join their units.
Back in Ohio after the war, Hindman tried out radio and the new medium of television. "The late-night talk shows are nothing new," he stresses. "In 1955, I hosted a live show Saturday nights from 1:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m., One O'Clock Jump. We set up the studio like a nightclub, where the audience danced and I interviewed guests." As it turned out, his combat experience would prove as important as his TV credits when he decided to try his luck on the stage in New York City. "In 1957, I did Salvage at the Actors Playhouse and got the worst reviews of anything I'd ever been in," he admits, grimacing. "[Critic] Walter Kerr wrote, 'Last night at the Actors Playhouse, I saw a play called Salvage. It is set in a junkyard. It belongs there.'"