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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.'"
Of course, there were better times during his nine-year New York acting stint. He appeared with George C. Scott in Richard III and As You Like It, and with Tom Bosely in The Power and the Glory. And he performed alongside a young Peter Bogdanovich in Othello as part of Joseph Papp's then-new Shakespeare Festival in Central Park. Hindman also took over the role of Theodore "Hickey" Hickman from Jason Robards in director Jose Quintero's legendary 1956 production of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh when Robards left to star uptown in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. "For a performer, that's a fabulous role," Hindman says of Hickey. "It's five hours long and you get to work up to the fifth act, which is a 47-minute monologue only interrupted with an occasional line here and there. Jay Robards was doing Long Day's Journey, which was an hour shorter, so he'd jump in a cab at least once a week and catch the last act. Then we'd go out for a few drinks and talk about the problems with playing O'Neill and all that."
In 1965, when Hindman was appearing on Broadway in A Case of Libel -- while also being on contract to the TV sudser Love of Life and teaching at a trade school for radio announcers -- the city's industrial pollution brought on a case of late-onset asthma. "The doctor told me that I could move to Phoenix, which is dry, or Denver, which at that time wasn't industrial," he remembers. "He said South Florida was a possibility but had molds. South Florida was the only place that had commercials, film, and showed the possibility of someday having theater. So I chose Miami."
After his gigs at WTMI and the planetarium, Hindman joined the Players Repertory Theater in 1972, where he remained for seven years. "I signed a contract each year for forty weeks," he explains, "and we'd do eight productions and I'd be in seven of them." The Players are now defunct, but over the past 30 years Hindman has become a constant on South Florida stages. Recently, Harriet Oser, a well-established local actress, co-starred with Hindman in four of the brief playlets in Summer Shorts, for which Hindman received a Best Supporting Actor Carbonell Award nomination (bestowed by a committee of which I am a member). "It's like a Ping-Pong game," Oser says of her experience working with Hindman. "The more you give, the more you get back. He's a very knowledgeable man, and not just in theater: You say something and the next day he'll give you ten pages on it off the Internet."
Although it has made him countless friends, Hindman's pursuit of a theatrical career very likely took its toll on his private life, which has weathered three marriages; he has also produced seven children, one of whom died at age seven after having suffered a stroke as an infant. "It's very difficult to say that my career had everything to do with the breakups," he allows, "but it was certainly a powerful factor. As a working actor you seldom make enough money to keep afloat on your own, so that trying to support a family is quite difficult and leads to differences of opinion. I'm very happy all of my children speak to me. And they're all doing very well for themselves in their chosen fields."
One of those children is Miami Herald theater critic Christine Dolen. "If she's happy being a critic, I think that's wonderful. That's a father speaking of his daughter," he points out. "As an actor, it's an inconvenience. I think she's an excellent writer, and as such I wish she could review the things I'm in. I understand the conflict of interest," he says, adding with a chuckle "and it does make it easier to be a family. But if anyone wants the [Herald's] first-line critic to review their play, they don't want me in their cast."
One producer who hasn't hesitated to use Hindman is New Theatre executive artistic director Rafael de Acha. Having cast Hindman previously in Camping with Henry and Tom, Love Letters, Youth and Asia, Beast on the Moon, and The Value of Names, de Acha is now not only producing but directing the actor in Clarence Darrow. "If there is such a thing as a director's actor, he is it," de Acha raves. "You can use a directorial shorthand with him, and he fills in the blanks beautifully. He has the whole package -- a wonderful charisma, technique, intelligence, soul, warmth, personality -- that just spells human."
It's an assessment that would please Hindman, who discusses his philosophy of acting in the most human terms. "Acting is explaining people to an audience, and that's all it is. It is my belief that anybody who is on-stage to say 'Hey, look at me' is a fool or an entertainer. An actor goes on-stage saying, 'Look at this person, understand him, because somewhere in your life there is a person like this and they need your understanding.' And maybe this person is you in some respects. If someone comes back and says, 'Now I know why Uncle Louie is such a bastard,' I feel I've done my job, and that's the greatest reward I can get."
Bill Hindman stars in David Rintels's Clarence Darrow, October 16 through November 16, at the New Theatre. For more information call 443-5909.