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An Academic Star Opts for Struggling Actor’s Role

Times Staff Writer

Jack Frankel, novice movie actor, was enjoying himself, having his face squirted with fake blood from a plastic bottle and howling in agony while a beautiful Egyptian vampire ripped out his heart with her bare hands.

“This is the kind of thing you never get to do as a university president,” Frankel said of his first acting role in a commercial film.

Frankel, former president of California State University, Bakersfield, puts a reverse spin on that old scene from the lore of the theater, the buck-em-up advice that encourages the understudy with stage fright to get out there in the spotlight, seize the moment and come back a star. In Frankel’s case it should read:

“Kid, you’re going out there an internationally known scientist and eminent academic, and you’re coming back an unknown actor in Equity-waiver theaters scuffling for small parts in low-budget horror films.”

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At the age of 60, Frankel resigned the presidency of the university after nine years in office and dropped out of a distinguished scientific career that takes up 16 lines of fine print in “Who’s Who in America.” With no theatrical experience or training, he set out to become an actor.

‘Distinguished Older Man’

Now 61, he lives the life of a Hollywood hopeful in a small, bare apartment in Northridge. He sends out resumes to producers of TV commercials and auditions for unpaid roles in little neighborhood theaters, and he rehearses his role as Superman in a play that will open at a local theater in about two weeks.

Tall and tanned, with a full head of snow-white hair, he goes for the “distinguished older man” roles. Indeed, he looks like the Central Casting idea of a prominent scientist or university president.

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On Wednesday nights he hangs around a nearby 7-Eleven, waiting for the new edition of Drama-Logue, an entertainment industry weekly, to get an early look at the “actors wanted” ads so he can be among the first arrivals at casting calls in the morning.

It is a common life style for thousands of would-be actors throughout the Los Angeles area.

It is not such a common life for a man like Frankel, who holds a doctorate in quantum mechanics and metallurgy and helped found the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a leading center for nuclear-weapons research affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley.

He also did pioneering research in the 1950s on manned space satellites, nuclear-powered aircraft and lunar flights and took part in a number of research projects on missile development, nuclear power and the properties of uranium and plutonium, some of them still classified by the Defense Department.

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He wrote a university-level textbook, “The Principles of the Properties of Materials,” and taught nuclear engineering and other subjects at UCLA and Northwestern University. He spent two years as associate dean of the engineering school at Dartmouth, six years as dean of the faculty at Harvey Mudd College and served as a scientific adviser to the Rand Corp., Lockheed and nine foreign governments including Indonesia, Taiwan, Brazil and India.

In the fall of 1982, he said, “I decided I just didn’t want to be a college president any more.”

There had been a period of acrimony between Frankel and the university’s faculty. Cuts in the school’s budget led to dismissals. Some faculty members responded with a union-organizing drive. In May of that year, the Faculty Forum passed a motion of no confidence in Frankel by a vote of 93 to 2, complaining that he ignored the faculty in making decisions.

“Yeah, I was ticked off at the faculty, although that was under control by the fall--I had perfect support from the trustees and chancellor. But by that time I had talked to about half the faculty, meeting with them in groups all summer, and it dawned on me that I just didn’t want any more of it.

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At Top of Profession

“I was essentially at the top of my profession. I started out as a graduate student at Berkeley and ended up as president of a university. I suppose I could have become president of a larger university, but it struck me that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing this.

“I realized that when I retired I’d have to live very frugally. I needed some other source of money. A very good friend of mine at Bakersfield was a professor of drama and he said, ‘why don’t you make commercials? Everybody who goes into commercials makes lots of money.’

“I figured, how many more years do I have to live? Actuarially, maybe 20. So I thought I might as well try it. I was living in Santa Monica at the time. I met some fine young actors at the Santa Monica Playhouse and joined the actors’ workshop there.”

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It was then, he said, that he found more in acting than money, of which to date he has made almost none.

“I realized that acting was about as different from academic life as you could get,” he said. It requires “a whole different set of skills than the ones I had used all my life.

“You don’t have to be terribly intellectual to be an actor. But you do have to be in very good touch with your feelings, which I wasn’t. I had been living essentially using the thinking mode and the sensing mode. What’s going on around here? How do I get more money for the college? How do I solve this problem?

“The hardest part of acting for me is letting go, being uninhibited. That’s the opposite of everything a college administrator learns--particularly a college president. Everything teaches him to conceal what he feels, not to react, not to be quick on the trigger, to be patient and calm under stress.

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“The function of the actor is not to do that, not to hold back. And that’s what I found interesting, to find something inside of me that has been lying dormant for a long time.”

Now, he said with a grin, he is an actor “because it’s fun.”

After six months in the workshop he got a small part in a production of “I Never Sang for My Father” with a company that toured senior citizens centers. At his second audition he landed the lead in “Knock on Wood” at the Little Oscar, a 70-seat Northridge theater tucked into a corner of a small shopping mall on Roscoe Boulevard and Louise Avenue, between a takeout sandwich shop and a videotape store.

Plays College Professor

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“I have an advantage over some of the other people,” he said. “There are fewer actors competing at my age than there are 20-year-olds looking for the younger roles. And the guys my age, with 30 or 40 years’ experience, aren’t looking for the little jobs that I go out for.”

Roles in two more plays and four student-made films followed, until he got a part in “The Tomb,” a horror film to be released this summer starring Cameron Mitchell, John Carradine, Mamie Van Doren and Sybil Danning.

He plays a college professor.

The movie involves the gruesome shenanigans of an Egyptian vampire princess, shaken awake by an earthquake after the customary sleep of centuries, and something called The Ceremony of the Seven Moons, which is not at all nice.

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“I’m a professor of Oriental languages who stumbles on the key to this monster woman,” Frankel said. “She tears my heart out with her fingernails.

“It’s a very good scene, one of the high points of my career,” said the man who once served on the Commission on Curriculum and Faculty Development of the Assn. of American Colleges, and delivered the featured speech at UCLA’s engineering week on “The Engineer as Priest and Oracle.”

“You can’t actually see her gouging my heart out--you’d only get one take on that one--but the assistant director was kneeling beside me with a Windex bottle full of stage blood, spraying it on my face so you get the impression that blood is spurting out of my chest.

“We had to do five or six takes because he missed me on the first take when I threw my head back to scream, and he hit the director instead because I hadn’t told him my head was going to move.

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“Then the vampire pulls out a big plastic heart. But they had to watch the amount of blood very carefully because they’re shooting for a PG-13 rating, and apparently the quantity of blood is a factor in getting the rating.

“These are things you never learn about as a college administrator.”

Seeking SAG Card

He took the role, he said, because the producers promised him a videotape of his performance “that my agent can take around and show producers of the soaps and big-time TV,” and in hope of achieving his current ambition, membership in the Screen Actors Guild.

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Although “The Tomb” was a non-union film, the producers and the guild could negotiate a retroactive agreement that would bring him into the union, making him eligible for better-paying roles, he said.

Frankel, who is divorced and the father of five, said his family gives him “amused support” in his new career, “especially my daughter who is a locomotive engineer for the Santa Fe.”

He doesn’t see much of his old friends from academia, he said, “Except Jim Cleary (president of California State University, Northridge) brought his wife and one of his staff to see me in ‘The Sunshine Boys’ one night. They complimented me very highly but Jim had a kind of gleam in his eye as if he wanted to ask me other questions, but couldn’t quite do it.”

He is now rehearsing for a new play, “Up, Up and Around,” which opens at the Little Oscar June 14. He plays Superman in a senior citizens home that may, or may not, be the last refuge of aged comic-book super-heroes. For the time being, he has set aside a partly completed book on his own experiences and the role of science in American society.

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“I can write when I’m older. But writing requires me to use my mind, and right now I don’t want to use my mind for a while.”

And then he was off to the 7-Eleven to wait for the truck with this week’s Drama-Logue.


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