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Budding ‘Zero Mostel’ Plays Widely Varied Roles, All Near Brink

Anyone who saw John Huntington in the Laguna Playhouse’s recent production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” would be justified in wondering why some agent hasn’t snapped him up and pitched him to Broadway.

As Bud Frump, the no-talent mail-room clerk with family connections, Huntington turned in a command performance. He flounced and pouted with the body English of a grand farceur, then charmed the audience with his rich lyric baritone and still projected the most frumpish character imaginable.

“John can operate on pretty much the same level as a Zero Mostel,” said Douglas Rowe, artistic director of the community theater. “He plays on the brink. His timing is brilliant. At any moment he can go too far. But he doesn’t, and you’re just amazed.”

Clearly pleased with his find, Rowe praised the lanky, sandy-haired actor not as a diamond in the rough but as a finished performer. What impressed him most, however, is Huntington’s versatility.

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The actor portrayed Edward Rutledge in the Playhouse’s production of “1776" last year and was, Rowe recalled, “an entirely different person with a wonderful Old South accent--as much antebellum in that as he was ‘50s screwball in this. The performance was a totality. I can see John doing Shakespeare without missing a beat.

“We haven’t used him enough. So far he’s only been cast in supporting roles. I’m dying to see him in a role which is the focal point of the play.”

That will happen next spring for the Playhouse, Rowe noted, when Huntington will star as Edouard Manet in Mark Turnbull’s original musical, “Manet,” based on the life of the 19th-Century French painter.

In the meantime, Huntington takes his largely unheralded career in stride. Older than he looks and saddled with more responsibility than the usual struggling thespian, he spoke in a recent interview with equanimity about “the cattle calls” and “the near-misses” he encountered during six years of living in New York while trying to break into the professional ranks.

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“It will come all in good time,” he said, seemingly unfazed by the odds working against a 36-year-old father of five children who puts his family and Mormon faith before ambition. “Too bad the days of true patronage are gone. People support institutions now, not individual artists. When I grow up, I’m going to find an artist I really believe in and send money--anonymously.”

In plaid pants and a turtleneck pullover, Huntington sat in the living room of his rented Mission Viejo house with one knee boyishly hugged to his chest. His wife, Tuly, was in the kitchen. Two of their youngest children toddled back and forth.

Huntington--born in Bremerton, Wash., and reared in Tacoma--said he moved his family from New York two years ago “with absolutely nothing to our name.” No car. No home. No money, except for $500 collected by their church congregation to speed them on their way. A promised job fell through on their arrival. Two weeks later, friends who were putting them up announced that they were moving.

Still, he looked on the bright side. In New York, he supported his family first as a part-time dishwasher between auditions, then for four years worked full time as a gofer in Midtown Manhattan’s diamond district. But the firm he worked for was closing. On top of that, the apartment house they lived in was going condo, which meant eventually having to leave anyway.

“I figured we might as well be destitute under a palm tree,” the actor said. “Much better that it should be warm.”

Indeed, it took perseverance and luck to avoid going homeless.

“Nobody would rent to us because they saw five children,” Huntington recalled. “By Mission Viejo standards, we needed a five-bedroom house, one bedroom for each child. Well, we’d been living in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens. We looked at 30 houses before we found this one.”

On the other hand, just a week after arriving, he landed a starring role in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” True, it was a non-paying community production at the Mission Viejo Stake Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but you have to start somewhere.

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“Our affiliation with the church has been our salvation,” said Huntington, a graduate of Brigham Young University who can trace his Mormon roots seven generations back.

Yet for all his theatrical training at BYU under noted director Tad Danielewsky and at Danielewsky’s New York workshop, Huntington has not made the rounds of auditions in Los Angeles or even in Orange County because he still has no car.

“All in good time,” he said, buoyed by his inherent optimism. “I need $300 for a portfolio; $1,700 for orthodontics; and $3,000 for a used car and I’m set.”

Until then, Huntington said, he will continue to earn a meager living as a voice teacher. And he will concentrate on church-sponsored productions such as a song recital he and his operatically trained wife will give next week at the Mission Viejo Stake Center.


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