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Actor Juggles Macho Film Role, Old Codger Characterization

Times Staff Writer

To bed at midnight after being mugged in Central Park. Up the next morning at 5 for the drive to Vietnam, where Ollie North will save your life in a tank battle.

The submarines were never like this. All you did in the submarines was sit around in the Pacific for months at a time and keep guys with “Dear John” letters from going AWOL when you got back to shore.

“I am definitely busy,” said Rif Hutton, comparing his former career as an assistant chaplain in the Navy to the two acting roles he has been juggling.

Tonight, Hutton makes his debut at the Moulton Theatre in Herb Gardner’s “I’m Not Rappaport” as the 81-year-old janitor, Midge.

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For the past week, he was commuting daily to a desert location to play macho Marine Sgt. Mackie for a two-part TV movie, “The Oliver North Story,” which will air over the Fox network.

Sipping decaffeinated coffee on the terrace of a Laguna Beach hotel the other day, the actor looked a long way from being either a decrepit octogenarian or a hard-boiled soldier.

Hutton is tall and unassuming, and movie-star handsome. He speaks so earnestly that it is hard to figure how he got the name Rif.

“That,” he said, “was given to me in the Navy. The first thing everybody started calling me was Reverend. I wasn’t the most religious of people in those days. So the fellas decided I needed a nickname. My real name is Walter.”

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By any name, though, Hutton has been making something of a splash. In 1987 he won the NAACP Theatre Award for his performance in “Rounds” at the Cast Theatre in Los Angeles, a play by Sean Michael Rice about four unemployed factory workers.

And the Southern California Motion Picture Council awarded him its Golden Halo award for last year’s outstanding newcomer. It honored his cumulative work in “Rounds,” “The Comedy of Errors” at the Los Angeles Shakespeare Festival, the movie “Stand and Deliver” and the TV movie “Women in Prison.”

What drew him to Gardner’s 1986 Tony-winning comedy about two old, cantankerous codgers who meet on a park bench--one white and one black--is “the chance to make a statement,” he said. “I think I’m in tune with the playwright’s message.”

The message has less to do with a race than age. “There’s a young generation out there who are consumed with youth,” said Hutton, 36. “They don’t care what anyone over 60 has to say. They’re afraid of the future. They want to hide from old age.

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“I’ve got a certain respect for seniors that my parents instilled in me when I was young. I think that’s why I’m in tune with Gardner. I think his message is: ‘Listen to these folks--they know things.’ Midge has a lot of wisdom. That’s what I’m trying to communicate. But it’s a funny play. You have to send your message with a laugh.”

By the same token, you have to take your film roles with a smile.

How else could someone who worked in Jesse Jackson’s election campaign last year play Ollie North’s right-hand man in a TV movie designed to glorify the biggest right-wing hero since John Wayne?

“It’s tough,” Hutton acknowledged. “You always want to bring integrity to your work. In the majority of TV stuff, it’s such a struggle right now just to work your way up to leading roles that you are unfortunately not able to say, ‘I’ll do this, but I won’t do that.’ In theater, I can be more picky.”

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Born in San Antonio, Hutton said he was raised all over the country as the son of an “Air Force lifer” and grew up mostly in New Jersey. He never gave acting a serious thought, he recalled, until he won a statewide speech contest in the eighth grade with Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I have a dream” speech.

“The nuns at my school put me in the competition,” Hutton said. “They thought it would be good discipline for me. I didn’t do it by choice. In fact, the first time I had to do the speech in practice, it was so stressful I peed on myself in front of the entire school.”

Hutton can laugh about it now. But the shame he felt at the time spurred him to stay up that night until morning “thinking about revenge,” he said. The best revenge, it turned out, was winning the contest.

“That experience, more than anything else, got me to thinking I could make a living at acting,” he recalled.

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On the other hand, Hutton didn’t exactly leap into show business. First he got an engineering degree from Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., then he joined the Navy. (“Coming from a military family, there’s a tremendous pressure to go into the service.”)

Even when he got out in 1977, he worked at a “zillion jobs"--from crane electrician in the Port of Oakland to host of an all-male strip review in San Francisco’s North Beach--before zeroing in on an acting career.

Though he has appeared on scores of TV shows--among them “Remington Steele,” “Webster” and “The Judge"--Hutton’s widest notice has come from his role in last year’s surprise hit movie, “Stand and Deliver.”

It is not a large role. But because he has a scene with the star, Edward James Olmos, who could be nominated for an Academy Award, his own career has moved up a notch.

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“When Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy are two of the biggest stars around, it’s hard to argue there is a Hollywood conspiracy against minorities,” Hutton said. “But minorities on the whole do have a tough time--Orientals and American Indians more than blacks. If that movie has given me an edge, I’ll take it.”

Moreover, considering the problem of finding roles of any color, he said “non-traditional casting” is an idea whose time has come. Two years ago, in fact, he helped pioneer the concept in Orange County by playing Casca in “Julius Caesar” at the Grove Shakespeare Festival in Garden Grove.

“It worked wonderfully,” he said. “We were able to develop a character that was totally logical. It wasn’t like somebody had to say, ‘OK, the audience will just have to accept a black in that role.’ ”

In the meantime, he is happy to be playing a strongly ethnic black character in an overwhelmingly white community.

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“Each night I’ll get a chance to share something of myself,” he said. “That may touch somebody in the audience. If it does, I’ll get something coming back from the audience. And that is priceless.”

The Laguna Playhouse production of “I’m Not Rappaport” by Herb Gardner will continue through Feb. 12 at the Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Curtain times: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Admission: $11 to $13. Information: (714) 494-8021.


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