Lately, James Gammon has developed a real soft spot in his heart for baseball.
“Hey, I got to meet Steve Yeager and Pete Vuckovich,” the veteran actor said in his low-pitched, easygoing voice. “I’m not a rabid fan, but I do enjoy it. And as the season goes on, it gets more and more exciting. I love the emotion baseball has: guys getting right up in each other’s faces, swinging cleats at each other, trying to run each other down, bean somebody with a ball.”
Gammon gives baseball equally high marks as theatrical fodder. Besides co-starring in the coming feature “Major League” (with Charlie Sheen and Corbin Bernsen), Gammon directs the premiere of David Higgins’ ode to semi-pro baseball, “Bonu$ Baby,” at the Victory Theatre in Burbank. He describes the piece, set in 1964, as “a gritty, lusty, romantic comedy--and there’s a teeny piece of mystery in it, too.”
Originally, Gammon had intended to perform in the play. Then he was asked if he’d direct it as well.
“I said, ‘Why don’t I just direct?’ I’m not one of those people who can see what’s happening around me when I’m involved; I tend to look at everything from the perspective of my character. As a director now, I’m always looking at the mechanics, trying to improve things, enhance them.”
Gammon wants actors to make their own choices.
“I hate to see my direction appear,” he said. “To ask an actor to do something, have him do it, then have it come screaming out at you is just . . . wrong.”
Long a fixture in local theater, Gammon solidified his position in 1972 when he and actor friend Alan Vint pooled their funds (largely proceeds from their roles as baddies in the film “Macon County Line”) and started the MET Theatre in Hollywood.
“It was a beauty parlor, and we helped convert it,” he said. Among the MET’s work was a trilogy of Inge plays--"Bus Stop,” “Picnic” and “Dark at the Top of the Stairs"--that won multiple Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards.
Another MET highlight was its 1979 West Coast premiere of Sam Shepard’s “The Curse of the Starving Class.” Gammon (who’d done the role a year earlier at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre in New York) played the boozy, dropout father, Sally Kirkland his benighted wife. “It’s my all-time favorite thing I’ve done,” the actor said. “It was quite a time, very mesmeric for me. I loved its truths about the world. Like my character: ‘I didn’t ask for it, kid--I just got it.’
“I think it helps to have an affinity for the character you’re playing, parts you can hang onto,” he said. “But with ‘Curse,’ I didn’t ever, ever do the part right. I got by, but I never did it. I always feel like there’s a ton of work to do, a mountain--but then we’re opening, and there’s a kind of death ‘cause you’re running and you can’t change it, so you can’t progress much more. . . .”
After 1982, Gammon became much less involved in the running of the theater. In 1985, the MET (on Poinsettia Place, off Melrose Avenue) closed its doors. The building is now a men’s cosmetic factory. “It was time to move on,” the father of two teen-age daughters said simply. “I guess it was exhaustion more than anything. We’d been doing about three shows a year. My kids were growing up. We lived next door to the theater, and we had a canteen next to that.
“Poor Nan,” he said of his wife. “Every time something was needed for the set--a picture, a chair--we’d come in and rob the house. If Nancy hadn’t been handling the front for me, taking care of the press, watching out over everything, I wouldn’t have been able to stay back there and put on the show. Now we’re out in Temecula, about an hour and a half out of town. I don’t know how long that’ll last, but I like it there. It’s so quiet .”
Gammon came from such a background, “a teeny town in Illinois with, like, 50 people. Before coming to California at 25, “I was working as a television cameraman in Florida, doing community theater in my off-hours. Then one day I was reading an L.A. Times and saw ads for all these acting classes.”
And off he went. Gammon’s mentor in those days was Lawrence Park, with
whom he studied when he arrived in Los Angeles 20-some years ago. “He was a very strict, knowledgeable acting coach, very much the disciplinarian,” he said. “Quite frankly, he terrified us students. We were actually afraid to breathe.”
In spite of those terrors, Gammon never considered giving up acting. “I remember my first play in seventh grade,” he recalled warmly. “It was called ‘Toby Lights the Christmas Tree,’ and I was Toby. Laughter and pats on the back do wonderful things for people. I suppose that acceptance, more than anything else, pushed me. Also, in the early days here, I had a scholarship--so I was able to stay at the theater, help clean and do errands for Larry in exchange for classes. That way, I could attend classes six days a week.”
Gammon said he is pleased to be cast as a nice guy at long last.
“I’m playing dads now. I just finished filming an NBC movie, ‘Common Knowledge,’ with Holly Hunter,” his co-star in the 1987 Taper production of Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind.”
“I’m a warm, supportive father in that. In ‘Major League,’ I’m a warm, supportive manager--maybe a little grouchy in the beginning.”
He said he doesn’t know why he was cast in bad-guy roles.
“Maybe it’s these slitty eyes. Everyone always says, ‘Open your eyes, Gammon.’ ”