Actors may be the oldest minority group in the world. Thousands of years ago, when blacks still roved innocent in the African rain forests and Jews reigned remote in their desert redoubts, actors were wandering around Europe juggling apples, telling stories and doing the three walnut shells and a pea scam. We slept in stables before Christ was born, often with local company that got us run out of town by dogs the next morning.
This has earned us an enduring reputation; to this day there are hotels actors can't stay in, clubs we can't join. Oddly, we don't seem to care too much about it. Remember Groucho Marx? "I wouldn't belong to a club that'd have me."
Early in my career (during the Civil War, I recall), I was hired as leading man in a very successful stock company in Pennsylvania. The director explained to me that there was a street in the town the actors weren't supposed to cross and a part of the beach we couldn't swim from . . . did this bother me? "I didn't come here to swim," I said. "What are the parts?"
I can't believe that the first union I joined, to which I'm proud to belong, could endorse so blatantly racist a position as Actors' Equity has done in denying Jonathan Pryce the right to play the role he created in "Miss Saigon."
As actor and director, I've always assumed the idea was to get the best actor for the part, no matter what color he or she was. I've never spoken to a single working actor who didn't endorse this. When I took "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial" to London four years ago, we forged an agreement with British Equity that let me use an almost all-American cast, because they were right for the parts! Where have we fallen from there?
Now, Morgan Freeman can contribute an extraordinary Petruchio to "Taming of the Shrew," but Laurence Olivier would be prohibited from giving us his Othello, widely regarded as the best performance by any actor in any part in this century.
Now that Dustin Hoffman has given the theater a memorable Shylock, can only Jewish actors be cast in the role? Because Sean Connery and I are Scots, are we the only actors who get to play Macbeth? What obscene drivel are we talking about here? Certainly not about acting.
I'm ashamed of my union. I beg our leaders to abandon this bare-faced racist deception. Do you remember when you played checkers with your granddad, the first time you figured out that he was letting you win? And how mad it made you? That's what's happening here. We can't have this.
We also can't have any cosmetic compromise: "Ohh . . . all right, Pryce can play the part . . . but only for 50 performances. OK!! A hundred, then . . . but that's it!"
Equity has to get out of the casting business.