In 1966, as a struggling New York actor, Harry Northup survived on a few bucks an hour and any dream he could find.
He had been a star in his hometown of Sidney, Neb.--population 8,000--but this was New York, the Big Apple, and Northup was worried about becoming a big bust. He studied with Lee Strasberg, but soon, he got a double dose of disillusionment: Both the off-Broadway play and feature film he had hoped to appear in weren't going to get made. Northup needed an escape from his anxieties, from the daily reminders that the acting world carries no guarantees.
"I was feeling loss and loneliness," said Northup, 52, a Cal State Northridge graduate. "I had a friend who had a whole bookcase of poetry. He gave me a book, and that was it. It brought everything down to the ground for me."
He hasn't stopped writing since, has had five books of poetry published, and on Wednesday night, will read poetry at The Cobalt Cafe in Woodland Hills.
Many of the pieces come from his first spoken-word recording, "Personal Crime," which was just released on New Alliance Records.
"I called it that because it's my way of doing something against the conventional way of life," he said.
Produced by Harvey Kubernik, co-owner of the Reseda-based BarKubCo Music Inc., who has known Northup for more than 20 years, the album covers Northup's progression as a poet from his days in New York through his move to Los Angeles where he has attained moderate success as a character actor for some of Hollywood's elite. Altogether, the album contains 38 poems.
In film, he has worked for Martin Scorsese in "Mean Streets," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and "Taxi Driver," and Jonathan Demme in "Fighting Mad," "The Silence of The Lambs" and his upcoming "Philadelphia." In all, Northup has appeared in 32 pictures, mostly in supporting roles. His first break came when a fellow student from acting class, Harvey Keitel, recommended him to Scorsese. He played a rapist in Scorsese's first film, "Who's That Knocking at My Door?"
"I don't know how to make a movie without Harry Northup," said Demme, who is editing "Philadelphia," scheduled for a December release. "He always brings something extra to the party. He's not interested in the amount of screen time. He's concerned about bringing his artistry to the role."
Demme said Northup's poetry is a revelation. "It's almost startling to discover he's a poet," Demme said. "He's such a bruiser kind of guy."
In fact, many of Northup's roles, from a cab driver in "Taxi Driver" to a bartender in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" reflect the same blue-collar image of his poetry.
"That's very close to him," said Kubernik, adding that Northup's suggestions for dialogue have been frequently accepted by film directors. "He's actually done many of those jobs."
For Northup, his dual life as an actor and poet gives him a perfect blend of the make-believe and the real-life introspection he thrives on in his poetry.
In one piece, "The Wild Accusation," he shows he's not afraid to unmask the pain he felt about the mother he lost years ago: My father accused me My oldest brother accused me My reverend brother accused me They accused me of emotion When my mother died During public readings of his work, Northup starts in casual, straightforward fashion, rarely raising his voice or changing inflection for emphasis. But, with each verse, he gathers more emotion. By the end, after stirring tributes to his wife, fellow poet Holly Prado, his son, Dylan, and his former CSUN poetry instructor, Ann Stanford, Northup is fully animated.
"He's got passion, and yet there's coolness," said fellow poet Bill Mohr. "His poems work at different levels of reality."
To compile the album, Northup took about a month to go through his entire body of work over the quarter-century--and originally chose 350 poems. When it was finally condensed to 38, Kubernik allowed Northup to introduce each poem with the date it was written.
"It's very important to show that he's written this stuff over 25 years," Kubernik said. "When Harry says something on the page, it makes you want to hear his voice. He says a lot with few words."
Where and When What: Poetry reading by Harry Northup, Jane Laurel and Bill Mohr at The Cobalt Cafe, 21622 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. Hours: 9 p.m. Wednesday. Price: Free. Call: (818) 348-3789.