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THEATER : Stage Makes an Honest Man of Gary Sandy : The former ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ star is happy to be where ‘you either cut it or you don’t.’

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Sometimes it’s hard to live down your past. Especially when that past is in syndication.

Gary Sandy, the erstwhile lovable hunk of the late-'70s sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati,” knows the perks that TV fame can bring. But he happily took a career turn away from serial television years ago and hasn’t looked back since.

He hasn’t had time--because he’s been working so hard in the theater. With appearances both on and off Broadway, and in both touring and regional productions, Sandy has tackled more than 30 major roles over the past 14 years.

And the stage seems to suit him. “There’s something kind of honest about the theater,” says the actor, dressed in a blue baseball cap and dark sweats, during a lunchtime interview at a North Hollywood rehearsal studio.

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“The curtain goes up and the curtain goes down. And in between, you either cut it or you don’t. And if you don’t, everybody’s going to know it. They can’t make you look good. There’s an honesty about that that’s called professionalism.”

Sandy stars with Debbie Shapiro-Gravitte in the Theater League production of “The Goodbye Girl,” playing Wednesday through next Sunday at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, and Feb. 20-25 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.

The musical (book by Neil Simon, score by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by David Zippel) gives Sandy a chance to show off the musical theater skills that have become his stock in trade. Besides, he feels talent counts for more onstage than it does in the world of TV.

“Generally in the theater, if you get up onstage when you audition and you’re better than the other guy, you get the part,” Sandy says. “It’s not that way in film or television.”

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Obviously, his move from screen to stage wasn’t lucrative, but Sandy shows no regrets. “I could have been a lot better off financially if I’d taken some of those other [TV shows], but I would have been a joke,” he says.

“It’s a long road back up the other way, with this theatrical stuff, but I’ll be damned if I’m not going to be taken seriously. You only have your integrity.”

The boyish good looks that turned so many heads during his “WKRP” years have ripened into a mature masculinity that’s no less winsome. He is energetic and animated in conversation, with an easy laugh and unpretentious manner.

What’s more, he comes by the corn-fed charm honestly. The Cincinnati setting for “WKRP” wasn’t far from where Sandy, who recently turned 50, grew up--in Dayton, Ohio.

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His father’s work routine made a lasting impression on the young Sandy. “My dad worked for General Motors for 35 years,” he says. “When I realized that going to work was something my dad really didn’t want to do, [I thought] there’s nothing wrong with trying to find something that you can get paid for that you would do for free.”

After pursuing acting in high school, Sandy attended nearby Wilmington College on a theater scholarship. After a couple years there, however, he decided to head for New York.

Sandy--who plays the part of an aspiring actor who moves to New York in “The Goodbye Girl"--studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. Then, after a year of “real bad poverty,” he decided to take a more aggressive approach to breaking into the business.

Once he had an agent’s ear, Sandy didn’t beat around the bush. “I said: ‘If you send me up, I will get [the part]. If I don’t, don’t send me up [again],’ ” he recalls. “I was serious. I meant it.

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“So he sent me up for ‘As the World Turns’ and I got it,” Sandy continues. “I was all blind innocence. I didn’t realize the odds against that at the time.”

Back then, in the early 1970s, “As the World Turns” was one of only two soaps that were still being shot live, and Sandy spent a year working on that show.

“It was a great training ground,” he says. “We never stopped. You never did it over again. They did a half-hour show in half an hour, right down to the second. Every day. And you did not make a mistake.”

Sandy went on to spend seven years “playing bad guys” on various soaps. “The challenge with soaps was to try and make it work, to try and say some of the stuff that you had to say without looking stupid,” he says.

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Afterward, he continued to work in TV and theater for five years. Then came the big break: “WKRP.”

Suddenly the former soapster heavy found himself playing the eminently likable radio programmer Andy Travis on the highly regarded CBS sitcom, which ran from 1978 through 1982.

“It was a great show, which has been a nemesis in a sense, because when it comes to other sitcoms, I just can’t,” says Sandy, referring to subsequent TV offers that he’s turned down. "[WKRP] is too much of a golden thing, and some of the other stuff is embarrassing. I can’t do it.”

Fortunately, even before WKRP was canceled, Sandy had moved on to what would prove to be the next phase of his career. When the network gave the show the bad news, its leading man was performing the lead role of the Pirate King in “The Pirates of Penzance” on Broadway.

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Since then, he’s assayed major roles in “Barnum,” “The Music Man,” “Chicago,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and many other musicals, in both touring and regional productions. He’s also performed extensively in non-musical plays.

Locally, he has been seen in “Nite Club Confidential” at the Terrace Theater at the Long Beach Convention Center last October, “An Off-Broadway Cabaret” at the Studio City cabaret Tonto & Dietz in 1994 and “Breaking Legs” at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts in 1993, among others.

For his present role in “The Goodbye Girl,” directed by Jules Aaron, Sandy will have had only 2 1/2 weeks of rehearsal. But he isn’t about to complain.

“Directors waste a lot of time on this ‘let’s figure out whether the motivation would be . . . ,’ ” he says. “I don’t care. Just tell me where to go initially. Get that out of the way. We can always change it.”

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Only when the blocking is done can Sandy dig in and really get down to work. “I can’t get a running start at finding the stamina of the part until we have this thing on its feet,” he says.

Besides, Sandy knows the problem with having more time. “If you’re like me, and you’re going on a trip in a week, it takes a week to pack,” he says. “If I’ve got two hours, I can get it done in two hours.”

The same goes for making mistakes. “If you let your mind say, ‘We can always do it again,’ you will make a mistake,” Sandy says. “If you say to yourself, ‘You’ve got to keep going,’ you will.”

These are lessons that Sandy learned in his soap days, and they’ve also come in handy in recent years. Yet the actor still has some mixed feelings about the unusual trajectory of his career.

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“I think it would have been a little more fun when I was younger,” says Sandy, referring to the touring. “In my 20s, I only worked in New York. In my 30s, I only worked in Los Angeles. And in my 40s, I’m on the road.

“So there’s been no settling kind of thing,” he continues. “But I’ve made my living for 30 years now without having to do anything else. It’s been a lot of fun. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

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“THE GOODBYE GIRL,” Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Dates: Wednesday, 8 p.m. (preview); Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; next Sunday, 7 p.m.; Thursday, Saturday and next Sunday, 2 p.m. Price: $29.50-$35.50. Phone: (805) 583-8700, (213) 480-3232. Also, Feb. 20-25 at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. $32.50-$35.50. (800) 414-ALEX, (800) 233-3123.

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