Prolific character actor James Whitmore appeared in countless films (“The Asphalt Jungle,” “The Shawshank Redemption”) and TV series (“The Twilight Zone”) in his six -decade career, earning Oscar nominations for 1949’s “Battleground” and 1975’s “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” and winning an Emmy in 2000 for his guest appearance on ABC’s “The Practice.”
But according to his son, James Whitmore Jr., an actor and TV director (“NCIS,” “The Good Wife”) in his own right, theater was his father’s true passion right up until he died in 2009 at age 87 of lung cancer.
“It was the religion of our home,” said Whitmore, 64. “Our dad was always in a play or preparing a play or talking about starting a theater somewhere, which he never did because he was so busy with his film career. But he always went back to the theater.”
And Whitmore is carrying on his father’s theatrical legacy with two of his four children, actress-director Aliah Whitmore, 31, and artist-production designer Jacob Whitmore, 38. Their theatrical company Whitmore Eclectic has done nine plays since 2010, including Sam Shepard’s “True West” and Orson Welles’ “Moby Dick-Rehearsed.” James Jr.'s wife, Salesha, is involved as well, working the front of the house during performances.
“It has been a real act of love and passion, which is motivated by my dad,” he said.
(Steve Whitmore, James Sr.'s middle son, is a spokesman for Sheriff Lee Baca and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The youngest son, Dan, is a contractor. Whitmore Jr.'s other son, Handel, is an assistant director on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” and daughter Shanewaz is in real estate.)
Their production, David Auburn’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 family drama “Proof,” is at the Hayworth Theatre in Los Angeles through Sunday.
Aliah directs and costars with her father; her fiancé, Dustin Seavey; and Daniela Ruah of “NCIS: Los Angeles.”
“We are a close-knit unit of people that are very like-minded,” Aliah said. “There is a relevance to the stuff we choose. We choose pieces that we care about and we feel speaks of something of earnest and importance about the human condition. We will never choose something and say, ‘That will be marketable.’”
Whitmore Eclectic hopes to obtain the rights this season to Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” a 2003 work that James Whitmore Jr. describes as a “great piece of dark theater,” and the troupe may mount “Below the Belt,” a play it’s done before.
A gentle hand
Aliah, who cut her directing teeth as an apprentice to her father on his TV assignments, takes off “familial filters,” directing her father like she would any other actor.
“His energy is really powerful and big,” she explained. “He is also a director and he’s used to being in control. I will never get anything out of my father by demanding it.”
She refers to her directing method as “gentle negotiating.” Her father described her style as unique and effective. “I haven’t worked with anybody who gently sort of guides you,” he said. “She has a gentle way to get [actors] where she wants them to go and make them think it’s their idea. It’s very powerful.”
Jacob has designed all but one of Whitmore Eclectic’s productions.
“I trust him implicitly in terms of design,” Aliah said. “What he is able to create from what I see in my mind’s eye and how he can translate that. He understands my aesthetics.”
“We know each other emotionally and where we are going with each piece,” said Jacob.
‘A great blessing’
James Whitmore, whom Aliah describes as someone whose energy was “enormous,” is never far from their hearts.
His son talked lovingly of working with him on such plays as “Tuesdays With Morrie” and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” last decade at the Peterborough Players — the theater where the late actor got his start in the late 1940s and always returned to — in Peterborough, N.H., the town that was the model for Wilder’s fictional Grover’s Corners.
“It was a great blessing in my life,” Whitmore said.
Aliah spent the summer of 2008 at Peterborough with her grandfather when he played the stage manager in “Our Town.”
“I was able to run rehearsals with him,” she said. “It was a really special, intimate time. During those three months with him we talked a lot about theater, how much he loved it and how important it was. He still stood by the notion that the living American theater is the most powerful place in the world.”
His grandfather inspired Jacob to use his imagination. “When I was a little guy, he would come over to my parents’ house, get pipe cleaners and make glasses for me,” he said. “I would be Clark Kent and he would be Perry White. He would send me out on missions and my imagination would go wild. Then I would report back to him.”
Where: The Hayworth Theatre, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
Information: firstname.lastname@example.org or (818) 826-3609