Nike to the Peerless John Cunningham

  For most of his acting career, John Cunningham has tried to follow the advice Spencer Tracy gave a young man he saw standing near a Hollywood movie set transfixed by a scene being filmed: “Never let them catch you at it.”

john cunningham-dsc 3111
Published March 8, 2012 7:30 PM
5 min read



john cunningham-dsc 3111For most of his acting career, John Cunningham has tried to follow the advice Spencer Tracy gave a young man he saw standing near a Hollywood movie set transfixed by a scene being filmed: “Never let them catch you at it.”

By Robin Jovanovich

For most of his acting career, John Cunningham has tried to follow the advice Spencer Tracy gave a young man he saw standing near a Hollywood movie set transfixed by a scene being filmed: “Never let them catch you at it.”


That’s harder than you can imagine, says Cunningham, but it’s one of the reasons he loves what he does.


Cunningham landed his first role at age 7. They needed a Tiny Tim for a local production of “A Christmas Carol”. (He was the boy soprano at the New Paltz Reform Church.) He fit the bill as he was recovering from mononucleosis and rail thin. When the makeup call came, he jumped into the chair. The director said, “Don’t bother with him. He looks dead.”


john cunningham-dsc 3111He came alive in that part. “Anything to get out of my second-grade class,” he recalled fondly.


Fresh out of Yale Drama School, he toured with the national company of “My Fair Lady” in the role of Zoltan, the Hungarian phonetician, and was understudy for Henry Higgins. He remembers his wife Carolyn, whom he calls Carol, gently telling him, “It may be downhill from here.”


To the contrary, he’s had a storybook career, which he modestly describes as “wonderful luck”. At the Williamstown summer festival, he played Mr. Webb in “Our Town”. He’s done Sondheim and an Encores production of “Allegro” at City Center. His star turns have included everything from the original cast of “Six Degrees of Separation” with Stockard Channing to “Camping with Tom and Henry” (he played Henry Ford).


“There were years in which I’d be taping a TV soap opera (‘As the World Turns’ and ‘Guiding Light’) during the day and performing in a Broadway play or doing Shakespeare at Stratford that night — it actually helped my work in both,” he said.


He became an actor because of Olivier and learned two important lessons on keeping a healthy perspective as an actor from Paul Newman.


“He came to my dressing room door one night when I was in “Taming of the Shrew” with Ruby Dee. Not only did Newman have remarkable blue eyes, he had fine manners. He deftly discouraged an autograph hound with: ‘I never give autographs when I’m in a theater visiting.’”


Once they knew each other, Newman shared a letter from another kind of fan, which he’d found helpful: “Dear Mr. Newman, I love your salad dressing. I understand you donate the profits to an organization that helps very sick children. My girlfriend says you’re an actor…”


Cunningham added, “Paul and I had one important thing in common — we married well.”


The credit-worthy actor’s bio includes hundreds of roles in film (“Dead Poets Society”, “The Jackal”, and “Mystic Pizza”); TV (“Law & Order”, “30 Rock”, “The Good Wife”, and “Damages”); as well as stage work pretty much everywhere.


While he’s hard-pressed to recall playing a part he didn’t enjoy, he has appeared in one flop.


“As an actor friend of mine said, ‘Everyone should be in one and only one.’”


By the time the play made it to Philadelphia, they were on their second director. “Then we heard a third ‘fantastic’ director had been hired. He arrived very tan, and wearing an expensive sheep-skin coat. He told us to take the day off, that we’d all been working too hard. He regaled us with: ‘I’ve been in Switzerland skiing. I didn’t fall there and I’m not going to fall here.’ Of course, he fell on his ass the next day and there was no rehearsal for a second day.”


In previews, the show actually did fine, Cunningham said. “Why did we ever open?”


Currently, he’s starring with Kathleen Chalfant in a revival of Tina Howe’s “Painting Churches” at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre on 42nd Street. They play Gardner and Fanny Church in the last act of their lives — he a world- famous poet who is slipping into dementia, and she his lifelong muse. Once part of the Boston Brahmin set, they are now poor as church mice and forced to move from their splendid city home to their country cottage. Their artist daughter, whom they’ve never doted on, arrives to help them pack and paint their portrait.


The family portrait that emerges is unsettling, surprising, and, in the end, masterful.


As he recites Yeats’ “Song of Wandering Aengus”, Cunningham shows us the intellectual force that Gardner once was and the aged man he has become who can no longer write prize-winning poems or the work of criticism he thinks he’s doing, and has taken to copying down the works of others. The power of poetry still runs deeply through him but not from him.


Cunningham and Chalfant play wonderfully off one another in this aging love story and family tragedy. She’s his caretaker to the end, allowing him to believe he’s still the hero of his own poetic life.


How did he study for the patrician part? “I’d never seen the play before. You do what the character does, but without question. It’s the Nike school of acting.” He added, “It helps to work with a pro like Kathleen and work like hell.”


Playwright Tina Howe has said she thinks this is the best enliven- ment of “Painting Churches”. The production runs through April 7. Don’t miss it.


Another of Cunningham’s favorite actresses to work with is his good friend, Frances Sternhagen, with whom he’s performed many two-character readings over the years — most recently at the Rye Arts Center for “Nashional Treasure”. They were born to play in A. R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” and “The Dining Room”. The duo will perform at Mohonk Mountain House this summer.


John Cunningham, who unbelievably joins the octogenarian class in June, is mostly on to the next stage of life — retirement. “I’m really enjoying it, and Rye. Carol and I moved here in 1969, and I’m finally getting to know the town — a great place to raise a family and retire in.”


If he accepts a role, “It better be good!”

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