Nothing in my breeding or background should have brought me any closer to the stage than Row E, Center (to misquote a line from the movie, "All About Eve.") Nothing, that is, unless you count my father's youngest brother, who was a dead ringer for Errol Flynn and worked as the star's stand-in double for many of his films in the 1930s and 40s. Like the actor himself, he was extremely handsome, the same age and height (6' 2"), and wore a pencil-thin mustache to add to the illusion. Many a movie fan mistakenly took him for the real thing, and my uncle obligingly signed the autograph books eagerly pressed into his hands, "Best wishes, Errol Flynn."
I never met Gaylord Smith, whose line of work was not considered a respectable way of making a living in my family. But it was more his scandalous lifestyle which sought to emulate (if not outdo) even Errol Flynn's, that caused him to be branded a black sheep. Some even said it was a blessing that Uncle Gaylord's life was cut short when his speeding sports car jumped the curb and crashed into a tree one night on Sunset Boulevard.
Though I can't really claim that the theater was in my genes, I will say that I was bitten by the bug very early. In fact, I wrote my first play at the tender age of thirteen, as a school project. I also directed and played the lead (naturally)! It was my first experience with "live theater," which became a lifelong obsession.
What makes us want to turn ourselves into something that we are not, either through writing or acting, or -- in some cases -- both? Is it because we are bored or dissatisfied with our normal, everyday lives and yearn to become someone else? I think my Uncle Gaylord simply impersonated Errol Flynn to the point that he actually believed he was the man!
Of course, taking on a different persona is not illegal, unless you start cashing checks in someone else's name or hacking into his computer. (A lot of that going on nowadays.) I have been known to slip into a character quite unlike myself, in the company of complete strangers. It's a harmless game, but embarrassing if you get caught at it!
In my travels I sometimes rub elbows with celebrities, most often in theaters. Like the time I had a delightful conversation with Jessica Tandy in New York (with Hume Cronyn glowering in disapproval), or when I happened to meet Dame Maggie Smith in the ladies room of the National Theatre in London, where we exchanged anecdotes about plays and performers until curtain time.
Though I cheerfully sign my name when I'm asked to (as the author of a book or a play), I have only asked for someone else's autograph once, and that was a case of mistaken identity.
In London, some years ago, I began to suspect that the lady seated next to me in a theater was the British actress, Vanessa Redgrave. A few furtive glances failed to convince me one way or the other, and my curiosity was getting the better of me. So, as we took our seats again for the second act, I handed the lady my program and put on my best imitation of a starstruck American Abroad, asking if she wouldn't please oblige me by signing it. She smiled graciously and said she would be happy to. The lights were dimming as she handed the program back to me and I wasn't able to see what she had written, so I had to wait until the play ended to find out.
Upon leaving the theater, I took out the program and read the inscription. My "Vanessa Redgrave" had written, "Cordially, Jean Marsh." Of course! The long- running and hugely popular television series, "Upstairs, Downstairs" was where I had seen Jean Marsh (who does bear a resemblance to Vanessa Redgrave), when she played Rose, one of the servants below stairs.
That series ended thirty-five years ago and inspired many imitations along the way, including the recent "Downton Abbey," which just finished its first season. Now I see that a brand new "Upstairs, Downstairs" is beginning on PBS this month -- and will again star Jean Marsh as Rose Buck, now the well-respected housekeeper of the manor.
I can't wait to see it. I think I still have Rose's autograph someplace.