Friday, 20 November 2015

Pearls of wisdom - An interview with Barry Pearl - Part 1

The first day of high school was never going to be easy... But the first day in a new school, a new town... Hell, a new country made it that much harder... 

I stood by the gates, clutching my books like some literary security blanket... I had loved my old school and was popular amongst the staff and students alike, but how would they react to me here? Was I dressed right? Did I sound too different? Would I be up to speed academically? I had no idea... Oh why couldn't I have just stayed in the familiar surroundings of my old school, with my old friends and my old schedule? 

I noticed a small diner just down the road. There were cars parked out front and teenagers inside eating before class... 'I bet that's where all the cool kids go', I thought... I checked my watch, I still had time... Just... A big greasy cheese burger would calm my nerves for sure. 

I swiftly made my way down, pausing before entering to spy through the window and check the lay of the land. Inside were usual peer groups; the jocks, the nerds, the band geeks... and there in the corner, all the way at the back, in their own reserved booth like some exclusive secret society, sat the popular kids in their matching jackets, with their perfectly coiffured hair, immaculate skin and pristine white teeth... Only socialising within their pack - unless they needed their homework done, or a rumble was on the cards...

Then I saw someone, a little older that the other clientele, alone in a booth, sipping a coffee and reading a magazine... He didn't seem fazed by the kids around him... It was almost as if he was used to this situation, like he fitted in it somehow, despite the age difference... Oh how I wish it could be that easy for me... 

But, you know there was something bizarrely familiar about this guy... something that stuck in my mind like bubble-gum on a sneaker... something that made me reminisce, like a special perfume or the smell of my car - It hadn't been well lately and had spent lots of time in the shop - I remember how I went to the garage to get it fixed last week and there was puddles of grease everywhere... Big, black puddles of grease...... Grease?! Grease! That's it... That's who it was! It was Doody! Doody from Grease, the musical that inspired a generation! ... Or rather Barry Pearl, the actor that played Doody! But oh my goodness? Was this for real? 

Barry Pearl, born Barry Lee Pearl in LancasterPennsylvania on March 29, 1950, is an American actor best known for appearing as T-Bird, Doody in the 1978 Randal Kleiser musical, Grease.

I checked my hair, brushed down my skirt, took a deep breath and entered the diner. Making my way over to Barry's booth I took a quick glance at myself in the mirror... I hope he wouldn't judge me, like all the other kids who stared and giggled as I passed... Gee whiz, it wasn't easy being the new girl! 

I stood by his booth and smiled, 'Is this seat taken?' I asked politely, he smiled kindly and gestured for me to sit down... I flashed the popular blond - who had mouthed the work 'skank' as I passed - the dirtiest look I could muster, and with a wry little smile I took the seat adjacent to Barry. 

I ordered a cheese burger and a milkshake to calm my nerves... which were going into overdrive right now! The waitress seemed somehow surprised by my order... Yes, I knew it was morning, but I was hungry and yeah, I may regret it later, and maybe I would have to reach for the Alka Seltzer, but for the moment it was the tonic I needed.... And maybe if I just started chatting that would help too? It always worked for me before, and Barry didn't seem to mind.

So I asked him 'You've had such a fascinating and successful career, but how did it all start for you?'
"I was from Lancaster Pennsylvania, and when I was a wee one my mother got me enrolled in tap dance class - I must have been about six or seven years old - at the end of every year this teacher would put on a review at the Millersville State Teachers College auditorium, and because I was the youngest little boy in the class they would always build the reviews around us. We did this two years in a row, and that was kind of a bug that bit me.

I was always an extrovert  and there was music on in my house all the time. I remember mom, all my aunts and my grandmother playing music, and so I love music! I was involved in this dance studio, and from that my Mom saw there was a spark and she got me involved in a company called the 'Lancaster Little Theatre' - it was a community theatre. So I did a couple of plays for them and then I did a play at the Fulton Theatre in my home town. Its one of the oldest theatres in the country and I did a play called DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, I was 9 years old at this point.

There was a gentleman who was an aspiring playwright from New York, a gentleman by the name of Charles E. Miller. He was an aspiring playwright, but needed to pay the rent so he was asked to run the lights for this production. He took a liking to me and my Mom, and he said one day, Mrs Pearl, one day Im going to get your son on Broadway!

Two years later, August 1961, we get a phone call saying that there was a Broadway show called 'Bye Bye Birdie': the first rock and roll musical. There was a little boy in it, a character by the name of Randolph McAfee, and the kid playing him was going off to do another Broadway show and was vacating the role, so Chuck Miller - who was very friendly with the secretary of the man who produced 'Bye Bye Birdie' Edward Padula - was told about this and Chuck says I think I have a kid for you!”. He called my mother and the next thing you know, Im on a train into New York.

Chuck helped me go over a tune, and because I had no audition music he taught me 'Theres No Business Like Show Business' - how appropriate! The next day I auditioned and I got the role and I never went home! Basically I moved to New York overnight. And that began my 'professional career'!

I got enrolled in the Professional Childrens School, which is a school designed for kids that are in the business.  I then went from 'Bye Bye Birdie' to the original production of 'Oliver!', which had already played London and now was opening on Broadway. It was actually pre-Broadway when I joined it, and we opened on Broadway in January of '63. And then it was just one thing after the next. I had this career while I was in New York, going from play to play, to television commercial, the whole 9 yards.

Then in 1969 I graduated from high school, and went to Carnegie Mellon University and the
'Grease' experience - which was a wild experience! - happened 4 years later. I'd gone to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh with a bunch of folks who were transfer students from schools out here in California, and they told me how much I reminded them of a friend of theirs, this guy Michael Lembeck. We looked alike, and we played the same roles in the same plays. So fine I thought, theres a guy who looks like me, I mean everybody has a doppelganger!

Well, three years later in the summer of 1972 I went off to Chicago - between my junior and senior year of college - and became part of the Chicago Free Street Theatre. We performed live theatre, free of charge, all over Illinois. Then in the fall they took us to the International Theatre Festival.  We toured all over Yugoslavia, 2 weeks in France at the Espace Pierre Cardin - Pierre Cardin
s theatre space - and then a week in Brussels. When I came back for my final semester of college, a friend of mine - who I'd worked with in the Chicago Street Theatre - had been hired to be an understudy in the first national tour of 'Grease', and when they came through Pittsburgh he called me, he said Barry, you have to come down and see the show, there are roles in it you could do!  

So I went down to see the show, and Im sitting there and out comes Michael Lembeck playing the role of Sonny - this guy that people kept telling me I looked like. He came out backwards, but when he turned around it was like watching myself! And I thought 'Ahhh, these friends of mine were right, I do look like this guy!' 

So, the following day I called my agent in New York and said you have to get me an audition for this, so by either that weekend or the next I was in New York at a general audition for 
 'Grease', the play. 

The week after that I get a telephone call from my agent saying Michael Lembeck broke his ankle in We Go Together, which ended the first act, and they wanted me to come back in to audition for the role of Sonny to understudy

Then Saturday morning - on May 19th - I got a phone call in my hotel room saying Jerry Zacks is sick, Tommy Gerrard is going to go on in the role of Kenickie and were putting you on in Sonny, youre going to go on today. Well, I was beside myself! 

Then Michael Lembeck's ankle was healed and he came back into the show, and I was then laid off and they were done with me, but at the end of that summer Michael left the show so I finished up the last 10 months of the national tour.

Now, the reason that May 19th date is so important is that four years to the DAY later, I got the film of 'Grease'. Four years to the day!"

Now, in that company you had Travolta playing the role of Doody and Marilu Henner playing the role of Marty. Jeff Conaway, may he rest in peace, was
he rest in peace, was playing the role of Zuko. He was really the definitive Zuko to me. He of course wound up doing the role of Kenickie in the moviebut was Zuko both on Broadway and in the national tour. 

It was meant to be!
"I had moved out here in 1976 because I was originally NOT cast in a television pilot called 'Best Friends', but a week into it they didn't care for the guy that theyd hired, so I got a  call saying 'Get on the next plane, we want you to come out here and fill in'. 

So I came out to do that pilot, but it didnt sell. However, Id made some connections out here, in fact the director Jerry said  'You can live with me and my family, and youll work out here'...

Id always contended you shouldnt go there unless you had something to do, and I was doing very well in the theatre back in New York - I actually left a very well paid theatre job to go out on spec.

But I moved in with Jerry Paris and his family and a week and a half later got my first, my VERY first audition. 

I auditioned for the Don Rickles show 'CPO Sharkey' and got the gig.  A week and a half later I moved out.  

So I did that first season, but we didn’t know if we were going to be picked up for a second or not. Then on my birthday I got a telephone call from my agent saying 'We just found out the show IS being picked up, but they’re not picking up your contract.' I was devastated! So I ran crying to Jerry Paris out at Paramount Pictures - that’s where they did 'Happy Days - and he said 'Hey, you know what, this could be just what you need to further
your career!'. I asked why, and he said 'Well, you never know, years ago I was on The Untouchables' and [he told me that] when he'd got written out he was devastated, but he wound up being cast in the 'Dick Van Dyke Show'. 

He said, 'And they wrote me out, but I got this role of Jerry the Dentist in the 'Dick Van Dyke Show' and that led to my directing career'. Sheldon Leonard, the producer of 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' then subsequently hired him as the director, and he’s been directing ever since

He was directing THE most popular show of its time, 'Happy Days'. 

But well, if that hadn’t happened - had I NOT been written out of 'CPO Sharkey' - I wouldn’t have gotten 'Grease', so everything happens for a reason. 

But thank God it did happen and you got 'Grease'! But what happened after, did it help having that on your CV?
"Umm, kind of.Did it snowball after 'Grease'? Iinitially Grease was not a big, artistic success, it made some decent money, but it was not what it has become. I mean, we had no idea that it was going to be what its become, nobody has that kind of crystal ball.

So I kind of bounced around and did a lot of theatre, I did a couple of other movies, spent some time in television and commercials.

But you know, it didnt do a whole bunch for my career. In fact, if anything, it might have gotten in the way of the career, because they saw me as a clown, somebody who just did comedy. I was kind of pigeon holed

But I managed to get by I always made my living in either theatre, television or films, so in that way my dreams kind of came true, and now Ive gotten into directing, stage primarily. 

But next to 'Grease', I think the other phenomenon that I was a part of was the 'Barney' Organization, in fact we toured the UK. In 1997 I think it was..."

Barney the dinosaur, the big purple singing dinosaur?
"Yeah, Barney the Dinosaur, exactly! In 1994 I was hired to play the role of Professor Tinkerput in 'Bedtime with Barney, Imagination Island'. 

It was the first time that they were going to have a network produce the show - it had been on public broadcast - so NBC stepped up and J.C. Pennys advertised - they were sponsors - and we did this one hour prime time special. 

That became a video, and then two years later, in 1996 they called me to do the live stage version of a Barney show called 'Barneys Big Surprise'. We travelled all over this country, Canada, Mexico and all through the UK in 96, 97 and 98."

Oh, so it was a BIG production! 
"Yes, like the Radio City Music Hall, the Tacoma Dome, Anaheim Convention Centre, all these huge 6000 seats basically, 6000 screaming kids!"

And talking of screaming kids, a bunch of them just squealed in their booth. A little older than Barry's target audience, but just as loud! 

So what do you prefer? Would you prefer, serious or kids or musicals or...?
"I prefer working, you know, and Im greatly gratified in either culture. Theres something wonderful about doing a play night after night after night; refining the character, hearing the audiences feedback via applause or laughter, and if its a drama, you know their attention is rapt! 

You can feel that energy, and then of course at the curtain call there can be thunderous applause if its a good piece. And the process of putting it all together, theres something quite wonderful about painting pictures, calling the shots and bringing it all together as the director, and then watching it come to fruition, sitting back and watching your work manifest, theres something great about that too.

The process of television is a whole different thing, you know, you rehearse it to a perfection and then you record it. But sometimes that can be a drag, because you sit back and watch it and think 'Oh God, I didnt like the way the camera was at that point' or 'I didnt like that shot' or 'I didnt like the way I said or did that' but its there in perpetuity. Its frozen, so theres the downside. But I like how its able to reach the masses, and I love making people laugh, singing and dancing.

I have been fortunate to be cast in plays, I was cast in a production of  '12 Angry Men' by Reginald Rose. Its been done in many different ways, with many different kinds of casts from all men to men and women to all women. We did this at the Pasadena Playhouse, a rather prestigious theatre out here, with six black men and six white men, which led to a whole other dynamic. And that was a very serious piece and just loved every minute of that experience... So I just really love to work!"

Good answer!

Now back to Grease, there is quite an adult content in there that you forget about
"Yes there is."

I think its such a phenomenal film, with great songs and performances that you kind of forget that Rizzo thinks shes pregnant and of course, initially you don't really register the lyrics to 'Grease Lightning'.

"And there are other versions, the version that Mews Small and I did - 
shes a terrific lady and it was great working with her because she was the original Frenchy - the ORIGINAL Frenchy - so the show that we did was far racier than whats been done since, FAR racier than the original! 

In fact they just did that production in Chicago a couple of years ago, and it was a huge success. Jim Jacobs, who wrote it, calls it The Original Grease’. When Tommy Tune got hold of it he expanded the amount of people on stage, I think the script was still the same - there were a LOT of F-bombs in the script! - and then it became the film. The only thing that remains of that raciness is 'Greased Lightning', in terms of dialogue."

Yeahthat song is racey!
"For the longest time the Disney or the ABC Family, would cut that song altogether! They chopped it up a lot! But through time it was placed back in.

Its very odd. we look on the news and we see all kinds of horrific stuff, and yet we cant do the original script of 'Grease' because its not PC, so its an odd imbalance going on."

And talk about impact, my milkshake arrived and it was huge with a cherry on top! I took a big slurp and then carried on...

And it's still such a phenomenon, get a bunch of girls together on a night in, and someone will always suggest watching Grease!
"Its a coming-of-age film, and its a story that we all tell, that we all live inside... Couple that with the wonderful music - the original music that Warren Casey, Jim Jacobs and Louis St. Louis wrote - and then add the newer tune by the Bee Gees: 'Grease is the Word' - which pretty much has nothing to do with anything - was a huge hit, and 'Sandy' written by Louis St.Louis, and 'Hopelessly Devoted' written by John Farrar."

Oh, so that was just written for the film?
"Yes, oh yes.all of those. 'Sandy', 'Youre the One That I Want', 'Hopelessly Devoted', those three."

So what happened to the original script?
"They dont license that script anymore."

"We know what the original was like, and we try to infuse that because its grittier. I do it with the amount of folks that we did it with originally - 10 or 11 - instead of a huge chorus of people that Tommy Tune had put together... and Kathleen Marshall of course

She did the one that was done in London as well, that was based on the television show ‘'You're the one that I want". 

But thats a whole different version, and now the new version that's going to be on FOX is going to be completely different altogether!"

To find out more about the lovely Barry, try his website 

or his IMdb page or Wikipedia page 

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