Thursday, April 11, 2013

Happy Birthday to the Inimitable Bill Irwin, America's Clown Prince!

This is pure love for me, wishing the amazing performer Bill Irwin a Happy Birthday today!  Sigh...I've been a fan of Irwin's since I saw him on TV doing his hilarious and brilliant theater piece The Regard of Flight on PBS in 1982, then was lucky enough to see it live when he brought it to Los Angeles the next year in a small theater next to the Hollywood Bowl.  Oh my was a revelation and I had to go back to see it again.  One -- well, two -- of my best times in a theater ever, and I immediately sat down and wrote him a fan letter c/o the theater to tell him so.  I got back a nice postcard (which I know is somewhere around here stuck in a book, most likely) thanking me and I've been following his career ever since.

There is simply no one like Bill Irwin.  Looking to my mind like a mild-mannered Clark Kent with mad kinetic skillz, Bill Irwin and his cohorts Doug Skinner -- the stage manager/pianist -- and Michael O'Connor -- the irascible critic -- presented a madcap treatise on comedy and acting, as seen here in a few clips that are on YouTube.  (There doesn't seem to be a release of the PBS show available now, and so my old VHS copies are among my most beloved possessions.)

It's hard to describe Bill Irwin by making a list and including all the things he can do -- his talent is limitless.  It's easier to say that there is nothing he can't do, from classic farce to knockabout
vaudeville to circus clowning to song-and-dance to acrobatics to deep emotional drama to light comedy and everything in-between.  He is a bonafide genius, certified years ago by the MacArthur Foundation which gave him a multi-year grant back in the early 1980s and boy, did they ever get their money's worth and pick the right guy.

If you don't know him by name, you would know him by face.  If you or your kids ever watched Sesame Street, he was Mr. Noodle.  If you watch C.S.I. he had a recurring role as a serial killer and he also was a recurring character on Northern Exposure.  Bill Irwin has been a semi-familiar face on TV for decades and continues to land big roles, most often dramatic these days. Very early he was one of the Sweethaven townspeople in Altman's film Popeye starring Robin Williams; this was his first screen appearance, in fact, after training at the Ringling Bros. Clown College and working with the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco where he practiced the unique form of idiosyncratic acrobatic dance that evolved into his signature style.  (I was thrilled recently to see a special mention of him in the Ringling Circus Museum here in Sarasota.)

But mostly, probably, he's best known to theatregoers all over the country for his constant appearances throughout his career in both his own works and more traditional roles, all of which have garnered him honors and awards commensurate with his talents.  (Check out his listing at the Internet Broadway Database for more details).  His next big self-written and performed Broadway theatre piece after The Regard of Flight was Largely New York which won the 1989 Tony for Best Play and received several other important nominations.  (Bill won the Tony Award for Best Actor for his 2005 performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.)  Here's a clip from the Tony Awards special that year with the Largely New York segment -- a rare treasure!

Along with performing partner David Shiner he created the lauded Fool Moon in 1993, and they reunited earlier this year at the Signature Theatre in NYC for a new production entitled Old Hats.  You'll be happy to hear that the show (read the NYT review here) has been extended at least until early June and you can buy tickets online right now!

Bill Irwin is also mesmerizing just performing on a school stage, doing some of his classic bits, and you'll also want to check out an early 1980's performance at the renowned Jacob's Pillos dance festival -- click here.

You'll like this clip of Karen Ziemba and Irwin performing "Sooner or Later" in the 1993 PBS special Stephen Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall. 

Bill Irwin was featured in another PBS Great Performances, this one a celebration of his career entitled Bill Irwin, Clown Prince in December of 2004. You can still check out the website -- click here -- and though it's not available on DVD, by some miracle somebody posted the show on Vimeo and I suggest you go to there immediately and watch it!  Click here! 

Bill Irwin is an American treasure, a work of art and a one-of-a-kind force of nature.   Happy 63rd Birthday, Bill. Irwin! 

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