Howard Witt has one of those faces people recognize, even if they don't know his name. In a 45 year career, Witt's worked at regional theaters all over the country, including 10 blissful years as an ensemble member at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. He appeared on Broadway in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross and in last year's 50th anniversary production of Death of a Salesman, starring Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Franz, a transfer from the Goodman Theatre. For his work as Charlie, Willy Loman's neighbor and friend, Witt received Tony Award and Drama Desk nominations. He's guest-starred on more than 75 television shows.
Born and raised in Chicago, Witt trained at the Goodman School of Drama (now The Theatre School of DePaul University) under legendary father-and-daughter teachers David and Bella Itkin. In addition, Witt has worked locally at the Chicago Shakespeare, Next, Victory Gardens and Goodman theaters. Currently, he's back on the Goodman mainstage, this time playing a producer of sexploitation films, in the world premiere of Rebecca Gilman's Boy Gets Girl. You trained under Dr. Bella Itkin? Her father was my first acting teacher. Bella was my second acting teacher. She's still my dear, dear friend and severest critic. But lately, she's been liking the things that I do. Does she still give you notes? Oh, you betcha--although in this play she didn't, and in Death of a Salesman she didn't. But when I did The Three Sisters here she said, "Oh, you weren't too bad, but I didn't know what the hell you were doing in the goddamned drunk scene." Was Glengarry Glen Ross your first Broadway show? It was my only Broadway show up until Death of a Salesman. What was it like, your first time on Broadway? Well, I replaced Bob Prosky, who's one of my closest friends. We worked at Arena Stage; we did 40 shows together. It was a terribly exciting thing to do a lead in a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. But nothing can equal what happened to us with Salesman. Nothing. At my age, it was completely unexpected...I'm not going to lie--"Oh, it was nothing!" After the Tony nominations were announced, were you lionized? I gotta tell you, things changed. You renegotiate a little bit. You can get a table anywhere. Broadway's a club. When a show's running and it's a hit, man, it's really something. And when a Tony nomination happens to you, it's a bit more of something. Show closes, you're out of the club. It was so meaningful to me, at this stage of my career. I was 67 when it happened. You just don't have that many wonderful things. You've worked in theaters large and small, from 150 seats to thousands. Does the performance change when the size of the house changes? No, it really doesn't, because the basis of performance comes from inside you. You might have to project more, or you might have to bring it down a little more, but the intense emotion, the feelings you have, are as intense on a small stage as they are on a large stage.
What was the best advice David Itkin gave you? (laughs) About acting? About anything. "Witt, it's all a matter of birth con--I mean, breath control." He was the most inspiring man. When he talked about theater, you sat there, open-mouthed. He was an "artiste" along with being a theater artist. His love of the theater just filled every bone in your body. I learned from that man to love the theater. And what did you learn from Bella? That I'm not a leading man; that I was a character actor. And save some for tomorrow night. Was that difficult to accept when you were young, that you weren't a leading man? Yeah! You know, you have this image of yourself as gaunt. But it was valuable advice. I realized what I should be doing and how I should be doing it, and how the audience sees me--and also, [being] in the moment. I never think in terms of character or characterization. So, what do you think of? As I get older, I find that all these people I play are really part of me, and I don't have to look for them anywhere else. That's where a lot of young actors make a mistake. I gotta find the character. The characters right here. All you gotta' do is use it. This guy I'm playing now, everybody says I'm perfect for it. This guy is a wonderful man. And he's not just a guy who loves large breasts. He's honest, he's not hypocritical, he knows what he is, he knows...that he has no talent. You look for those things in yourself, not somebody else, not Russ Meyer, who they tell me he was patterned after. That's the joy I get out of it, showing different parts of myself. When I played Pandarus (in Troilus and Cressida), I played the macho part with guys and the feminine part with the women. And there is that fem part in all of us that a lot of actors are afraid to show. Go for it. Do you have a favorite experience in theater? There are several. There was last year (and) there I was, working with Alan Schneider. I did 11 shows with Alan. I think I learned more about working with text, the importance of the playwright, honoring the words through him...but last year with Salesman. It was the complete experience of all of us being together. It was like the Arena Stage ensemble when I was there. We became a wonderful, wonderful company of actors who weren't afraid to fail, and who respected each other's work. Did the politics of Washington affect the company's work? A lot of people would like to think that it did, but it really didn't. I loved living in Washington. You wake up, and your local news is the news of the world. I just recently had an opportunity to go back, and I refused. I didn't want to try to recreate what we as a company had. Bob Prosky still lives there. He's sort of the "king" of Washington.