Reed Birney
(© Tristan Fuge)
Reed Birney
(© Tristan Fuge)
Reed Birney's once-blonde locks have segued, albeit gracefully, to a grayish hue, one befitting a 56-year-old actor who has become the sine qua non of dads, husbands and older school teachers. The constantly busy Birney is currently on stage at Playwrights Horizons playing one such character in Adam Bock's offbeat domestic drama, A Small Fire, which has extended through January 30. In the work, he plays John, a mild-mannered man whose strong-willed wife (played by Tony Award winner Michele Pawk) mysteriously loses her senses of smell, taste, sight and sound.

Meanwhile, he plays a very different -- but no less loving -- ex-husband and father in Jeff Lipsky's new indie film, Twelve Thirty, opening on January 14, which stars Tony Award nominee Jonathan Groff as a virginal young man who gets involved with Birney's not-so-average family (played by Mamie Gummer, Karen Young, and Portia Reiners).

"I'm Reed's biggest fan," says Lipsky. "Because this was a movie, we were offered several so-called name actors for his role, but none could have been better than Reed, who has so much emotional honesty. He gave a soulful, brave, honest, and touching performance. Finding him was a godsend, not only in my film and in my life, but in my next script as well."

Both works feature Birney making love to his fictional wife -- and baring it all. "Michele and I had several weeks of rehearsal to work up to our big scene," he reveals. "However, I first met Karen at the airport on the same day we shot our big sex scene. Strangely, although I had to strip down for that scene, most of me was left on the cutting room floor." As Birney admits, he couldn't exactly predict he'd spend his middle-aged years taking off his clothes. "When I was young and cute nobody ever asked me to take my clothes off onstage or in the movies, but now that I'm 56…" he muses.

Still, he knew early on that acting was his calling. "My dad was an Episcopal minister, which certainly involves theater of a kind, and we used to come up to New York from Delaware to see Broadway shows and stay at the old Howard Johnson's on Eighth Avenue," he notes. "One of my first was Dear World with Angela Lansbury in 1969."

By 1977, Birney was on Broadway himself, playing Randy Hastings in Gemini, and he's been a near-constant presence on the stage ever since. In recent years, his triumphs have included the Playwrights Horizons' production of Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation and the Soho Rep production of Sarah Kane's incendiary play, Blasted, for which the actor received a Drama Desk Award nomination as an older man locked in a hotel room with a younger woman, who first rapes her and then is himself raped, blinded, and cannibalized by a marauding soldier.

"It's interesting to me that I've been called an actor's actor, maybe because I've never been interested in showing off but rather in telling the playwright's story," he says. "I used to feel that I was being treated like a lightweight and that I had so much more power than I was being asked to use. If someone had told me in the beginning that my time would be in my 50's, I might not have stayed with it. Now, I finally feel like the actor I came to New York to be. This generation of directors and playwrights really gets me and that's so great. I'll be happy to keep on playing the dads they keep on writing."

For tickets to A Small Fire, click here.