Bill Irwin
(© Mary Ellen Mark)
Bill Irwin
(© Mary Ellen Mark)
Bill Irwin has had one of show business' most intriguing careers. He helped found the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco in the late 1970s and brought his "school of baggy pants" performance style to Broadway with the Tony Award-nominated Largely New York a decade later. He has since appeared on Broadway in such diverse works as Waiting for Godot, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, Bye Bye Birdie, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which earned him the Tony Award for Best Actor.

He most recently delighted audiences in Molière's Scapin at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, where he's now revisiting the work of Samuel Beckett in their new production of Endgame and Play. TheaterMania recently spoke to Irwin about the show, his TV stint on CSI, and his feelings about doing musicals.

THEATERMANIA: Last time you were here you were being farcical in Scapin and now you're being absurd in Endgame. Is there a connection between these works?
BILL IRWIN: Yeah. These are two of the greatest playwrights in any century, Mr. Molière and Mr. Beckett, and both are borrowing like crazy. You get into Endgame and you see, oh he's been to the music hall and he's borrowing wholesale. Of course. Molière is just taking the Italian comedians and recycling their stuff, but also making fun of it and making it better. I'm still digesting Scapin and the experience of doing it, and the thought of maybe doing it again.

TM: Were you excited at the chance to do Endgame
? BI: When this play came along, I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't think I cared for it. I loved Waiting for Godot -- or GODot as you sometimes pronounce it -- but I always thought this play was some sort of magnificent edifice. But it's actually very funny, very loose and free, so I think it's a clown's territory.

TM: How is the play funny?
BI: Endgame is not a farce, but it's constructed of little modules that are very vaudevillian. At one point my character Hamm turns and says: 'Clov? Have you not had enough?' Clov responds: 'Yes! Of what?' That's right out of the old vaudeville days: Two comics walk on as two girls walk off and one says to the other, 'Do you like Shirley?' The other says, 'Oh yes! Which one is Shirley?' Somehow Beckett just weaves that gag into this amazing tapestry that people often feel is very lugubrious. I guess it can get that way in some productions, but I hope that's going to be something we avoid.

TM: A lot of Beckett seems vaudevillian, doesn't it?
BI. Beckett spent a lot of his time in the music hall and the vaudeville theater. I was reading one of the biographies and there was a rough family dynamic between he and his mother. He adored his father, but there was a lot of tension in this upper-middle-class Protestant Irish household. So they would often go to the music hall or a vaudeville revue because it got them out of the house and they didn't have to sit around together.

TM: There's a line in the play, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." Do you think unhappiness is funny?
BI: Well, when artfully handled. I'm remembering walking down Geary Street. You see human misery. You see people asking for money. That's not funny. But the last time I was in town, I saw this one street guy say to the other, "Hey, you gotta move over eight feet." The other one said, "Don't worry! Don't worry! I'll give you your space." They had negotiated their territories! So if you take a quick angle on unhappiness it can be funny. And we often look for a way to laugh at unhappiness, because that's a defense.

TM: Do you miss playing Nate Haskell on CSI?
BI: It was a golden experience and it was also what got through to thick actor boy [points to self]: "Hey! You can do really first-rate work and you can build a financial base for your family life, send a kid to college, you know?" There may even be a couple of people who come to see Endgame because of the CSI connection. Television is an incredible force. When it's good, it's a one-hour play. And when the really good writers hook you, then you've gotta see the next one.

TM: Are you excited about coming back to TV?
BI: I just did a pilot in L.A. which got picked up, called Monday Mornings. It will be nice to have a TV life with a role in an ensemble that could anchor family finances so that I could also do theater.

TM: Are you off doing musicals for a while?
BI: Musicals are really hard. They always feels like, "Oh isn't that lovely? They're singing!" Then you have to make the stories work. When we did Bye Bye Birdie, I realized it's full of great numbers, but to tell a contemporary audience the story is hard. Am I off them? I still harbor hopes and delusions, because one of the things I want to accomplish before the grave radar is nigh is a song-and-dance soft shoe. Driving tap rhythms are kind of a young person's game. People my age can tell a story in a way that young people can't yet, working with really simple rhythms. It's about ease and you have to work really hard to sell that ease. It's Ray Bolger time. It's Sammy Davis Jr. time. Suddenly I'm in the age range where I'm thinking that really appeals to me.