|Father*||Harry Stuart Culpepper Jr. (7 May 1917 - 7 Feb 1979)|
|Mother*||Alma Elaine Payne (13 May 1918 - 25 Jun 1970)|
- Stuart Culpepper, Atlanta Actor (Retired).
- He's the voice in thousands of commercials. You can't have listened to a radio or TV without having heard his resonate voice.
For someone raised in the tiny town of Andalusia, Alabama, someone who never dreamed of becoming an actor, the road Stuart Culpepper has taken to his current position as one of Atlanta theater's leading actors has been a twisted one indeed. He never considered acting a serious means of earning a living, doing only occasional community theater work and later dropping out of two acting classes at University of Georgia, where he majored in journalism and English. "I always thought I'd be a writer. Never a question." And to confirm his suspicions, he claims very early on to have been mortified upon hearing the sound of his own voice on tape for the first time. Now his rich, bass voice (nurtured over the years with cigarettes, black coffee and martinis) is one often sought by advertisers wanting what he calls "bombast" - the "damaged voice." But when you've heard Stuart intone "People who know use Valvoline," it's as much the rhythm and cadence as it is the voice or words that arrest your attention.
"I love doing that with a slogan or tagline, making it lyrical and memorable. I'm the only one I knew who pronounces dia-mond with three syllables," (mentioning his work as the voice of Ellman's [now Service Merchandise] for 12 years.) "I remember stating in an interview years ago that I felt like such a whore after doing my first commercial assignment. Needless to say, offers dropped off considerably. I now thank God for every bit of commercial work get. "I firmly believe that God put commercials on this earth so there could be theater"
Stressing his point further, he added, "Any actor in the American theater is subsidizing the American theater. It does net pay a living wage of any comfort. God knows, we don't do it for the money. We do it because we love it..." This from a man who is working more new than ever before, who has been booked solidly on the stage since November, 1991 and won't be 'up for grabs,' as he puts it, until spring of `94.
So, if Harry Stuart Culpepper, III (amusingly known as 'Butch’ to his family for a short while) never intended to become an actor, how did it happen? There are some unusual twists of fate here and to reflect on his beginnings as an actor we must first mention his current role, that of Grover in the play of the same name, rehearsing now in San Francisco at Citi Arts Theater. This is perhaps the role Culpepper was born to play. Playwright Randy Hall has written a play based on the life of his great-uncle, Grover Hall, Pulitzer Prize winning editor of the Montgomery Advertiser in the 1920’s and the first newspaper editor in the country to go after the Klan.
Josie Ayers, founder of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Anniston, has produced all of Hall's plays and was the one who immediately recognized that there was a play in this story of an authentic Alabama hero. Commenting on the thrill of doing a new work she says, "Doing a play for the first time forces you to enter the creative process long before you normally would. If you were selecting, for instance, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, all the fun stuff, the creation of those marvelous characters, would already have been done by someone else."
At Ayers' imitation, Culpepper took a couple of days off from rehearsals for Stand-Up Tragedy and went to Anniston to do a sit-down workshop reading of Grover with other actors. Based on those readings. Hall began rewriting the character for Culpepper. Asked if he thinks Grover will have a long life on the stage, the actor replied, "Oh, yes. Josie hopes to do it at the Shakespeare Festival and I feel sure the Alliance (in Atlanta) will do it at some point. It could possibly go to New York."
Grover covers four days in the editor's life when the Klan is coming after him. Ironically, Grover's son later became editor of the paper and hired Culpepper as a cub reporter to cover the racial unrest of that time. Culpepper maintains he had to leave Montgomery for his own safety, that he was even beaten by Klan members. Could any other actor be more intrinsically prepared for this role - or bring such a birthright to it?
Back in Atlanta, he gladly accepted a job offer from Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution to write about theater, film and the arts. Frank Wittow, an Atlanta director, told him if he knew so damn much about theater, why didn't he audition for Chronicles of Hell and put his money where his mouth was, so to speak. And thus began Culpepper s first serious foray into acting. "It's ironic to blame it on Frank, but since we're not really friends and he hired me for nothing… there you have it."
On the same subject of chance opportunities and life-changing encounters, Culpepper tells an outrageous story about himself and 'Dusty' Hoffman, each in their 20's, waiting tables together in New York’s West Village after meeting in the unemployment line. They had a swing table between them and whoever wasn't busy would wait on it. A miraculously sexy woman entered and occupied the table, and the two aspiring actors flipped a coin to wait on her. Hoffman won the toss and wouldn't let Culpepper do more than serve the bread. The diner was Anne Bancroft and she was looking for someone to play the part of Benjamin in The Graduate. When she gave Hoffman her number and told him to call her the next day, both young men felt she was an older woman anxious to get laid. But the number was Mike Nichols' and Bancroft was there when Hoffman called. What fascinates Culpepper about this story is not speculating on what would have happened if he'd won the coin toss. Not exactly, that is. "No, no, no. Certainly I would never have been Benjamin. But if I'd waited on her, neither would Hoffman. Would we have had a Little Big Man? Or a Tootsie?" Culpepper is convinced these are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
Despite the lost coin toss, Culpepper feels he has been "extraordinarily lucky and I've worked very hard." Along the way, he's been a deputy sheriff, a bartender, a ditch digger, a pipe welder, a cotton picker, a disc jockey, a political speech writer, an advertising copywriter and a school teacher. Oh, and don't forget writer, "I love writing. Despite the fact that its an incredibly lonely profession." He still misses the writing but feels every second he's not "learning the words" for his next role, he cheats the director, the playwright and himself. The two disciplines are too different to do both simultaneously. And so he acts.
Culpepper feels that after 300 plays, 30 movies and TV shows, he is better than he's ever been. Proof of this is the fact that he doesn't throw up before every opening new. He just gets a little queasy. Suffering from Impostor's Syndrome, he constantly questions whether he's really an actor. To illustrate, he shrieks, "What am I doing in this show? They're going to find me out tonight!" He says Olivier had it and had to take lithium to calm himself. (Culpepper imitating Olivier: "But they're very tiny pills!") All of a sudden, every role seems so right. Or, he speculates, perhaps it's taken him this long to become the actor he thinks he is now.
Culpepper seemed eager to address some of his critics' more pointed accusations - that he's manipulative, egomaniacal and opinionated. He didn't refute any of them. "Yes, I'm manipulative. You can't be a very good teacher or an actor if you're not. You must manipulate your words (and thus the audience.)" And if you weren't an egomaniac, you couldn't set foot on a stage or mail a manuscript to an editor.
Culpepper admits to being riddled with "doubts, horrors, fears" about not being good enough for any given role, "but it's impossible to show up toy opening night if I believe that someone in the audience might be able to do the role better." As for opinionated, always considering himself a writer, he responds, "Of course, a writer must be opinionated."
After three months doing Grover in San Francisco, Culpepper will return to Atlanta to play Titus Andronicus, a barbarous epic, according to Culpepper, "saved by the grace of Shakespeare's poetry." He's constantly asked why he hasn't played King Lear. Considering Titus a prototype of Lear, Culpepper says, "If I have my success with Titus, I might have the balls to try King Lear. If I do, then I'll probably retire. My ambition is to do Titus and Lear while I still have the strength. The given wisdom in the theater is that if you have the stamina and energy to do Lear, then you don't have the maturity and life's experience to understand it. Conversely, if you have the sense and maturity to play it, then you don't have the stamina anymore." Although professing to be terrified of the role, Culpepper also says he hasn't seen it performed where it really worked. He has seen Lee J. Cobb, Olivier and Paul Scofield in the role and all were wonderful, yet… it never worked. For a role to "work," it has to work I him. Not necessarily for the critics, not even for the audience. He has to feel it and believe it....
Whenever he's asked why he isn't in New York or Hollywood, Culpepper replies that he likes it here. He's worked in New York and Hollywood and he didn't like it. [Others] confirm there is an unusual sense of theater family in Atlanta not found in other larger markets. Besides, Culpepper asserts, he's something of a big fish in a small pond here. Only Atlanta isn't such a small pond anymore.
So when you read or hear that Stuart Culpepper is about to do King Lear, you'll knew he's decided he's reached the absolute pinnacle of his career and the height of his abilities as an actor. And then we'll have to wait and see if he really does retire after that. Somehow, we rather doubt it.
Source: Anita Coffee Thomas, Behind the Scenes-Atlanta, May/June 1993.