Jon Cypher

John Cypher
John Cypher

Actor Jon Cypher’s early acting career includes starring on Broadway as Prince Charming with Julie Andrews in “Cinderella” and playing Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha.” His numerous films and television roles led to 10 years as Chief Fletcher Daniels on “Hill Street Blues.” One afternoon at Boulevard Coffee, we chatted about his 47-year career. This is the first in a two-column Backstage interview.
EH: You’ve done a lot of television, but what is the attraction to theater?
JC: That’s where the passion is. In the theater, the curtain goes up, you’re on stage, and you’ve got to do it. I got to play Thomas Jefferson on Broadway in a musical called “1776.” Out there, there were 2,000 people, and there’s that interaction of that audience. In a movie, you don’t have that. It can be great, great interaction with you and the other actor, a great scene together — it’s wonderful: “Oh my god, I forgot the camera was there.” But there are no people.
It’s being at risk. There’s really no present risk in film today. If something goes wrong, usually the director, will say, “Cut, no problem, let’s go back to one.” In movies or television, when the director says “Print,” 60 people turn around, walk away, and don’t care about you all. You think, “God, I never have to say those lines again.” What a difference.
It’s not an easy profession. You’re always being judged, by critics, by the audience. I’d say to any young actor who is thinking about entering the fray, “Gird your loins very sturdily and have a sharp sword,” because you have to pick yourself up many, many, many times.
Professional actors say that if you get one in nine auditions, you’re making a living. If you get one in eight auditions, you’re doing very well. That means that seven or eight times, they’ve looked at you and said, “Thank you very much. You’re too tall, you’re not good-looking enough, you’re too short, you’re too good-looking, you’re blond and we want a brunette.” It’s just one thing after another, or you blew it, because you were nervous.
Here’s something that I would teach young actors that I learned the hard way: The body doesn’t know the difference between fear and excitement, the body reacts in exactly the same way. When you’re frightened, heart beat speeds up, hard to get a deep breath. With excitement, heart beat speeds up, hard to get a deep breath. So if you say, “I’m frightened” you’re frightened. But if you say, “Oh, wow, I’m excited,” there’s a big difference.
That would be lesson number one. Define it as excitement not as fear, because when you get a call-back, and there are five other guys here that you know, that are your type, that are very good actors, and whoever gets this is a millionaire. You can be very excited about this, or you can be scared s—less.
I have met actors (that I thought were very good) who were 55 years old, working as bartenders, waiting for their big break. Do you know how I feel about being old? Shocked. You know you’re going to get old, but when it happens: No way — unbelievable.
EH: But your spirit is young.
JC: I guess. I can create a character observing you, her or him. I think actors tend to keep themselves open, young, alert, interested.
EH: What’s your secret to your long career?
JC: Poverty. (laughter) When you’re an actor, it’s what you do, as long as you can do it.

EH: Tell me about your experience with directors.
JC: George Bernard Shaw once wrote in an introduction to one of his plays, “advice to the director: Leave the actors alone. Let them evolve into the role.” Most directors you work with, particularly in television, don’t. I call it: “Walk left. Take three steps. Stop, and turn around and say, ‘I love you.’” That’s the kind of directing you get, because they are worried about bringing it on time, with the lighting and the camera movement, it’s: “Let’s move it. Let’s move it.” That’s the whole thing. If you’re a television actor and you’re 20 minutes over the shooting schedule, somebody from the office is on the set wondering why. They’re going to shoot 45 minutes of film in seven days. In the old days, in the movies, we’d take four months. My first movie with Burt Lancaster in Spain was four-and-a-half months — what a deal, I’m in Spain on vacation.
It’s an interesting profession. I’ve starred in a lot of stuff that I didn’t want to do, because I needed to make a living. A lot of television and movies are not the finest stuff. I did 60 national commercials at a certain point in my career. In 1981, I got a Volkswagen commercial; I almost couldn’t say the words, saliva filled my mouth. I didn’t want to sell somebody’s product. But it was a lucrative way of making a living, if you were a New York actor in those days.
EH: What’s next for you?
JC: I’ve written a book of limericks with commentary on the genesis of the idea that created the limerick. A hundred of them on peace, war … Most of the time, I think that I’m living in an insane asylum, and the patients have taken over the helm of the institution in terms of how we are treating this precious planet, the creatures that must survive on this planet, what we’re doing to it, what we’re doing to the oceans, to the heavens. And now we want to put weapons in space. Now you can read any license (plate) on the planet; you can take out anybody on the planet. It is George Orwell’s wet dream.
EH: Would you like to perform your limericks?
JC: I never thought about it. What an interesting idea. I’d like to do a show of old songs that young people don’t know.
EH: How you do keep yourself together between productions?
JC: Try to stay in physical shape. Because I did a lot of musical comedy, constantly studying voice, vocalizing all of the time, because the phone rings, the agent says, “I have an audition for you tomorrow.” You have to be able to go in and do it. Prepare, always with your accompanist, choosing the right music for the audition. A friend of mine had me come in to audition for a new musical they were doing. He said “This is a guy who is very self-involved, very conceited.” I went out on stage, and I sang, “I feel pretty, oh so pretty .…” They hated it. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

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