Gary Holcombe and T. Max Graham were artists onstage, genuine men off

Published Nov. 5, 2011

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

T. Max Graham in Brian Friel's "Translations" (KCAT)

I hope I don’t have to write another obituary for a long time.

Last month, in less than three weeks, the theater community lost two formidably talented actors: Gary Holcombe and T. Max Graham.

Holcombe was an accomplished musical theater performer who could handle comic and dramatic roles with equal facility. And Graham was largely known as a funnyman but showed what he could do in dramatic roles late in his career.

Professional theater critics are, of course, expected to keep their distance and avoid close personal relationships with the people they cover. And I do. But it’s virtually impossible to do this job for years without forming attachments to some of the folks you write about.

I liked Gary and Max. they were talented men who almost always brought something special to the stage. they also happened to be good guys. each of them was complicated and had a few demons to deal with — who doesn’t? — but neither was a fake.

Despite my publicly stated admiration for their abilities when they were at their best, neither of them was immune to a critical review. I can recall performances when they appeared to be phoning it in. But it’s the exceptional work that I recall most vividly — those performances you knew were testing the limits of their abilities, when they were demanding something of themselves that nobody else would.

the last time I talked to T. Max Graham, we reminisced about the long-gone era of cheap biker movies, the virtues of misspent youth and the casual pleasures afforded by uncontrolled substances.

One night, as I surfed through the largely unwatched channels in my cable package, I landed on a 1970 film I had never seen. “Unchained Angel,” it was called, and although I was well-versed in the worst movies of my adolescence and early adulthood, this one had escaped my notice.

Shot in Arizona, “Unchained Angel” featured a few of the era’s most ubiquitous Grade B actors — Don Stroud, Luke Askew, bill McKinney — and depicted big-hearted bikers defending a hippie commune from violent rednecks in the nearby town.

As I watched I kept noticing a member of the biker gang who seemed to draw focus in every scene. Unlike the others, he wore a top hat and a cape, and later I learned the character’s name was Magician.

“that looks like Max Graham,” I thought to myself, and I went to the computer, called up the Internet Movie Data Base and quickly confirmed my suspicions. it was, indeed, the future king of dinner theater in Kansas City. This was his debut film, and he used his real name — Neil Moran.

The next day I called Max, excited to share my discovery. Max thought back to the late ’60s and recalled that he had never been on a Harley and had to take motorcycle lessons. his first time out, he skidded out of control.

Apparently he got better. Max allowed that when the cameras rolled and the biker actors swept into town in formation, their Harley engines roaring, it gave him a feeling of exhilaration that didn’t really require any acting.

“That was slick,” he said.

He recalled other details, too — how the actors threw away the phony marijuana cigarettes handed out by the props department and replaced them with the real thing.

One day he and one of his fellow actors, Larry Bishop — comedian Joey Bishop’s son — decided to get on their bikes and take a short tour down the highway during a lull in filming. Soon enough they were pulled over by a highway patrolman, who thought they were real bikers. And for good reason. they were in costume and looked scruffy. And they weren’t carrying IDs.

Max recalled that he and Bishop sat in the back of the patrol car for a couple of hours until the cops determined that they were exactly who they said they were — a couple of actors playing tough guys.

In recent years Max considered himself more or less retired. he collected pensions from all three unions for actors, although he was still up for the occasional bit of film work.

In some ways Max was a guy after my own heart. with no formal training, the one-time kitchen-gadget salesman made his mark. at Tiffany’s Attic and the Waldo Astoria dinner theaters, his name had real marquee value, and if you look at his film and television credits, they range from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Among them are the admirable television adaptation of Willa Cather’s “My Antonia,” and, most notably, Ang Lee’s “Ride with the Devil.” And on stage, at a time when by his own admission remembering lines had become a challenge, he took on the title character in Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo” — a voluminous play with reams of dialogue. that was just two years ago. to do the play was an act of faith — and an act of courage.

Gary Holcombe was an operatically trained singer with a formal education. But he was every bit as earthy as Max.

Gary Holcombe in Lanford Wilson's "Talley & Son" (KCAT)

In one my last conversations with Gary, he couldn’t hold back his tears. I had called for a comment about the passing of George Keathley, the former artistic director at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and Gary was bereft. he kept apologizing for being so emotional.

“I feel like a big baby,” he said.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen this prickly Vietnam vet break down. Once, as I sat in his living room conducting an interview with Gary and his wife, director Donna Thomason, I casually asked about his hunting dogs without realizing that only recently he had been forced to put down his beloved Mitzi.

Gary excused himself and stepped into the kitchen, where I could hear him overcome with grief. “Blubbering,” he might have called it.

Gary Holcombe felt things deeply, and when he found something new to be enthusiastic about he committed himself to it totally. When he learned to play the banjo and guitar, he wanted only the finest instruments. he was the same way about racing bikes.

That enthusiasm was almost always obvious in his performances. the first time he got my attention was almost 20 years ago in “I Hate Hamlet,” a light comedy that has one great role: the ghost of actor John Barrymore. Gary, naturally, played Barrymore, and he played for keeps. I saw him do that again and again through the years.

And I saw him test himself in roles that didn’t necessarily fit like a glove — as the outcast Wing Biddlebaum in the musical “Winesburg, Ohio” and as German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who served the Nazi regime when other conductors fled the country, in “taking Sides.”

Gary and I had a number of long, memorable and exceptionally candid phone conversations. he was never one to bite his tongue. he said exactly what he thought, including his assessments of local actors. the ones he liked, he really liked. the ones he didn’t never really came up in conversation. And he frequently offered withering opinions of local productions, including those he was in.

Gary, for all his artistry and worldliness as a one-time Broadway actor, never divorced himself from his Kentucky upbringing. In much the same way, Max was always a product of Jackson County, even when playing a Neil Simon New Yorker or a brilliant Italian astronomer. Even when they seemed anything but grounded, they were rooted in Mother Earth.

I never got drunk with either of these gentlemen, although I’m sure the experience would have been worthwhile in its own excessive way. Aside from an occasional lunch or coffee date I rarely saw much of them outside a playhouse.

But I liked them. And I’ll miss them. Rest in peace, guys.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2012 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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