After an insecure, rambunctious and uprooted childhood, Kevin Spacey found a home, a purpose and “illumination” in the world of the darkened theater…
‘A Glimpse Of How Beautiful Life Can Be’
By Dotson Rader
“All you have to do to have empathy for another human being,” said Kevin Spacey, 40, “is to tap in to his dreams, learn what his hopes are.”
Kevin Spacey’s boyhood dream was to become an actor on the stage. Growing up in an itinerant, financially insecure family and troubled at school, he eventually discovered a place and a purpose in the theater. A youthful encounter in which his hopes and dreams found an empathetic ear became a turning point in his life.
“I was in junior high school in California when I saw a play Katharine Hepburn did,” he recounted. “After the performance, I waited outside the theater with a bouquet of roses, and Hepburn came out a side door, stopped and said, ‘You waited for me. How lovely.’ She took the roses and sat on the bumper of her car and talked to me for 10 minutes about Spencer Tracy and acting.
“I don’t think I knew then what the life of an actor was, any more than a kid who wants to be a fireman has any idea of what that life is like. Something about it just attracts you. I knew there was some kind of nomadness to it – yet, being uprooted as often as I was as a boy, the idea of going from place to place seemed natural to me. But it wasn’t until I found acting that I found a place that accepted everybody, and I felt at home.
“I didn’t see Hepburn again until years later. She came backstage after seeing me in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Spacey’s performance opposite Jack Lemmon on the O’Neill drama in 1986 was the breakthrough event in his stage career. “She walked into the dressing room,” he continued, “hit me on the shoulder and said, ‘You must be exhausted!’ She shut the door and talked to me for quite a while. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I met her as a boy. So the next day I sent her a big bouquet of flowers and a letter explaining to her that we had met once before. She wrote me back a very sweet letter and said it was the first time she had gotten flowers for coming to see a play rather than being in one. I was just amazed at the circle of that.”
I met with Kevin Spacey at his favorite café on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not far from where he first lived when he came to New York from Los Angeles in 1979, doggedly determined to become an actor. Although initially he had a very difficult time landing roles, 20 years later he has established himself among the most distinguished actors of his generation, earning critical praise for his numerous performances onstage and his roles in films, among them L.A. Confidential, Seven, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Glengarry Glen Ross and his current picture, American Beauty. He received a Tony in 1991 for his work in the Broadway hit Lost in Yonkers and later won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for The usual Suspects (1995). This year, Spacey was honored with a Tony nomination for his dazzling performance as Hickey in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.
Spacey’s boyhood dream had come true, and I wanted to learn how it had happened. “We were relatively poor,” Spacey replied when asked about his childhood. “We must have moved 13 times by the time I was 14. It was tough. It was hard on friendships, and it was tough on my dad.”
Kevin Spacey Fowler was born in South Orange, NJ., the youngest of the three children of Thomas Fowler, a freelance technical writer, and his wife, Kathleen, a secretary. When Kevin was 4, they relocated to Los Angeles, where the family continued moving about as his father went from job to job.
“In his private time, my father was also a creative writer,” Spacey explained. “He was unemployed a great deal. We certainly didn’t blame him for it. Like many people, he had dreams that got lost along the way, supporting and raising a family.” After a long illness, Thomas Fowler died in 1993 at age 68. “My parents exposed me to theater, classical music, great novels, a love of stories,” the actor added. “they never crammed anything down my throat.”
Spacey, who described himself as a “very rambunctious, rowdy child,” frequently got into trouble in and out of school. After he set fire to a shed containing his sister’s toys, his annoyed parents enrolled him in the fifth grade at California’s Northridge Military Academy, hoping he’d learn self-discipline. It didn’t work. He was expelled in the sixth grade for throwing a tire at a fellow cadet during a boxing match. He went on to a public junior high, where he began taking drama classes and performing in school musicals – finally finding, through the theater, the purpose and self-control he’d lacked.
“There was a moment I realized I was an actor, which is different from just wanting to be one,” he said. “I was in the 11th grade. We performed Arthur Miller’s All My Sons for the Drama Teachers Association of Southern California. Something happened as I walked off the stage that had never happened to me before. The audience applauded me in the middle of the play. It was the first time I realized I had an effect on people. It was puzzling, confusing, slightly frightening, and it was liberating. Finally acting gave me something to focus on, something I enjoyed that offered me a chance to go into different worlds. All these imaginary games that you played with your friends in the neighborhood — I didn’t have to put those games away. I just kept playing them onstage.”
After seeing Spacey’s performance in All My Sons, the drama teacher Robert Carrelli invited him to transfer for his senior year to Chatsworth High, a Los Angeles school with a renowned drama department. In 1977, he graduated from Chatsworth as co-valedictorian.
“After high school, I kicked around Los Angeles for a year and a half,” he said. “I did stand-up comedy. When it works, it’s fantastic. When it doesn’t, it’s like diving into an empty pool. Then I auditioned for the Juilliard School of Drama, got in, came to New York when I was 20, and I’ve lived here ever since.”
Today he lives in a house in Greenwich Village, dates Diane Dryer, his longtime girlfriend, and weaves through Manhattan traffic on his Zappy, an electric scooter with handlebars. That’s how he arrived the afternoon we met, dressed in baggy pants and a gray shirt, with a blue baseball cap covering his thinning hair. His face is large and somewhat haggard, as if he needs sleep, and dominated by large, round brown eyes. Despite his public recognition, Spacey is a deeply private man, distrustful of close inquiry, and it was an hour or more into our conversation before he began to relax. Then his charm and playfulness emerged.
Spacey abruptly quit Juilliard in 198 1, after only two years. “I just dropped out,” he said, smiling. “I had no prospects, no agent, no money, nothing. Then I got an audition for the New York Shakespeare Festival in the Park by basically browbeating the casting office. I played a messenger with, like, six lines in Henry IV, Part One. It was my first job in New York as a professional actor, and it was pretty exciting, but after that I just couldn’t get any acting work. I was working as a hat-check guy in a restaurant when I decided to see Joe Papp for a job.” Papp was the influential founder and director of the New York Shakespeare Festival. He gave Spacey a job in the stockroom.
“While working there, I got cast as the lead in an off-off Broadway play, The Robbers, and got my first New York review – in the Village Voice, “he recalled. “It was extremely complimentary, because they compared me to both Marlon Brando and Karl Malden in the same sentence, so for weeks my friends called me ‘Marlon Malden.'” Spacey laughed. “Joe Papp showed up at the play one night and fired me the next day. I was stunned, because it was paying my rent. Joe said, “I saw an actor last night onstage, and you’ve become too comfortable here.” He did me the greatest favor in the world by literally shoving me out the door. Four months later, Joe Papp was in the opening-night audience of my first Broadway play.”
The play was Ibsen’s Ghosts. David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, directed by Mike Nichols, followed in 1985. In 1986, he was cast with Jack Lemmon in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a hit in London and new York. At 26, he was on his way to stage stardom.
Spacey did some TV work, notably in Wiseguy, then the films Heartburn, Working Girl, A Show of Force and Henry & June. In 1991, he returned to Broadway in Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, winning a Tony Award.
While he continues to make movies – Ordinary Decent Criminal and Hospitality Suite recently were completed – the theater remains his first love. “I learned how to act in theater, not in film,” he said. “And some of us actors use our film experience to subsidize our theater existence. I did a number of movies to be able to afford to go to London and be paid 260 pounds [about $430] a week to do The Iceman Cometh.”
At his insistence and out of respect for the other 23 actors in the play, Spacey received equal alphabetical billing, shared a communal dressing room and was paid union minimum wage ($1135 a week during its Broadway run), although he was co-producer and Iceman required nearly two years of his time.
“Theater civilizes us,” he observed. “It is a place where an audience has to work, and it can be difficult, because it deals with ideas. It can be dangerous and provocative, the most exciting three-dimensional experience an audience will ever have.
Nothing comes close to it – this living experience between the actor and the audience, sharing the same space at the same time. That’s not illusion, although it’s make-believe.
“Everyone loves to escape. Theater is a form of escape that, at the same time, can be illuminating about what there is no escape from, about what’s worth sticking around for, fighting for, building relationships on. In it, there exist those incredible moments where you get a glimpse of how beautifully poetic and meaningful life can be.
“I feel such gratitude. I’ve been able to craft a life and career for myself because of what others did for me.” I asked if Katharine Hepburn – who, years ago, had empathized with his youthful desire to act – was among those for whom he felt gratitude.
He nodded. “The last time I saw her was in Canada,” he said. “We were both doing movies. I rented an apartment in Vancouver in the building where she also happened to be staying. One day I got on the elevator, and there Hepburn was. She said, ‘Mr. Spacey, are you following me?”‘ He smiled. “We shared Thanksgiving there together. The day Katharine Hepburn left Vancouver, she gave me a scarf, put it around me and said, ‘Stay warm.”‘ ~
October 24, 1999, Pages 4-6, Cover photo by Eddie Adams.
Other photos we’ve seen many times. Kevin as Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, Kevin and Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross, Kevin as Verbal Kint, Kevin and Danny DeVito in L.A. Confidential, and Kevin with Annette Bening in American Beauty.