Conrad John Schuck is an actor, primarily in stage, movies and television. He is best known for his roles as police commissioner Rock Hudson’s mildly slow-witted assistant, Sgt. Charles Enright in the 1970s crime drama McMillan & Wife, and as Lee Meriwether’s husband, Herman Munster in the 1980s sitcom, The Munsters Today. Schuck is also known for his work on Star Trek movies and television series, often playing a Klingon character, as well as his recurring roles as Draal on Babylon 5 and as Chief of Detectives Muldrew of the New York City Police Department in the Law and Order programs, especially Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
In the summer of 1992, John was also Horace Vandergelder in a short three city (Atlanta, St. Louis, Kansas City) tour as Horace Vandergelder opposite Madeline Kahn’s Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!
John had previously worked at Theater of the Stars in Atlanta where the tour was originating.
The producers simply called John and asked him to play Horace. Lee Roy Reams, who was directing, gave John carte blanche. He didn’t have to read for the part. John arrived and they rehearsed at a local regional theater in Atlanta. They rehearsed on a stage. The day John met Madeline, it was a very hot day. He didn’t quite know what to expect. Of course, he knew her movie persona. He did not know what to expect as far as her being a real person. He had also heard stories about her temperament during On the Twentieth Century, about her being difficult and all that. She showed up, looking beautiful, wearing a white sports shirt, khaki pants, cute sneakers, demure and ready to work.
She couldn’t have been nicer. They started right away working on the dinner scene. That was the first thing they staged. The reason being that it is by far the most complicated timing wise. He wanted to get them working off of each other right away. They didn’t get too far with it that day because every time Lee Roy suggested something about what to do, with the food or whatever, she said, and this became her mantra during rehearsals, “Is this what Carol would do?”
Courtesy: James Darrah
If the answer was yes, she didn’t want anything to do with it, she wanted to create an entirely original performance which is understandable. However, they were short on time. It was a two week rehearsal period. Somehow, they got through it. The tech period was, as it usually is, a rough period. The production was great. The costumes were wonderful.
It was obvious that there was a lot of money on that stage. They opened and got pretty negative reviews. The reason for that was that Madeline was doing this not particularly funny, because she didn’t want to do what Channing had done, little television performance. It wasn’t a theatrical performance at all. It was a very small performance with dainty gestures with not that much vocal projection. The scenes worked better than the songs for her. The second act just laid flat. John is sure that she was disappointed.
They didn’t talk about it. After the Atlanta run, they would continue on to the St. Louis’ MUNY, North America’s largest outdoor theater, and then on to Kansas City’s Starlight Theater. In the meantime, they had dinner a couple of times. She was a very delightful companion, fun to talk to.
She was more interested in the world than show business. They were sitting on the plane flying to St. Louis. John asked her if she had ever played the MUNY before. She said, “Oh, no. I don’t know anything about it.” John told her it was a magical place. She asked in what way. He told her that the theater would inform her on how to play the show. Because of its enormity, it’s a strange stage at first.
When they got there, a rehearsal had been called. Their bags went off to the hotel and they were off to the MUNY. They got out of the van and John walked her up the ramp to the stage.
Her mouth fell open. It was like the Hollywood Bowl! That very night, she is delivering a performance that is huge in scope vocally. She is gesticulating like crazy. She is performing Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life obbligatos during the title number. It was amazing to see that transformation. She never had that in Atlanta. By this point, she was on the phone all the time with Lee Roy, “What did Carol do here? What did Carol do there?”
Lee Roy did not go on to the MUNY. Tony Parise staged the MUNY production. She was suddenly hungry to find out what everybody else’s take was on what she was doing.
Madeline’s “television” performance in Atlanta did not affect John’s approach to Horace. In the scheme of things, they don’t have that much to do together. They essentially have the big scene together in the hat shop. Dolly comes in late to that scene. Most of his scenes are between Cornelius and Barnaby. Then, he has the big scene with Ernestina. It really isn’t until the end that Dolly and Horace have their big scenes together. Those were short and John was able to adjust to her up
to that wonderful moment where they dance together at the end. He essentially went ahead and did his own performance.
As a child, John remembered that wonderful actor, Paul Ford. He played Horace in the film adaptation of The Matchmaker. John kind of took him as his model. John never saw David Burns’ definitive performance but he did see Max Showalter.
He had also met Max and Peter Walker a couple of times in Connecticut. It wasn’t John’s intention at all but he was doing Jim Backus’ Mister Magoo. He admits that he had this puffy quality about him. He wasn’t imitating anybody, he thought. The audiences loved it and Madeline could not have been more wonderful to work with.
If he had the opportunity to play Horace again, John would choose to make him gruffer. Horace is not really a likable man. He is unpleasant. John kind of avoided going too far in that direction. He would definitely like to change that if the opportunity arises again. He thinks that gives Dolly more to play opposite. Audiences wonder what it that she sees in him. When he comes out of jail at the end, a wiser and humbler man is a better arc.
Before going to the MUNY, they rehearsed two weeks and played two weeks in Atlanta.
There is no doubt about the fact that Madeline was a smart actress. She knew she had to do something to get to the level that she got to at the MUNY. She was brilliant.
She had everything to be brilliant. She had a distinctive voice. She had an unusual look. She also had great adaptability. John understood what her “problem” was. Gower “created” this character that is so indelible with Channing’s rhythms.
John is in love with the show. One of his regrets is that he has not been hired to do it again. There’s still time! He loves it. It is a very well constructed show.
Madeline was completely personable off stage. She was very much in love with her boyfriend at the time. John only met him once. John spoke with Madeline two weeks before she passed. John didn’t know that she was sick. He doesn’t feel that many did. When he heard that she had died, it came as a big shock to him. Madeline’s relationship at the time was very strong and important to her. Also
on that plane ride to St. Louis, Madeline told John of a new Wendy Wasserstein play she had just been offered. She said she didn’t know whether or not she wanted to do it.
Of course she did do it, The Sisters Rosensweig, AND she won a Tony for it. Her career continued to flourish including a stint on Cosby.
Channing and James Darrah (Courtesy James Darrah)
In terms of stock, John would definitely list Dolly among HIS top five. It was a great production. James Darrah, as Cornelius, was fabulous. John has only seen him a few times since then. He had a small part in a Broadway show that John went to see. James also came once to see something John was doing. This business is so hard. This is someone John thought was going to have a major career. He is a working actor. John thought he was special and so honest on stage. He was so believable. James also played Ambrose Kember and understudied Michael DeVries in the 1994 tour and Broadway revival with Channing. One of the things that John did not like about the original production was Charles Nelson Reilly. John feels that he spoofed the character and the “Isn’t the world full of wonderful people” speech with his little “aha aha” sides detracted from it. John knew Charles quite well. They discussed it one night over dinner at Angus McIndoe (same place where John and I met for this interview!).
Charles told John that he was bored. John said, “Yes, but you destroyed that moment.” By the time of their conversation, Charles had become a respected director. John asked Charles what he would do to an actor behaving the way he was behaving towards the end of his run in Dolly.
Charles said he would have had him fired! He was a very honest man.
In John’s production of Dolly, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Irene, was gorgeous and sang like an angel. Frank Parr was Barnaby. The actress who played Ernestina was this wonderful actress out of Houston.
She was great. This production had all of the ingredients of a first class road show.
John’s ability as an actor is a strength to share with the audience that they are going to have a good time. He ensures that they are going to enjoy themselves even if it is a drama.
John feels that he grew quite a bit in the role of Horace as the tour progressed. He is a great believer in process. He is true to his director during rehearsals. There is also a framework. Within that framework is an infinite variety of opportunities. That is the part of acting that he loves.
“Ernestina”, Tony Parise, Madeline, Colleen Fitzpatrick (Courtesy Tony Parise)
Tony Parise shared in my interview with him that the first performance in Atlanta, literally moments before opening the house, Madeline almost fell off the passarelle because it was not properly secured. She was not going on that night
unless she had total assurance that she was not at risk. Tony performed the entire Dolly number for Madeline to put her mind at ease.
John was stage left as all of this was unfolding and he vividly remembers that night. John said the passarelle was not that wide to begin with and it was rickety. It was terrible and dangerous. He thought she showed great courage. A week and a half later, when she was at the MUNY, no wonder she was singing Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life!
A lot of promises came as a result of this tour! There is a lot of enthusiasm for your new “family”. Everyone hopes to work together again. The reality is that it doesn’t always happen.
Playing Horace in 1992, John came to the realization that if he was playing an older man, he no longer had to “act” that. Audiences loved seeing John and Madeline together, especially in the later two cities of the tour as Madeline hit her stride. The show did well financially. The Kansas City leg of the tour did the best. MUNY was going through a transitional period at that time in terms of their managers. Their audience had dwindled somewhat.
Within the scope of what was there, it was extremely well received. They were definitely “boffo” in Kansas City. Madeline was a huge draw in Atlanta.
Critics aside, the audiences had a wonderful time. They were very good.
John did not think it was a great production in Atlanta. He thought it had a long way to go; certainly, it was professional. Madeline knew her lines and her timing was pretty good but not perfect. It took her being on the stage with the enormity of the MUNY for her to “get it.” That opening night, John KNEW this was going to be a great Dolly. It felt like a new production. In fact, the entire company rose to the occasion. John remembers Madeline’s first entrance on the horse cart in Atlanta. There was almost no applause. It was difficult to see her. She was this diminutive person who essentially retreated. That didn’t happen in St. Louis. It didn’t happen in Kansas City either. When she came out in the two later cities, she was there. The energy was there. At the MUNY, everything was kicked up a notch including real horses! There was a lot going on. What happened to her took place in performance. It’s akin to that rehearsal period when you are going through your paces. Then one day, “important” people are sitting at the table, and you just go for it and its there. You never retreat. That’s what happened to her.
John saw Channing in her last tour of Dolly. He feels that it never should have happened. He felt, when he saw it, that she was very stiff. He saw it on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontaine Theater. It was a very excellent company. They embellish the original stairway for that (Read my interview with Lee Roy Reams). As Lee Roy also said, in our minds we expect something bigger. It may be because of the movie. People are expecting something bigger. At the MUNY, it IS Huge! To Channing’s credit, she never once looked down as she made her way down those famed stairs. She came down by herself with no assistance.
Lee Roy who directed both productions stuck pretty much to the show as people know it. He was extraordinarily patient with both actresses. In his own quite logical way, he had a great knack for explaining things.
He wanted the show done a certain way. They both acquiesced to that. Lee Roy has a great love for the theater and people and it shows. He brings all of that to the table and he is extraordinarily knowledgeable. He is probably a better director than he is actor. He is certainly a wonderful singer and dancer. John enjoyed working with Lee Roy and he understood what John’s process was. Lee Roy allowed all of that to happen and then he made his decisions and put it all together.
John has seen a few Dollys that were bland. He has also seen a few Dollys that are too young.
He saw Martha Raye do it once. He felt that she was the other extreme. It was way over the top. It was way too big and broad and had become a cartoon rather than a real person. The thing that is so special about Dolly and Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman really caught this from The Matchmaker is the strength is in the heart of these characters. They all have this desperate need to have love. When you destroy that, you literally take the heart out of it. He felt that Martha Raye did that just as she did with Hannigan in Annie. John has seen her do several productions of Annie. He never did it with her. He once saw her do it at the MUNY. “That’s a whole other story.”
John has only met Jerry Herman twice. John almost played Horace opposite Carol in the 1994 tour and revival. At the last minute, Jay Garner, who had played the role decided that he wanted to do it. John went over to Jerry’s house in Los Angeles to sing for him.
John had laryngitis. Jerry was very understanding. He listened to John crack and warble and all that.
He said to John, “I know you can sing. Don’t worry about it.”
Then they went and had a nice lunch with Carol and Charles at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
John was shocked that Carol had a cheeseburger!
He had heard the stories about her food allergies. After lunch they parted and he never saw them again except when he saw her in the revival.
The first time John heard the score to Dolly, he was in college. It knocked his socks off. It was so infectious that he couldn’t wait to get to New York on his spring trip and see it which he did.
Hello, Dolly is a very clever number because it is definitely written as a showstopper; it is an eleven o’clock number. It is so joyful! Here is this waiting staff greeting this woman as if she was their queen. There is something about that adoration aspect that is totally infectious.
Max Showalter (pictured above) replaced David Burns as Horace on Broadway
John feels that the role of Horace Vandergelder is pretty much indestructible. The actor who plays the part, just as those actresses playing Dolly, really bring their own personality to the proceedings. The character is a balloon. You puncture it and air comes out of it. Out of that emerges this loving man who says,” I need you. Let’s get together. ”
When closing night came, they were sad, Madeline, John, and his wife went out. They all took the car to the airport together. Although they stayed in touch, they never saw each other again. That was in August 1992. Madeline died December 3rd, 1999.
John in M*A*S*H
John has an incredible television career. He does the same kind of homework on a character for both stage and television. Unless you are on a series, he says it is harder to do on television. So often they write for “professions” instead of character. You have to decide ahead of time what you are going to try to do. You don’t have a lot of time with television to prepare or you can make the choice to do absolutely no preparation at all and just be spontaneous in the moment.
If John could play any part with no restrictions, he would play Barnaby. He loves Barnaby. He played Cornelius in college in The Matchmaker. It was wonderful. John went to Denison University. A lot of talent came from there, Steve Carell, Hal Holbrook and Jennifer Garner, entertainer John Davidson, but when John was there, they also had a summer theater.
It was the first tent theater in Ohio. John knew that he wanted to be an actor since he was five and his parents took him to see Oklahoma! at the St. James Theater on Broadway. That solidified it. He knew he wanted to be an actor…or a cowboy!
Even though he has never played that theater, he hopes to before it’s all over, perhaps as Horace in the next revival of Dolly!
Starring in Hello, Dolly! for Conrad John Schuck meant that he was appearing in an American classic. He just loved that. His whole impetus as an actor was the American musical theater. When one gets to appear in a show that is part of that legacy, which Dolly is, it’s a thrill. It makes you feel like you are part of that. We’re past all that now. There will never be another Hello, Dolly! It’s nice to know that for a few weeks, he was able to put his stamp on it. It’s a great honor.