Finding the limelight

Saturday, October 4, 2003

Southeast Missouri State University was still Southeast Missouri State Teachers College when Helen Harrelson enrolled in the early 1940s. The school had no theater department, though she recalls acting in "something by Noel Coward." Since then she has studied theater in Rome and London and has appeared on and off-Broadway, in regional theater and in the TV shows "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." Right now she can be seen in a Kodak commercial as a grandmother whose grandson enlarges a photo taken when she was a young ballplayer.

Michael Landrum enrolled at Southeast in the 1960s, winning leads in productions of "Dark at the Top of the Stairs," "Paint Your Wagon" and "A Sleep of Prisoners." He won the Davis-Barnett Award for Best Actor in 1962. He graduated to Broadway as well and a 35-year career that has included work in soap operas, films and television and radio commercials.

Harrelson and Landrum, who will receive Distinguished Service Awards from the university at the All-Alumni Breakfast this morning, sat on the Rose Theatre stage Friday afternoon talking with an audience of students about life in the theater. Also in the theater were the Department of Theatre and Dance faculty along with university president Dr. Ken Dobbins and Dr. Martin Jones, dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

Half of the students raised hands when asked how many planned to pursue careers as professional actors. The students wanted to know where and how to get started, how to pay the rent while trying to find acting work, and how to keep from making mistakes.

Regional theaters may be the best places to start out, the pros said. Landrum warned that the many thousands of acting students in New York City support a teaching industry that is not always beneficent. "Teachers usually are frustrated actors," he said. "It's a place that is replete with power trips."

Don't study with anyone whose approach is dictatorial, he told the students. "It's a very tender thing to be an actor."

Cultivate survival skills, said Harrelson, who supported herself early on by reading scripts and teaching square dancing -- even though she had never taught it before. Perhaps people thought she should be able to teach square dancing since she was from Missouri, she said, provoking laughter.

Play your career by ear, Harrelson said.

"You have to be open to every silly possibility."

As for making mistakes, Landrum advised, "Make as many mistakes as you possibly can."

In some ways, college is the best acting experience any of the students may ever have, Landrum said. College provides an opportunity to work on one production after another. The real life of being an actor is waiting for the next production to come along.

Both said many more modern actors need to work on their voices. "The voice is the most telling instrument of expression," Landrum said.

One of the most important things for an actor to do is to make friends with your colleagues and stay in touch with them, they told the students. In the world of professional theater, "Who you know counts," Landrum said.

Dentist's daughter

Harrelson grew up in Cape Girardeau, the daughter of dentist Dr. E.W. Harrelson. She doesn't know why a girl in Cape Girardeau at that time would decide to become an actress. Most people thought she must want to be a movie star.

She had very few schools to choose from in the 1940s, ending up at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago. Her father sent $10 a week to help while she was in Chicago trying to become an actress. He wrote her a letter that said, "I don't really understand what you're doing, but if you want to do it it's all right."

She started out in the age of radio, giving her warm voice to the many cliffhanger serials. On Broadway she was in "Death of a Salesman" with George C. Scott and in "night, Mother" and "Romeo and Juliet." In repertory at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, she appeared with the late Hume Cronyn in "Richard III" and with Cronyn's wife, the late Jessica Tandy, in "Way of the World."

The Guthrie Theater was founded by Harrelson's husband, Peter Zeisler, along with Tyrone Guthrie and Oliver Rea.

Harrelson and her husband now live in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and have two sons, one an actor and the other a writer. Harrelson is the aunt of Cape Girardeau broadcasting company owner Dick Withers.

Two professors, the late Dr. Harold Grauel and the late Larry Grisvard, inspired Landrum to pursue acting. Grauel would always tell students how much he appreciated something they had done, Landrum said. Grisvard transmitted his passionate commitment to theater to his students. "He really adopted us."

After leaving Southeast, Landrum moved to Detroit and enrolled in Wayne State University, where a repertory theater was forming. "I went from leads and nice roles here to carrying a spear in Detroit," he told the students.

While studying classical theater in Canada, he was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to fight in Vietnam. On his return he landed a role in a play at Joe Papp's Public Theater in New York City.

Besides acting, he also has established himself as a speaker, writer and business coach. He owns a communications consulting company. Landrum lives in New York's Hudson Valley with his wife, Peggy, and their daughter.

Harrelson and Landrum are the first Southeast alumni to have their photographs permanently displayed inside Rose Theatre. More will follow, said Dr. Kenn Stilson, chairman of the Department of Theatre and Dance.

"We think it's time to start recognizing people who have come out of this program."

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