TED TALLEY: No bit parts

Big, small roles all part of life

Posted: February 8, 2018 at 1 a.m.

The magic of live theater and cinema is, by design, detached and distant, ensconced in a place novel to us regular folks. After all, experiencing the difference between reality and the other side of the footlights is why we buy the tickets. In theater seats separated from the papier-mâché world on stage by that imaginary fourth wall, we are voyeurs spying on make-believe lives. Or we are moviegoers tagged as "all those wonderful people in the dark" by the Norma Desmond character in "Sunset Boulevard."

But occasionally one finds quotable nods to the common man as being more or less equal to practitioners of the magic. The gossamer divide is pulled aside. The house lights come up.

Shakespeare wrote "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts."

Konstantin Stanislavski, the noted Russian character actor and director, advised us: "There are no small parts, only small actors." Imagine how often those words have been repeated among community theater actors. That's where I first heard them, backstage at an amateur venue: a converted dairy barn in a Louisiana pine forest.

My favorite of such nuggets, though, is attributed to an actor with roots nearby. McDonald County, Mo., native Robert William Greer landed his first movie role as an extra in Daryl Zanuck's "Jesse James," filmed in Pineville in 1938. Even as an uncredited player, Greer's introduction to cinema was auspicious in a film headlined by Hollywood legends Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda and Randolph Scott. In 2002, Greer told the Neosho Daily News, "They were paying $5 a day -- a day! -- to local people for being extras. That was really good money in those days, more money than we had seen in a long time."

So it came to be that much-appreciated money during the Great Depression, a firmly planted southwest Missouri family tree and a speech therapist mother gave us the renowned "everyman" character actor known as Dabbs Greer. He passed away in 2007.

Greer once said "Every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead."

Of all that has been spoken or written about acting and life in general, his eleven words are now my favorite.

If his name doesn't ring a bell, his affable face will. Greer appeared in over 200 movies and 600 televisions shows in a career spanning more than 50 years. His most recalled role is that of the reverend on "Little House on the Prairie." Also in clerical garb, he united two of the most famous sitcom families, as the army chaplain marrying Rob and Laura on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and as the officiant linking Mike and Carol on "The Brady Bunch."

In cinema his western supporting parts are near countless. But his last movie role, in 1999, was key and unique -- as can be said for many character actor parts. Greer played the aged current-day persona (the storyteller imbued with immortality) contrasted against Tom Hanks' main character in "The Green Mile." This flashback device, eloquently carried by Greer, was the definitive glue that bound the entire narrative and moved it forward.

I ran across Greer's acting sphere quote by accident while web-crawling for something else. Obviously his words struck me. Because last week, during an errand to McDonald County, I paused in Anderson, the actor's hometown, and located his grave in Peace Valley Cemetery. His headstone is engraved with his quote, his name and his nicknames: "Robert William "Billy Bob" "Dabbs" Greer". Hollywood limelight aside, how easy it is to connect with a man known as "Billy Bob" to his closest. Fittingly, Anderson citizens named a city park and fishing hole in the center of town after him.

I left the cemetery and found the quiet park overlooking clear spring waters babbling into Indian Creek. In the midday solitude I thought of hundreds of everyday men played by Dabbs Greer as I did so my many roles in ordinary life. Indeed, we are all actors on Shakespeare's world stage with small but important parts, per the Russian director. I hope I've played life well, learning my lines, hitting my mark on stage, and getting it right in one or two takes in my own little sphere -- a bit part to the world but a lead role, hopefully carried well, in my children's lives. Little more should be the aspirations of any ordinary fellow, whether from Greer's rocky Ozarks or my own pine-wooded Louisiana.

Commentary on 02/08/2018