Review Fix chats with actor and author Laurence Luckinbill, who discusses his new graphic novel, Teddy.
July 1918. Preparing to speak to an eager audience, 61-year-old Teddy Roosevelt receives the telegram that all parents of children who serve in war fear most: His son Quentinâ€™s plane has been shot down in a dogfight over France. His fate is unknown. Despite rising fear for his youngest son, Teddy takes the stage to speak to his beloved fellow citizens. It is, he says, â€œmy simple duty.â€ But the speech evolves from politics and the war, into an examination of his life, the choices heâ€™s made, and the costs of his â€œWarrior Philosophy.â€
Overflowing with his love of nature, adventure, and justice, Teddy dramatically illustrates the life of one of Americaâ€™s greatest presidents. His many accomplishments ranged from charging up San Juan Hill in Cuba as commander of the Rough Riders, to facing down U.S. corporate monopolies, to launching the Great White Fleet, building the Panama Canal, and the preservation of hundreds of millions of acres of natural American beauty. And finally, to the vigorous life at Sagamore Hill and his immense pride in a beloved and rambunctious family. Teddy reveals how even the greatest of men is still just a man, and how even the most modest man can grow to be great.
About Laurence Luckinbill:
Laurence Luckinbill is a renowned actor, playwright, and director who has worked in television, film, and theater for decades. Well known as Spockâ€™s brother Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Laurence is an Emmy winning, Tony Award-nominated actor who has toured the country in acclaimed solo plays depicting the lives of Lyndon Johnson, Clarence Darrow, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ernest Hemingway. He has five children and lives in California with his wife, Lucie Arnaz.
Review Fix: How did you get started in the industry?
Laurence Luckinbill: Iâ€™m an actor. I got started by deciding I needed to and then trying to fly off my back porch roof when I was nine, with a threadbare towel pinned to my t-shirt for a cape. I was also the class clown in every schoolroom I was sentenced to. I began writing my own one-man shows after playing Lyndon Johnson for PBS TV. I re-wrote that play for the theater, then found other men in our history I was inspired byâ€“Clarence Darrow, the great defense lawyer, Teddy Roosevelt, one of our best presidents and men, and Ernest Hemingwayâ€“who created a new, spare, clean way to write events and emotions that changed the way the world writes today. Each of these men changed the world for the better. They are superheroes to me. And I’m so happy to see one of them in a graphic novel since they were my earliest reading experiences.
Review Fix: Any big influences?
My mother, whose determination for me to have a chance in life saved me a year of soul-killing high school. Sister Matthew, my English teacher, who knocked me out of my smart-ass slacker pose and onto the floor with a right cross, and said, “Don’t laugh at the words of poets. Words are very important. Poets are important. This is your language. If you don’t know how to communicate, you don’t amount to much.” I laughedâ€“but I never forgot it.
Also, Robin Hood, my first hero. Captain Marvel, my first role model (I was Billy Batson). Actor Charles Laughton, who came to our little Arkansas town to read the Bible and Shakespeare, and American writersâ€“and transformed me instantly into someone who saw I could express my feelings by acting on stage and in film. Other dream people for me were Abbott and Costello (original class clowns), Gene Kelly (if only I could dance), Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier, and my first drama teacher at the University of Arkansas, George Kernodle, who taught me the “Go big or go home.”
Review Fix: Why Teddy?
Harry Middleton, director of the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, was another mentor. After I played Lyndon and Darrow there for Lady Bird Johnson and 1100 of her friends, Harry invited me to write a Teddy play. It took me a long time to research the play. In the last three weeks before I had to write, learn, stage and perform it, I found the inspirationâ€“the “motor” of the playâ€“its reason to existâ€“and got it done.
Review Fix: What was your research process like?
From Teddy’s autobiographical writings and newspaper accounts of the period, I found all the usable facts, but I still hadn’t found a reason for the play to exist. Then I opened a book by his sister Corinne about their lives together as children, and about a moment when she asked her brother to speak at a political rally for her husband. There was the ignition! The reason why Teddy would speak about his life to an audience of strangers. The occasion of the speech coincided very near the end of WWI, with the moment in time when Teddy and his wife heard that their youngest son had been shot down over France in aerial combat with German fighter planes. Teddy put aside his prepared speech and spoke from his heart about his beliefs and life and the young men we send overseas to fight for usâ€“and that they “deserve to come homeâ€“those who doâ€“to a better nationâ€“a nation they can be proud of.” He never mentioned that he had just lost his own son. This moment was the real Teddy. I wrote the play in three weeks, performed it, and have been doing it ever since.
Review Fix: What are your goals for this one?
Teddy’s struggle to overcome deadly asthma and his driving desire to model himself after his moral, ethical, and loving father, were his North Star in life. His bitter boyhood disappointment and shame was that his father did not go fight in the Civil War, but hired someone to take his place. Long after his father died, he understood that his father’s decision to remain with his large family and his fidelity and love for his wifeâ€“who was Southern and had been raised on a plantation with slaves, and whose brothers were fighting for the Confederacyâ€“was a terrible dilemma for his fatherâ€“and it increased his love and respect for himâ€“and at the same time, gave Teddy an unstoppable drive to become a warriorâ€“to prove to himself his own courage and patriotism. Even though I hate to admit it, I’m 85, and not likely to tour my four Great Americans plays again, but I want TEDDY and each of them, to be performed everywhere, by other actors who seek a grand challenge to play a great heroic Americanâ€“soâ€“”Breaking News”â€“I’m making all of my one-man plays available to be optioned for performance by others. If they apply to me, arrangements can be made for standards fees per performance.
Review Fix: Any readers you may think will enjoy this the most”
Every audience I’ve playedâ€“from the melting pot audiences in New York City theaters (which included three members of the Roosevelt family), to public school fifth-graders, to mature (old, like me) audiences in Palm Springs and Florida, have loved and taken inspiration from this great president who loved his country and its people above all things. An honest man. Flawed, as we all are, but always a fighter determined to do the right thing for others. I hope these audiences find this beautiful picture book, and give it to their children, and their children’s children, and so on…
Review Fix: How would you like it to be remembered?
I was a collector and trader of comic books when I was a kid. My office was my front porch. On Saturday everybody brought their new and old stuff, and we did a free exchange. Wonder Woman was new and none of us had ever seen a buff woman wearing briefs. Plastic Man was just weird. The Torch and Toro were strangely unbelievable but exciting. Classic Comicsâ€“excellent! Mad Magazine was about to enter the game. And horror stories. All of it way better than that strange box that people were calling television, but no one had actually seen one yet. But comic books were everywhere. These artifacts were my first inspiration and learning toolsâ€“my first ideas of heroes in battles for the forces of good in the world. But my one-man show people weren’t in the comic books. Teddy was a real hero. Why didn’t he have his own graphic novel then? But he has now. Lyndon Johnson, Clarence Darrow, and even cranky Ernest Hemingway were heroic for their humanist ideals and their sense that progress came from truth, in the long run. They were working to make sure that America was “Bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice,” for a better worldâ€“a “more perfect union.” Today, more than ever, these, and so many othersâ€“women, people of all colorsâ€“speaking all languages of the world in broken English, these new Great Americans need an inexpensive, easy to carry, simple to read and figure out little bookâ€“a platform where they get real heroes with wholesome ideas that can spark new hopes for a better country, a healthy planet to live in and with, and where ignorance, want, racism and inequality will fade out for lack of oxygen. I see kids of the future, trading holographic three-D graphic novels on their virtual front porch steps, laughing, but impressed with the quaint American heroes of the long-ago era of the 2020s, wearing weird pants and something called jackets and wearing colored ties that marked the way they vote.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Who knows? Survive Covid, help the economy, fix racism, save the planet from total destruction in another ten years, Write my next one person play? Actually, I already haveâ€“it’s called America’s Better Angels (after Lincoln’s Second Inaugural speech) and it’s about the heroes we now know who keep the country going, the “essential workers,” but with a few twists. And music. And video. Whatever it is, I’m 85, and I’m up for it!
Review Fix: Anything else you’d like to add?
Ha! Haven’t I already said too much? But okayâ€“my son Benjaminâ€“the amazing multi-talented fellowâ€“has completed a very, very good graphic novel story called THE FACTORY, with a scary game at the end of part one. It’s a series. He is an artistâ€“but he wants to supervise the script and production. So he’s looking for an artist and a platform. Like father, like son?
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