Posted May 8, 2015
At 86, Jerry Adler has barely even begun his acting career
Jerry Adler, age 86, has donned many theatrical hats during his almost 65-year career. Currently appearing on Broadway in Larry David’s comedy Fish in the Dark, Adler has 53 Broadway credits to his name, but the role of stage “actor” isn’t necessarily what’s kept him busy on the main stem for more than half a century. Officially the third-oldest working Equity member (Mike Nussbaum at 91 holds the number one spot while Angela Lansbury, 89 is ranked number two), Adler talked to Equity News about earning his card, working eight shows a week and that one time he helped deliver a baby out in the house. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
Equity News: Jerry, in your own words, tell us, “How I Got My Equity Card.”
Jerry Adler: I got hired on Labor Day 1950 to be the second assistant stage manager on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Carol Channing. I was still up in Syracuse at the time. I got the job because my father was the company manager, so I am the product of nepotism. That was my first job; it was great. I was gaga-eyed because there was Carol Channing and there were a lot of stars in it and it was a big, hit show.
EN: How did it feel to finally get the card?
Adler: I hadn’t thought much about getting my Equity card so soon because I was still in school. It was a big surprise, and, of course, great. Then, because I had the card, I got a job right away after Blondes closed. I became a stage manager on a show called Seventeen, which was a musical, produced by Milton Berle at the time. Fish in the Dark is the 53rd Broadway show that I am associated with, having been either a director, stage manager, producer, actor.
EN: When did you decide to make the leap from behindthe- scenes to the stage?
Adler: Acting came when I was getting ready to retire. When I was 65 years old, a friend of mine who is a casting director called me (at the time I was directing a soap opera in California), and she said, “The director of this movie, when he describes who he wants, describes you, would you come and meet him?” I never acted before. So I met this guy and he did a big take when I walked in the room. Later on I asked him, “Why did you do that take when I walked in the room?” He said, “Because I said to myself, ‘Oh my God I hope he can act.’” So I got this job in a movie.
EN: And it stuck.
Adler: Well, Woody Allen saw the movie and cast me in Manhattan Murder Mystery and acting started.
EN: What is your daily routine for performing eight shows a week?
Adler: This is the perfect show for me because I never touch the floor. I’m in a bed the whole time. They roll me on and they roll me off. So, it’s the perfect role. In between my stint on stage and the curtain call I read and I listen to the laughter out front, which is great. If you listen to laughs all day long, it makes your life a little happier.
EN: Over your expansive career, what has been the one memory that hasn’t left?
Adler: Backstage in New Haven, during the run – a week after opening – of My Fair Lady, I helped a woman in the audience give birth to a baby. The show had ended and I was packing up, we were at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, and I hear this moaning. I looked out on the stage, and stage left in one of the boxes – there was a floor box – there was this woman lying there and I ran out to see. She was giving birth. Her husband had run out to get a cab or the doctor or whatever. I took off my jacket and the baby came. [Laughs.]
EN: How has Broadway changed since 1951?
Adler: Monetarily, it’s changed tremendously. When My Fair Lady opened, we opened with a price of $7.50 (a ticket) and then we raised it to $8.05. It made a headline in the
New York Times that My Fair Lady had broken the $8 barrier.You look around now and seatsare $499; it’s unbelievable. Also,it’s much more digitized. I wouldnever be able to be a stagemanager now because I’m nottechnically savvy. [Laughs.] I’mjust learning how to use theInternet. I would never be ableto figure out what the hell they’redoing backstage now.Everything is so automated it’samazing. Thank god I’m anactor, or I’d be out of work. Thestage managers today are reallyextraordinary.
EN: Out of all the roles you’ve played either on stage, or backstage (actor, stage manager, director, etc…), what’s been you’re favorite thus far?
Adler: Well, I use to enjoy doing understudy rehearsals in My Fair Lady because I could play all the roles. I could play Higgins, I could play Doolittle – I could have a lot of fun doing that. That was fun to do. This is my second acting job on Broadway, so I don’t have any favorite acting jobs yet. I’m still working on it.
EN: What has been a moment that has made you proud to be a union member?
Adler: Equity helped me a great deal when I first got out of the army in 1952. I got a loan from them, which really helped me get started because I was looking around for work and it was hard getting started again when you got out of the army. This was the Korean War. And in that time Equity gave me a hell of a boost. And of course the health plan was great in those days; it was such a new thing. When I got married and had a baby, it really was great.
EN: What’s after Fish in the Dark?
Adler: Oh my god, I have no idea. Well, I’m still doing The Good Wife on television and I’m just waiting to see. Hopefully I’ll get another job where I’m lying down. Walking around is tough.
Jerry Adler, center, along with the cast of Fish in the Dark.
Credit: Joan Marcus