Friday, April 3, 2009

Friday Dance Party: Let's Raise a Glass Together

It's no secret I have a huge respect for those actors who spend their professional lives "in support." Michael Jeter, the star of this week's Dance Party, had such a career. He made a splash in more than a few movies, including a memorable scene as a homeless transvestite in The Fisher King, and had finished several films before his untimely death (both Open Range and Polar Express are dedicated to his memory). But he's surely best remembered for two television roles. Years after guesting in a very small role on Designing Women, the same producers invited him to join the cast of the Burt Reynolds sitcom Evening Shade; playing the shrimpy but enthusiastic math teacher / football coach, he was nominated for three Emmys, winning the award in 1992. (He received subsequent Emmy nominations for guest shots on Chicago Hope and Picket Fences.) Generations of kids recognize him from Sesame Street, playing "Mr. Noodle's Brother, Mr. Noodle." But Jeter had a difficult life, and his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction led him to give up acting for a time. He was working as a legal secretary when the producers of Designing Women hunted him down. His stage career included appearing in the original Off-Broadway production of Caryl Churchill's gender-bending Cloud Nine, directed by Tommy Tune. It was Tune, in fact, who cast Jeter in his most memorable stage role, the impish accountant in Grand Hotel. The following clip features a tremendously exuberant performance which had underlying irony: Jeter's character in Grand Hotel was dying, and Jeter himself was diagnosed with HIV, about which he was bravely public. So, in this clip, a dying man is playing a dying man. But you'd never know it, as Jeter is a fireball. I remember seeing this number on the Tony Awards, and it persuaded me to see Grand Hotel on my next New York visit (in fact, I saw it THREE times; I wrote about seeing the Broadway version here).

Michael Jeter died six years ago this week. His dynamic stage presence is on view in this clip; the audience is clearly responding to his superb physicality (they interrupt the proceedings several times with spontaneous applause); watch as the character swills unaccustomed champagne and gets delightfully tipsy, all in the course of this showstopper: 

Two minutes after performing this heartstopping number live, Michael Jeter was awarded the Tony.