Corrections or additions?
This article by LucyAnn Dunlap was prepared for the January 11, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Following a Library Book, 113 Years Overdue
As a young man, actor Richard Schiff was fascinated by movies and
plays that he saw, and began what has become a continuing expedition
to understand this mysterious and moving process called theater and
"I remember being in a trance for hours after seeing a movie and not
wanting anyone to talk to me. It put me in a state that I didn’t
really understand. So I started a journey because I was fascinated by
how someone did that. I didn’t say, `Wow, I want to be Al Pacino,’
although he was one of the reasons I got into this business."
He remembers seeing "Equus" on Broadway, and when he was younger, "A
Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." The movies from the
1970s marked him for life, particularly early Pacino movies, like "Dog
Day Afternoon" and "Panic in Needle Park." (The latter was shot in his
west side neighborhood in New York City, and he recognized kids in
background shots.) He reels off a list of other films that influenced
him that includes "Mean Streets," Robert Altman films, the Godfather
movies, and later on "Apocalypse Now" and "Serpico."
"It seemed like, wow, these movies were having an impact on people and
on me," Schiff says. The movies by director Sidney Lumet impressed him
with their political and social consciousness. Reading through Shiff’s
credits, one can see that these elements still attract him – his film
credits include "Malcolm X," "I Am Sam" with Sean Penn, "Hoffa," and
the Ray Charles biopic "Ray."
People say that we attract the things that absorb our interest. So,
it’s not surprising that Schiff eventually found himself in Hollywood
making movies and appearing on television with the very people who he
had admired so much. He has even made several films with his idol, Al
Pacino, including "City Hall," "People I Know," and "Two for the
Schiff’s most recognizable role today, however, is his role as Toby
Ziegler on the long-running political series, "The West Wing." Being a
West Wing fan myself (I pretend this is our real government), I was
sure I was talking by phone with the White House Press Office instead
of a West Coast rehearsal studio, when I interviewed Schiff. In my
mind, I was talking with Toby Ziegler.
Schiff will perform in the one-man drama, "Underneath the Lintel," by
Glen Berger, now in previews at George Street Playhouse in New
Brunswick, now in previews. Opening night is Friday, January 13. He
says the role is an "everyman, someone you might see every day on a
bus and not notice." His character is a Dutch librarian who is
intrigued by a recently returned overdue book – overdue by 113 years.
This mystery and the journey its investigation engenders prove a
life-altering experience for the librarian as he travels the globe on
a quest that evolves into a mystical journey (with shades of "The Da
Vinci Code"). "This is a very personal but heroic quest by a very
unlikely person," Schiff says.
As a young man, Schiff says he didn’t carve out a straight line to his
career in the theater, movies, and TV. A high-school dropout, he later
got an equivalency diploma, and in 1973 he tried studying at the City
College of New York. It is reported that he didn’t show up for final
exams and instead headed to Colorado for a "hippie" interlude.
Returning to New York in 1975, he again attended City College. "I was
just looking around," Schiff says. A teacher he calls "amazing"
stirred his interest in modern European history and suggested that he
become a history major. This teacher had fought in the Spanish Civil
War and, according to Schiff, had firsthand knowledge of the forces
swirling around Europe in the 1920s and `30s. However, it wasn’t long
until Schiff found theater and changed his educational goals. He
graduated in 1983 with a degree in theater, with a focus on directing.
So even his second college stint wasn’t a "quick" four years.
With "Underneath the Lintel," he returns to his historical interest.
His character is "an historian of sorts," Schiff says, "an
archeological historian who goes around digging up clues and
artifacts." He admits that this is part of the reason he was attracted
to this play. He is also fascinated by the political/philosophical
connections: "There is a relationship to this guy’s journey and what
we are allowing the world to become, whether we feel we have a choice
or not to affect our lives and the lives of others."
This play is also a return to his theatrical roots as he began as a
stage director, founding and serving as the as artistic director of
the Manhattan Repertory Theater in the early 1980s. His company was
"really fringe – we put up plays wherever we could find an available
space." Among his claims to fame at that time, he says, is casting
fledging actress Angela Bassett in their Off-Broadway production of
"Antigone," and at an audition, meeting his future wife, actress
Somewhere along the line, Schiff the director reversed the usual adage
and decided that what he really wanted to do was act. This led to some
independent film work and a move to California where he worked with
Tim Robbin’s renegade theater company, the socially-conscious Actor’s
Gang. He began to gain more and more work as an actor in films and on
television, with appearances in Spike Lee’s "Malcolm X," the Coen
Brothers’ "The Hudsucker Proxy," Spielberg’s "The Lost World: Jurassic
Park," "Living Out" with Danny DeVito, and "Dr. Dolittle" with Eddie
Finally, he had ensconced himself in the "family business." The middle
son in his family, he has been described as a "late starter" and says
of his early years that he was interested in the arts, but only slowly
"drifted" there. His siblings knew what they wanted and made a direct
line to their areas in show business. "I was a little bit more lost, I
guess. We all went very different paths though it sounds like we all
went to the same place." His older brother was always into some
business, beginning as a very young newspaper boy in Manhattan. He
also was a musician so he put it together to become an agent/manager,
working his way up from the mailroom at the William Morris Agency.
His younger brother "was always a video nut," says Schiff, and he
started working for the nascent MTV when he got out of college. He had
to opportunity to do everything and is now a television producer.
The boys had lived with their mother, "a real corporate woman," says
Schiff, after his parents divorced. Charlotte Schiff is a cable
television and publishing executive. His father is a real estate
Family is extremely important to Schiff and he rues the time he has
been away from his wife and their children, Gus, 11, and Ruby, 5.
Though his wife is also busy with the east coast opening of her
exercise salon, "The S Factor," in Manhattan on West 23rd Street, they
have no intention of abandoning their west coast home. Schiff is quite
enthusiastic about his wife’s project, bragging that she appeared on
Oprah’s show four times this past year to publicize her workout
regimen, which is inspired by striptease and pole dancing. Her studio
in Los Angeles has 800 students and she recently opened another in San
Francisco. "She’s started the world-wide craze for pole dancing,"
So, after "Underneath the Lintel," he will be back in Los Angeles for
perhaps a few more episodes of "The West Wing." Everyone at their
imaginary White House is still shaken by the death of John Spenser,
who played the role of Leo McGarry, White House Chief of Staff, from
its first season. "It was not a surprise. He hadn’t been well. But it
was a shock. Everybody loved Johnny. He was a very gifted talent and a
divinely generous man. We’re all devastated."
We’ll be seeing less and less of Schiff’s character Toby on "West
Wing." After all, Toby did get fired from the White House staff for
leaking information. And President Bartlett did the right thing by
firing him. Oh, yes, this certainly brings me back to reality. "West
Wing" is a fantasy.
Underneath the Lintel, through Sunday, February 5, George Street
Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $28 to $56.
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