They say that Philadelphia sports fans are among the toughest in the world, so harsh that they once booed Santa Claus. Tom McCarthy, an award-winning actor reared in West Philly, defends his fellow Eagles fans for that incident of December 15, 1968. “This guy came out; he looked like some street person. He had a bad beard on, he weighed about 12 pounds, his clothes were half hanging off, and so we booed him. But we didn’t boo Santa Claus — we booed a **** Santa Claus.”
In defense of that sorry excuse for St. Nick, turns out he was some poor guy the Eagles brought out of the stands because the scheduled Santa didn’t show up. But don’t tell that to the character played by McCarthy in the one-man show, “The Philly Fan,” scripted by Bruce Graham, which runs at the Bristol Riverside Theater from Tuesday, September 15, through Sunday, October 4.
McCarthy, who’s been doing the show off and on since 2005, is a familiar face in Philadelphia theater circles. Over the last 30-plus years, he’s performed on almost every stage in the city. He has played two different parts in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” has starred in “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and in 1997, received the Barrymore Award for Best Actor for Willy Loman in the Arden Theatre Company’s production of “Death of a Salesman.” His TV appearances include spots on “The West Wing,” “Law and Order,” “Homicide: Life on the Street,” and a recurring role on “The Wire.” In 2003, Tom was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Theater Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, and he has been president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Screen Actors Guild for the past three decades.
Impressive achievements, to be sure, but none of them make him as uniquely suited to perform a show about the trials and tribulations of a Philly sports fan as his Philadelphia sports roots. “I looked around and saw that when a lot of bigger-known actors around the country over the years get a little age on them, like I have, they put together a one-man show,” says McCarthy. “Around 2004, I decided I should think about doing that. When I don’t have some project working, I could just do my show. I thought, ‘I am a sports fan, and a homer to Philadelphia’s teams.’ I came up with the idea of a Philly fan who follows all four sports in Philadelphia. I would take maybe the last 50 years or so, and he would be in a bar. That was about all I had as an idea, but when I put together a grant proposal and sent it to the Pew Foundation, they gave me a grant for $10,000.”
The 65-minute play takes place on February 5, 2005, the night before the Super Bowl, and the Fan is in the tavern, as usual, telling his unseen friend why the Eagles are going to win it this year. From there, he drifts into a discussion of Philly teams, Philly fans, sports devotion, and not incidentally, revealing more than a little bit about himself. I saw the show at the Ambler Theater in Ambler, PA, and it’s a fine, bravura performance, full of wisecracks about Philadelphia athletes and public figures past and present (“Donovan McNabb: lay off the Chunky Soup! Ed Rendell: don’t get behind him in the buffet line!”) It’s funny, fast, a little sad, a little salty, and ultimately, sort of uplifting.
McCarthy is quick to point out that even a one-man show really isn’t a solo endeavor. When he got his grant, he instantly signed on some of Philadelphia’s best talent to bring the project alive. “I didn’t think I was ready to put together a full script for myself. So right away I thought of Bruce (Graham) because I knew him not only as a writer — I’ve done his plays — but he was, more importantly, a sports freak and a local guy.”
Graham is a well-known entity in Philadelphia theater. The Media, PA, resident is the author of a dozen plays, as well as films and television shows. He currently teaches film and theater courses at Drexel University.
McCarthy then brought in director Joe Canuso from Theater Exile in Philadelphia, and he hired sound and lighting people — the play makes great use of film projection and background noise.
“We started at the Fringe Festival in 2005,” says McCarthy. “And I’ve been doing it two or three times a year since. We’ve been at the Arden Theater, the Interact Theater, the Ambler Theater, and Atlantic City. In Ambler, we sold out for two weeks, and they booked me back for another two weeks. What’s good about it is that it’s not just a cult piece. People come to see it and then they want to come back and see it again, and bring a brother or a father or a husband or wife who has an interest in sports. Word of mouth works well for the play.”
Critics have been enthused about “The Philly Fan” as well. Howard Shapiro, theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote: “It’s funny, it’s real, it touches a local nerve, and in its 65 minutes it says as much about Philly fans as it does about the nature of blind faith.” Tim Dunleavy on TalkingBroadway.org. says, “Thanks to McCarthy’s performance and a funny, wide-ranging script by Bruce Graham, even someone who knows nothing about sports — well, almost nothing — will come to understand what makes ‘The Fan’ (and, by extension, all the Fans) tick.” In 2005, the show was nominated for a Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play.
This is heady stuff for a guy who never even saw a play until he was around 30 years old. “I was a bartender then, used to work at a place called the Tally-Ho Motel, which was right next to the old Valley Forge Music Fair. I would take my breaks and sneak in the back flap and watch the show for 20 minutes or so. After a couple of seasons, I thought, I can do that. I decided to take some acting lessons and did shows for free for about seven years, learning my craft. About 30 years ago I decided to pursue it as a career and never looked back.”
One of the pitfalls of doing a show about sports is that new events can change the fan’s outlook. McCarthy and Graham haven’t tried to ignore the Phillies’ World Championship season of 2008; in fact, they’ve embraced it. “You think the play ends just where it did before,” McCarthy says. “But now I come back out, and you have the sound effects of the rain, and I’m sitting there in the fifth game of the World Series, and still bitching about certain things, talking to my son: ‘Bobby, they’re never going to win it. When I first came in tonight, I thought they could, but they’re never going to win it,’ and I walk off. An instant later, up on the screen, there is actual footage of the championship parade — and all of a sudden, there I am in the crowd. They actually asked me to come by for the day of the parade, and they filmed me, and I’m saying ‘(Phillies manager) Charlie Manuel is the best G.D. skipper,’ and of course earlier I had said, ‘World Series? Gimme a break! There’ll be a black guy in the White House before that happens to Charlie Manuel.’”
Speaking of the Phillies, McCarthy has on occasion been mistaken for the team’s play-by-play man, who is also named Tom McCarthy. He says, “Sometimes when I give talks I introduce myself by saying that I’m not him — he’s younger and he’s taller, but I have the hair. He’s a nice man — I certainly will invite him to see the show sometime.”
To which the other Tom McCarthy, a former Trenton Thunder broadcaster, responds, “I haven’t seen the show, but heard that it was great. He’s very talented, and he does have better hair than me.”
Although the two Toms haven’t hooked up, many other Philadelphia sports figures have enjoyed “The Philly Fan.” The Philly fanatic (the big green Phillies mascot) has come to a couple of shows (“I don’t treat him that well in the play,” admits McCarthy.) One particular performance was billed as Championship Night, a fundraiser. Hall-of-Fame tackle Chuck Bednarik from the 1960 champion Eagles was there, as well as Eagles great Tom Brookshier, and former Flyers hockey stars Rick MacLeish and Dave “The Hammer” Schultz. One-time Phillies pitcher Dickie Noles showed up, as did the late Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas.
“Officially, none of the teams have acknowledged the show,” admits McCarthy. “But you know what? They would take it well. I mean (Eagles owner Jeffrey) Lurie, I hit on him pretty good, but I don’t think it would offend them. And I think the show would be a natural for sports banquets. I haven’t really had time to market it. If I did, I could be doing it all the time, if I wanted to.”
As for Michael Vick’s recent signing with the Eagles, McCarthy is still on the fence about what to write into the show. He volunteers that he might put in “Lock up your dogs when he’s around” but he hasn’t decided yet.
Type “Philadelphia fan” into Google and you’ll immediately get a series of clips and articles detailing bad behavior. The image of the typical Philadelphia fan is of a hard-drinking, hard-hearted, hard-luck crank. Accurate? “They’re a little more passionate,” says McCarthy. “And a little more knowledgeable, some of them. I think the real fan is not the one who’s going down to a game to get drunk and be violent. It’s the person who follows the game and knows the records of players, and the history. That is the kind of fan the Philly Fan is.”
The Philly Fan, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Tuesday, September 15, through Sunday, October 4. Solo show performed by Tom McCarthy focuses on a journey through Philadelphia sports history. Opening night is Thursday, September 17. $29 to $37. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.