Sydney Walker speaks to the gods.
Which ones? William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and other deities of the theatre, who have taken time off their otherworldly duties to talk with the veteran San Francisco actor.
Actors will be envious of Walker. Others may be skeptical. But it’s impossible not to believe the imposing Walker – a vision of a god himself in his silver hair and beard grown long for Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s recent production of King Lear in Portland – when he confides that he has twice talked to Shakespeare through a medium.Order now
Without a hint of sheepishness or self-consciousness, Walker tells of speaking with Shakespeare last fall while preparing to play Lear. Did Shakespeare have any advice for Walker?
“No, except to say the play is spiritually loaded as a piece of writing. He was very aware that I was doing it.”
Advice from the past
Walker says he has also spoken with actors Clark Gable, Harold Lloyd, Claude Rains and Gary Cooper. He asks them – or they offer – to “contribute energy” to his work. Rains, for example, helped Walker with his role as Prospero in the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Tempest last fall. Walker’s ritual before performing Lear each night was to reflect on Charles Laughton, Ralph Richardson, Burton and Olivier, most of whom played Lear in their careers.
“I invite them into me,” explains Walker. “It is a ritual with me to thank them.”
Lear may “hath ever but slenderly known himself,” but Walker, who is 71, brims with self-knowledge that he reveals in conversation as easily as if he were discussing his next role. What Lear is compelled to learn in a few days – the power of love and loyalty, an understanding of his place in the world – Walker has known for a long time.
And part of that knowledge comes from his long-distance conversations with the greats.
A family of psychics
A member of American Conservatory Theatre, Walker attends the Church of Prayer – a group of “like-minded people” who all have psychic ability. Sometimes other members pass on information to him from spirits with whom they’ve communicated. “I’ve been told I had a life in Elizabethan times,” Walker says – which might explain his proficiency with Shakespeare’s plays.
In this life, Walker, who is soft-spoken and gentle despite his larger-than-life presence on and off stage, was born in Philadelphia to a family filled with psychics. He had his first introduction to the theatre – in the form of opera – in Buenos Aires, where his family lived when he was young. Walker studied acting at Hedgerow Theatre in Pennsylvania, was a member of the Association of Producing Artists company in New York, and joined ACT in 1974. His career has taken him from Broadway (he was Olivier’s co-star in Becket) to film (he was the doctor who told Ryan O’Neal that Ali MacGraw was dying in Love Story). He played Lear once before, nearly 40 years ago, Off Broadway.
“When I was young, I thought there was no reason for Lear to go off the handle,” Walker remembers. “I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t have the vulnerability. I was too young for the part, physically and spiritually. Now I am ready to invest it with my own life experience.
“The stamina required is considerable. But my age is an attribute. It makes it |righter.'”
Most of Walker’s career has been in West Coast repertory theatre. “If you want to own a kidney-shaped swimming pool in L.A.,” Walker laments, “there are easier ways to get it and make money than to act in theatre.”
Still, Richard Seyd, associate artistic director of ACT, who cast and directed Walker in Portland’s King Lear, calls him “one of the hidden treasures of the American theatre.” Next season he’ll play opposite Jean Stapleton in ACT’s production of The Learned Ladies.
Walker’s work in the movies has been small parts, but he expects that to change with this summer’s release of Prelude to a Kiss, based on Craig Lucas’s hit Broadway play. In the film, Walker repeats the part he played in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 1988 production, that of the old man who trades bodies with a young women at her wedding. He’s leaving some time in his acting schedule for other films.
“As Leslie Howard told me, |You know, my screen career started late in life, too,'” Walker says with a matter-of-fact smile. (That’s Leslie Howard, the British actor who died in 1943. Walker’s conversation with him came years later.)
Walker, who annually plays Scrooge in ACT’s A Christmas Carol, has talked with Charles Dickens three times. “He was always excited when we’d put on Christmas Carol,” he says. With his access to the legends of the theatre, Walker can learn the secrets of the ages and settle centuries-old disputes. Like the one about the Bard himself.
“Francis Bacon didn’t write any of Shakespeare’s plays,” Walker insists. “Shakespeare wrote all of them – and he’s still writing.”