Bright College Years, Day 4 … Me’n Jim

For God, for Country, and For Yale, I’m living proof of a fairy tale.

Gettin’ smart don’t get much cooler … Go Bulldogs! Yeah Boola! Boola!

From my Autobio-grafitti, “From the 4-0-1 to the 8-0-2”

[My twice-postponed 50th reunion begins today. SB SM]

I retired from both music and sports when I arrived in New Haven to begin college. It wasn’t a conscious decision so much as not knowing what lay in store for me and to put academic achievement first … make that academic survival. I was prepared for college, but it took my freshman year to figure that out. When I was confident enough to poke my nose out of the womb of my dorm room, it was to audition for a play produced by my residential college’s theatre group, the Morse Experimental Theatre. I was cast as Warrior #7 in the classic Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus. The play was directed by Aly Taygun, a Turk studying at the Yale Drama School.

Aly Taygun
Aly Taygun

Aly was the real deal. Imposingly scruffy, with a droopy mustache punctuated by an ever-present cigarette, he brought an authenticity to Greek drama that the classroom had failed miserably to accomplish. The warriors all had non-speaking parts, but we were actually the stars of the show. Aly dressed us in black, then outfitted us with swords (just wooden dowels) and rattling shields (metal hubcaps with short lengths of dangling chains). He then taught us a simple four-beat dance. We each had a solo sword fight, but it was when we moved in unison and chanted that we functioned as the play’s chorus.

Morse dining hall2
The Eero Saarinen-designed dining hall at Morse College, Yale University.

Set against the soaring backdrop of the exposed stone of the Morse College dining hall, it became an impressive spectacle. That such a magical transformation could be created with such simple props and human ingenuity was a revelation. I was hooked, and theater became my principal extra-curricular activity.

All-important footnote: Aly was accompanied to every rehearsal by his stunning wife, Meral, who was jaw-droppingly beautiful, completely accessible, and, as an acting student at the Drama School, generously helpful. My fellow warriors and I were suitably smitten. Fifty years later I stand at my desk in a frigid and snowy Vermont and muse “I wonder what happened to Aly and Meral?” Two minutes later, I know. They both became prominent as actors in the Turkish film industry! It was delightful, but no surprise, to learn this.

Meral Taygun
Meral Taygun

I became a regular in the Morse Experimental Theatre (always with the “re,” not the “er”) productions. I was not a great actor, but I managed to get better parts as time passed.

In my junior year we decided to do three original, student-written one act plays. I volunteered to write one. My story was loosely based on the real life experience of Del Shannon, the singer/songwriter who had been riding high until the British Invasion made solo performers like Del yesterday’s news. Silverback Digest readers have already heard much too much about Del Shannon.

In my senior year I took over as President of the Morse Experimental Theatre. Among my responsibilities were managing a modest budget and selecting the plays and director. I interviewed several candidates from the drama school. One was especially aggressive and annoying. After several follow-up calls I had to break it him that we were going with someone else.

Henry Winkler took the news badly … what would you expect of da Fonz? To make matters worse, the director I chose was a disaster, and I had to let him go after the first semester.

For the second semester we took a different approach. I had always loved the children’s fable of The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery. Someone told me that it was James Dean’s favorite book and that he read it aloud to his girlfriend, which gave some additional romance. The director I enlisted was V. John deMarco, who eventually became the best man at my wedding.

John had some delightful and fanciful ideas on costumes and set and wanted to make it a musical. Whoa! That was well beyond my musical abilities, song I enlisted the help of a talented junior, Ezra Donner. (The perquisite quick check of Google yields an Ezra Donner, Conductor, but born in 1986 … perhaps the original Ezra’s son.) I did the lyrics, plus did music for the video that follows.

For the lead role, we didn’t have anyone who was quite right, so John prevailed on a classmate at the Drama School named Jim Naughton, who later, as James Naughton, became a movie star and the toast of Broadway, not to mention “the voice” in countless commercials.

And here he is accepting the Tony for best actor in a musical. Funny that he didn’t mention me.

While Jim, er James, went on to fame and fortune, our paths would cross again. Here’s my account of it:

My Career in Show Biz

By Stephen Morris

I watch the evening news, not for the latest on world events, but for the pharmaceutical commercials. Specifically, I look for commercials about that little purple pill called Nexium. When it comes on, I wave at the television and say, “Hi, Jim!”

The Nexium ad is the one where they keep referring to “that little purple pill” while they show a humongous purple cylinder (must be a propane tank) that could choke a sperm whale. I can’t tell you what “Nexium” means, what it does, who makes it, or what scourge it cures. I do know that the little purple pills make you “better.” I know this because the spokesperson, right at the end, leaning on the purple propane tank, looks directly into the camera and says, “And better is better!”

James Naughton in Planet of the Apes (front row, left)

The spokesperson for Nexium is James Naughton (“Jim” to me, “James” to the rest of you), and he’s a great actor. You can tell the by the way he makes eye contact with the camera, furrows his brow in a way that exudes credibility, and says “And better is better!” without cracking up. Not even a little smirk. That, Dear Reader, is the mark of a great one.

Jim and I started our show biz careers together back in college. I was the head of a small undergraduate theater group. Jim was a graduate student in the drama school. Because there was an overall shortage of acting and directing venues, drama school students were desperate to pad their resumes with anything that smacked of experience. This actually put me in a position of some power. Here’s how powerful I was: I once turned down Henry Winkler, who went on to become a household word as Fonzie from Happy Days, for a directing position. Instead, I hired a guy named, to protect the innocent let’s call him Zocor, who proved so inept that to do something idiotic in our theater group became known as “to do a Zocor.”)

James and Meryl Streep

Back to Jim. I had the good sense to cast him in a lead role in a play that became a big hit on campus. He had it all—good looks, could sing and dance, fun to be around, always came prepared. You could tell he was headed for great things. Graduation came and went, and we went our separate ways—Jim to Broadway and Hollywood and me to Haverhill, Massachusetts where I took a job selling ads for a second-rate boating magazine.

The rest is history.

Jim comes into my living room every few years in a new and unexpected way. He’s almost always a good guy, never a thug. Sometimes he’s a guest star on a series. He drew rave notices on Broadway for Chicago. He’s had several TV series of his own, none of them very memorable. For a while he was Ally McBeal’s father. He’s done a bunch of commercials. I think he was one of the guys who said “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Jim exudes credibility.

His name is not a household word, but I bet you would recognize his face. He does some cool things on the Nexium commercial. In addition to furrowing his brow, at one point he materializes out of thin air. Try doing that at home. For a few seconds he just stands, looking bemused (but credibly bemused) while his voice-over continues. His lips don’t even move. You don’t often see such dazzling special effects in a drug commercial.

I’m sure that Jim is constantly wondering what has happened in my life. Our paths haven’t crossed, but they almost did … once. This was a dozen or so years ago. Jim was on some TV show or commercial that brought him into our living room with some frequency. At each appearance I would start the obligatory shouting “Wife! Kids! Hurry!”

Thinking an emergency, at least a heart attack, was in progress, they would come scrambling in, sometimes in time to actually see Jim on screen. I would then treat (subject?) them to the story of how Jim and I started in show biz together. Usually the story provoked only yawns and rolled eyebrows, but once my youngest son said “Oh yeah? Well, why doesn’t he have any grey hair?”

Hm-m-m. He raised a good point. While I had gone the way of all flesh, Jim looked just as he had when I knew him in college. I began not to like Jim. I began to resent Jim. I began to hate Jim’s guts. Now, when he appeared on screen, and one of the kids said, “Hey, isn’t that your friend?” I would just mumble and turn away.

As fate would have it, we made a trip a few months later that took us through Williamstown, Massachusetts. We passed by their summer theater and I noticed “James Naughton” on the marquee. Minutes later we were driving through Williamstown’s downtown, and one of the kids said:

“Hey, isn’t that your friend?”

It was Jim. There was no mistaking that erect posture, those fine features, the strong chin, and that thick shock of completely grey hair! Instantly, Jim was my friend again. I considered making a u-turn and stalking him, but decided not to inflict myself. Just as well, too. Of the various outcomes that could have transpired in a face-to-face meeting, most of them would have been deflating, especially in front of my kids. Stephen who? This way we could just move on with our travels, with me blustering that if I dyed my hair, I would look like I was still in college, too.

So, Jim, if you’re out there and wondering what happened to me. I’m ok. I’m living here in Beyonder, writing my articles and stoking the woodstove. So far, knock on wood, I don’t need those little purple pills, but you keep right on taking them. “And better is better,” don’t you know? I hope they paid you a small fortune to recite that line. Good to see ya.

My career in theater lasted only a bit longer than my career in rock ‘n roll, and yet it provided me with connections and memories of a Tony award-winner, two Turkish film stars, and da Fonz. I’ve got no complaints.

2 thoughts on “Bright College Years, Day 4 … Me’n Jim

  1. Have a great time at Reunion! Sorry I can’t join you and your favorite Silverbelle in New Haven. Maybe in 2025! In the meanwhile, I’ll just pull out my copy of The Little Prince to reread. Please give my best to all the other Morselings.

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