This interview with the late actor was originally published in December 2006.
Arthur French may not be a household name. But any drama critic or theatregoer who’s haunted the black boxes of Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway over the past three decades knows this actor’s work.
Arthur French first made his mark as an original member of the seminal Negro Ensemble Company, which was lead by Douglas Turner Ward. There he performed in such plays as Lonnie Elder III’s Ceremonies in Dark Black Men and Joseph A. Walker’s The River Niger. He occasionally made it to Broadway, making his Broadway debut in Melvin Van Peebles’ Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and appearing in several Circle in the Square productions. But smaller stages were more commonly his home, so much so that the awards committee for the Obies, which honor Off-Broadway theatre, honored him for Sustained Excellence in 1997. Currently, French is enjoying one of his most splashy acting opportunities in some years, playing the part of diner philosopher Holloway in the acclaimed Signature Theatre Company revival of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. The New York native talked to Playbill.com about life uptown.
You’re always working, it seems, but Two Trains Running is one of the more high-profile plays you’ve appeared in in some time. How did it come about?
Arthur French: The old-fashioned way. I just auditioned. I went three times. They let me know back then, in June, that they were going to do it, which was good, because it gave me a lot of time to read the script.
Had you seen the original Broadway production?
AF: It’s one of the August Wilson productions that I never saw and never read. I’ve seen most of them. And I was the understudy for the original Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. At Brooklyn College, as a guest artist, I did Seven Guitars. But this particular play, I didn’t see it. That was good because I didn’t have any preconceptions, except I knew I wasn’t Roscoe Lee Browne, who originated the role.
Do you know Roscoe?
AF: Yes, I do know Roscoe. I last saw him at Lloyd Richards’ memorial. Roscoe is very special. Roscoe is Roscoe. If I’d seen his performance, I probably would have been too terrified to tackle the part.
When you were understudy in Ma Rainey, did you ever get to go on?
AF: I sure did. I understudied two roles, and I got to go on in both of them. When one actor left, I took over the role of Slow Drag. That was August Wilson’s first Broadway play.
He was just getting started. Do you have any memories of Wilson?
AF: When you’re an understudy, you’re part of it, but you’re a second-class citizen. He wrote a lot, and he talked to Lloyd mostly.
What about Lloyd Richards?
AF: Lloyd I knew a long time. When the Negro Ensemble Company started many years ago, he was a teacher there. He was part of that original company — he taught classes. Of course, he was already somebody that I knew about. I did work up at the O’Neill Foundation when Lloyd was running it; I worked a few summers. He was a quiet man. He’d tell you something about what you’re doing, and you’d say, “Well, that’s simple. Why didn’t I think of that? It’s obvious, but it never entered my head!” (Laughs) That was his genius.
I’m so used to seeing you in small productions below 14th Street. Does it feel odd to take the subway so far north?
AF: (Laughs). Well, the air is a little different. It’s nice on 42nd Street, even if it is 42nd Street between 10th and 11th. I don’t get in that area much, but it’s a great theatre. I’ve seen a lot of things at Signature. I’ve done readings here, but this is my first time working here. It’s been interesting. I saw Seven Guitars when they did it last fall, and it was different from the original. It brought me into that Seven Guitars world a lot more than I remember being brought in with the original production.
When did you start in the business?
AF: Oh, my. I started taking acting lessons in 1960. You’ll have to promise not to write that. People will know how old I am.
Well, I was going to ask your age, anyway.
AF: I don’t tell anymore. But when I say in the play I’m 65 years old, I’m not really lying. (Laughs.) I have my white Metrocard, I’ll tell you. I never thought acting would be my career. I had a job in the Department of Social Services. Acting was just a little something I did because I liked it, and it sort of took over. I didn’t have much to do with it.
When did you know it was going to be your career?
AF: I did a showcase called Raisin’ Hell in the Son, which was a take-off on A Raisin in the Sun. One night it was pouring rain, and we were about to go home, and three people wandered in. We did it. One of the those people [in the audience decided to] produce it and it [transferred] Off-Broadway to the Provincetown Playhouse. It was sort of a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney kind of story. It kind of dawned on me when I got my Equity card that maybe I could do this. But it took a long time. It was a whole new idea. I had never thought about it in those terms. Then, I guess, the biggest thing that happened was the Negro Ensemble Company asked me to be a member. I still had my job. I left in 1971 when Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death was done on Broadway, and I got in that cast. At that point, I couldn’t keep the job and rehearse the show.
What was it like working with Melvin Van Peebles on Ain’t Supposed to Die?
AF: Melvin at that time was very hot. He came to the first rehearsal and said, “Okay, I’m going to work on the music.” We really didn’t see him that much. Gilbert Moses, the director of that, was really the person who put that together. A lot of it was improvisation, establishing relationships between people. Gil had done something like that, with a play by LeRoi Jones, who had an eight-page play. Gil had a background with making scripts bigger. Melvin was very supportive. I remember they kicked us out of the Barrymore Theatre, something about attendance falling too low. At that time, you needed $10,000 to move a show. And he came to us and said, “I’m going to put my money where my mouth is. We’re going to move to another theatre. I’m going to put the money up.” I was always impressed with that.
You also appeared in Death of a Salesman with George C. Scott.
AF: I had worked with George before at Circle in the Square. He had done a production of All God’s Chillun Got Wings. And I had also worked at Circle in the Square in The Iceman Cometh. So that’s where I met him. For Death of a Salesman, in which he played Willy Loman, he wanted the next door neighbors to be Black. We talked to [Circle in the Square Managing Director] Paul Libin, and they had a whole back and forth about it. So we did that. Actually, I worked with George another time, in Design for Living.
Were you close with him?
AF: I got close in the sense that, during All God’s Chillun, when I first met him, he liked to play chess. So, during our off time, we played. He didn’t always watch the show. He played chess. And I told him a story about how I was a student and—you know they’d paper the house at plays sometimes. So me and some friends went to this play called The Wall. There was a guy in it, he was blond, blue-eyed, sort of muscular, very handsome. And when we went back to discuss this play, the only thing we talked about was George C. Scott. I didn’t know who he was, and we didn’t go there to see him, but he made that kind of impression.
You live here in New York, right?
AF: Yes, I was born here. Born in Harlem. I’ve lived here all my life. F. Murray Abraham said, “One day, we’ll be the only two actors left in New York.” He was never going to leave, and I was never going to leave. So far, we’ve both held out.
Do you ever think of retiring?
AF: Yeah. I think I’m thinking about it right now. (Laughs.) But now—I don’t know if I’m the only guy who’s as old as I am and still can walk—I get calls. Maybe I’m the only guy like me that’s still around.