Niskayuna’s James Read: From first acting in Stockade to stardom in Hollywood

James Read, left, and Patrick Swayze in a scene from the 1985 TV miniseries “North and South.” Inset: Read with childhood friend Mark Mindel at a Niskayuna High School reunion in 2010 at the Mohawk Club in Niskayuna. (Reunion photo by Katherine Mindel)

James Read, left, and Patrick Swayze in a scene from the 1985 TV miniseries “North and South.” Inset: Read with childhood friend Mark Mindel at a Niskayuna High School reunion in 2010 at the Mohawk Club in Niskayuna. (Reunion photo by Katherine Mindel)

James Read’s acting debut more than 50 years ago at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood may have been a modest success, but it certainly wasn’t life-changing.

“We did a play by Lady Gregory on the stage in Fellowship Hall downstairs, and that gave me the idea that maybe I was good at this, this thing called acting,” said Read, a 1971 Niskayuna High graduate who has remained a busy Hollywood actor for four decades now. “It was fun, we did a couple of little dramas that went pretty well, so I learned I had this ability to act. But it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue.”

That soon changed. In the next few years he fell in love with the profession, earned a regular gig on television in the 1982 hit series, “Remington Steele,” and then enjoyed a huge success when he played opposite Patrick Swayze in the 1985 landmark mini-series, “North and South.” One of the most recognizable faces on television, Read, who turned 68 on Saturday, continues to work steadily and can currently be seen in a recurring role on daytime TV in the long-running soap, “Days of Our Lives.”

“I still kind of marvel at all this and how I actually get paid to do it,” said Read from his home outside Los Angeles last week. “And I love it. It’s great fun. If I didn’t do it professionally, I’d probably still be an actor doing community theater.”

Before he discovered his love of performing, Read thought he was going to become a forest ranger.

“I wanted to start college with a firm idea of what I wanted to do,” remembered Read. “Given the times, 1971, I thought I would be happy being a forest ranger, so I applied to the University of Vermont and got into their forestry program. Before long I realized that wasn’t even close to what might make me happy. I suddenly had no idea what I wanted to do, so I dropped out of college for about a year and a half.”

He spent much of that time backpacking around Europe, by himself, without any ability to speak a foreign language.

“When I got to England, it was great because I could talk to people, but I still didn’t know anybody,” said Read. “I figured it’d be a good idea to go to the theater so I started to go to the West End and Stratford. That was my first real introduction to the theater, and I was blown away by it. I realized what potential the theater had. I appreciated what it could do to an audience.”

Back to school

When Read returned to the U.S. from Europe, he immediately re-started his college life.

“I decided I had to go back to school and do it right away because if I hadn’t done it then, I might not have ever gone,” he said. “I wanted to keep up the travel mode I was in, and because I had never been west of Buffalo, I applied to places where I might want to live. So I applied to Oregon and got accepted.”

He headed to the West Coast in pursuit of a degree in television production, but his good looks helped keep him in front of the camera, or at that point at least, on stage.

“I got involved in a few student plays, and I got cast in my first year,” Read remembered. “Nobody knew who I was because I wasn’t a theater major and I wasn’t taking any drama classes, so I was kind of an outlier. But I got cast in a production of ‘Our Town,’ and it ended up being very successful. We won a regional competition and ended up going to the Kennedy Center for the National College Theater Festival. That was my first experience with a full-scale production and it was all pretty intoxicating. So I continued to do plays.”

Next stop: Denver

After graduation, Read headed to New York to find a job in television production, but ended up performing in a few off-off-Broadway productions. Then on a cross-country trip in 1979 his automobile died while he was driving through Denver.

“I was heading back west, my car blew up in Denver, so one night in Denver turned into three years,” said Read.

He got hired by the Denver Circle Theatre as an understudy and when one of the key actors was injured during opening night, Read filled in for the rest of the run.

“I became a full-fledged member of the company, I got my union card, and I had a great time there, but when you want to become a professional actor and make a living, there are only two places to go. New York and Los Angeles. So I headed to LA.”

Sending him on his way with her best wishes was the director of the Denver Circle Theater, Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, who has been at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany for more than two decades now, currently as producing artistic director.

I still remember Jim’s performance in ‘American Buffalo’ and ‘Miss Julie,’ and it was clear he was capable of great things,” said Mancinelli-Cahill. “He had the ability to draw audiences to him. He was a very charismatic actor.”

Mancinelli-Cahill said Read was both confident and easy to like.

“He was wonderful and cocky,” she said. “I loved every minute of working with him. He could see through a phony in half a second, and he could make me laugh. I love that in an actor.”

Regular work in LA

Read didn’t have a lot of idle time when he got to Los Angeles. His first gig was a quick spot on “Cheers” in 1982, and after spending most of 1983 on “Remington Steel,” he was never out of work for long. In 1984 he began working on a mini-series being produced by David L. Wolper, the man who had created “Roots” in 1977 and “The Thorn Birds” in 1983.” “North and South” made Read a star, and he remained with the series for the second installment in 1986 and a third version in 1994.

“I was coming up the ladder, doing a lot of episodic roles, and I was in France doing a TV movie called ‘Lace II,’ when my agent called me,” remembered Read. “Warner Brothers was doing ‘Lace II,’ and they were also planning this huge mini-series about the Civil War based on the novels by John Jakes. I was getting ready to take a flight back to Schenectady, and my agent asked me to come to LA instead. She was quite insistent that I come back to LA, so I did.”

Read got the gig as George Hazard, a northerner at West Point, and worked alongside Swayze, who played a cadet named Orry Main from the South. Their on-camera chemistry helped make the series a huge success.

“We spent a lot of time together and became quite close while shooting ‘North and South,’ ” Read said of Swayze, who died of cancer in 2009. “We lost touch in later years, but I’ll always remember him fondly.”

Despite being a busy actor, Read found time in 1988 to marry Wendy Kilbourne, who he had met while filming “North and South,” and begin raising a family. He also had the energy to begin pursuing a masters in psychology at Pepperdine University.

“I was always fascinated by child psychology, and I just had a new baby, so I managed to fit in a few things around my schedule and I began taking classes at Pepperdine,” said Read. “I thought, ‘what could I do during a lull in my career,’ but it really just became an intellectual pursuit. It took a while but I did finish.”

Return to Niskayuna

While the remains of his parents, Wally and Irish Read, are in the columbarium at First Reformed, he has little reason to come back to the Schenectady area these days. He did, however, return in 1986 to be inducted into the Niskayuna High School Hall of Fame, and in 2010 he came back for a combined reunion with the class of 1970 and 1971. Mark Mindel, a 1970 Niskayuna grad, grew up in the same Upper Union Street neighborhood as Read and was a good friend before the Reads moved up Route 7 to Avon Crest.

“We played a lot together in what was a close-knit neighborhood before he moved to a different part of Niskayuna,” said Mindel, a long-time teacher and one of the Capital Region’s top long-distance runners for years. “We had a lot of fun and the Reads, his older brother Billy and younger sister Robin, were just part of the gang. I was closest to Jimmy because he was only a year behind me. He was a very nice person and it was great to see him at our reunion in 2010.”

Read, a Buffalo native who moved to Niskayuna in the fifth grade, doesn’t remember being that active in high school activities other than being a three-year member of the ski club.

“I kind of grew up at the First Reformed, and Mary Bee was the person who was directing the drama club at the church,” said Read. “She had also directed at Schenectady Light Opera Company and a few other places, but other than those little dramas we did at First Reformed, I never really got any traction at Niskayuna. I was more interested in rebelling against all forms of authority, so I never did anything structured with the school. I went out for football once, but I was a six-foot beanpole and I got the crap kicked out of me.”

Read fondly remembers Frank Taormina, his principal at Van Antwerp Junior High as well as the high school, and when he was inducted into the Niskayuna Hall of Fame in 1986, he was asked to single out a favorite teacher. He selected Gary Goodness.

“He was my physics teacher, so I surprised a lot of people when I mentioned him,” said Read, who around that time also earned good reviews for playing Cary Grant in the 1987 television movie, ‘Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story.’ “I wasn’t a good physics student. I was terrible. But he was an exceptional teacher and very entertaining. He was one of those people that are involved in an occupation they were born to do, so I wanted to honor him and his commitment.”

Along with his television movies and regular guest appearances, Read has also had recurring roles on “Persons Unknown” (2010) and “Charmed” (2001-2006). He recently worked for Seth MacFarlane for season three of “The Orville” on Hulu, but the show hasn’t aired yet.

“Having recurring roles, to me, that’s kind of perfect,” he said. “I’m more than an hour outside of LA so doing anything on a daily basis can be exhausting. Doing recurring roles I enjoy both a steady income and the ability to do other projects.”

He has no plans on retiring anytime soon.

“I don’t know too many actors who officially retire,” he said, laughing. “You can’t play the leading man anymore, but as long as I can remember my lines and hit my marks, I expect to keep on acting. If the right role comes along, I’ll do it.”

While he considers “North and South” and its two sequels to be his biggest success, he counts his role as Lefty Williams in “Eight Men Out,” a film about the World Series scandal involving the 1919 Chicago White Sox, as his favorite. The film was directed by Mont Pleasant High grad John Sayles.

“That’s the film I’m most proud of,” said Read, who had never met Sayles before the two sat down together for his audition. “It has so much integrity, so well done. I knew John was from Schenectady County, too, but I don’t think that in itself got me the part. But I certainly did mention it to him at our initial meeting.”

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