Howard Platt’s big breakthrough role didn’t come in “Sanford and Son,” “The Bob Newhart Show” or “Evening Shade.” It came much earlier, on the stage.
“I was 19 or 20, playing 65-year old Walter Fenn in “Someone Waiting” by Emlyn Williams in St. Louis, and I was scared to death,” said Platt, a familiar face to television fans of the 1970s and ’80s.
“Well, I went through with it, things went OK, and my character was never off stage. That was my breakthrough. I said to myself, ‘if I can do this, I can do anything.’ ”
That was more than 50 years ago.
These days Platt is back on the stage in Frank McCourt’s “A Couple of Blaguards,” coming to the GE Theater at Proctors for eight shows beginning Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Frank McCourt (“Angela’s Ashes”) and his brother Malachy, the play is an autobiographical account of their days growing up in dire circumstances in Ireland as well as their experience as young men in Brooklyn.
‘A Couple of Blaguards’
WHERE: GE Theatre, Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 5
HOW MUCH: $45-$20
MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
While Platt portrays Malachy McCourt and Jarlath Conroy is Frank, the two veterans of stage, screen and TV also play a variety of other characters in the two-man show.
“It’s just the two of us, and we play some pretty wild characters,” said Platt. “From outrageous women to strange priests and a lot of politicians. Frank and Malachy have a great eye for humor, and the play is a series of comic scenes from their life. Some people have called it Irish Vaudeville.”
It was Platt who helped produce the first “A Couple of Blaguards” with the McCourt brothers in Chicago in 1984. Along with producing, he continues to direct the play and remains one of the stars.
A close friend of both McCourts, Platt was Frank’s best man at his second wedding in 1984.
“We opened it together in Chicago and then when Frank had such great success with ‘Angela’s Ashes,’ we decided to open it again in New York,” said Platt.
“When I started acting in it, I usually played Malachy, but I can play Frank if necessary, like when the other actor got sick. It’s one of the funniest shows I’ve ever been involved in, and I’ve been around a lot of funny shows.”
That’s an understatement. Platt was Hoppy the Cop on “Sanford and Son,” Dr. Phil Newman on “The Bob Newhart Show,” and Judge Jonathan Stockfish on “Evening Shade” with Burt Reynolds.
A Chicago native, Platt got involved in theater after getting out of the Army and eventually made his way to Los Angeles, where he found steady work in television.
After landing his recurring role on “The Bob Newhart Show” in 1973, Platt got another great gig in 1976 when he played John Travolta’s neighbor in the highly-successful television movie, “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.” But he seemed to have a knack for comedy, and working with guys like Newhart and Red Foxx make that kind of work very enjoyable.
“Bob was funny, but he was subtle and fairly quiet when he walked into a room,” said Platt. “Red was funny when he walked into the room. He was always funny. I could tell you stories but you couldn’t print them. Working on both of those shows was always a fun time.”
His favorite experience, however, was working on “Flying High” with Connie Selleca during the 1978-79 season. Selleca played a stewardess and Platt was the captain of the plane. In real life, the two were living together in Hollywood and engaged to be married. She was 23. He was 40.
“That was the most fun I ever had as an actor,” remembered Platt. “We did 18 one-hour episodes, and one of the producers told our director to, ‘just let Howard go. Just let him figure it out.’ I would invent things up as we went along, so everyone had to be prepared.”
The engagement to Sellica, who went on to find success with “The Greatest American Hero” (1981-86) and “Hotel,” (1983-88) didn’t last.
“Well, the truth is she was 18 years younger than I was, and I felt like we were from two different generations,” said Platt.
“Her friends would come over to our apartment, and I felt like they were all teenagers. I was the old guy. And my friends would come over and hand her a bouquet of flowers. Very old fashion. I just got scared, so I checked out of that situation.”
While Platt does occasional television work these days, most of his time is busy with regional theater, either as a director, producer or actor. He and Conroy get together to do “A Couple of Blaguards” whenever the time is right.
“We have a booker and we’re always happy when he lines something up for us,” said Platt. “Our longest gig was seven weeks in Toronto, so that was fun. I just love working with Jarlath because he has a deep understanding of the material. There are some very poignant moments, but there are just a few of them. It is very much a comedy.”
According to Platt it is Conroy, whose film credits include “Day of the Dead” (1985), “Kinsey” (2004) and “True Grit” (2010), who delivers most of the best lines as Frank McCourt.
“I was talking to Frank about it and he told me how he wrote the best lines for himself,” said Platt. “When I’m directing, I tell the guy playing Frank, ‘just say the line, don’t play it.’ It doesn’t require any grand histrionics. You just read it, and it’s hilarious.”
Frank McCourt died in 2009 at the age of 78. Malachy, now 83, has enjoyed a long career on the stage and in film. In 2006 he was also the Green Party candidate for governor of New York.