Boris McGiver wants nothing to do with the fame associated with being a busy actor. And while success is wonderful, he still takes nothing for granted.
“Oh gosh, I don’t think I’ve ever had that sudden realization that, ‘I’m going to be fine now,’ because you honestly never know,” said McGiver, a 1979 Middleburgh High graduate who has developed into one of Hollywood’s most highly sought-after character actors.
“That never happened to me. I’ve had a few good years now, and for the first time I’ve been able to put money aside for my kid’s college education. But acting is tough. You can have a successful year, and then not work for a year.”
McGiver currently plays journalist Tom Hammerschmidt in the popular Netflix series “House of Cards,” starring Kevin Spacey. He returned to the role in season four after being written out of the show in season two. He’s also had small but significant roles in other popular films and television shows such as “Lincoln,” “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire.”
“My ‘House of Cards’ character got fired so I was written out of the show in the middle of season two,” said McGiver, who lives in West Fulton in Schoharie County with his wife and daughter. “I never expected to come back. Hey, I understand the business. It happens.
“Then out of the blue I get a phone call and for whatever reason they wanted my character back. I was asked by Netflix not to mention to anyone that I was coming back to the show. My character is an investigative journalist, and that might have given people some ideas about the plot for the fourth season.”
The son of John McGiver, also a character actor and one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood in the 1960s, Boris was never eager to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I kind of denied it throughout my childhood because my dad was an actor and he was never around,” said McGiver, who was the ninth of 10 children. “He had to feed 10 kids, he was always working, so to me acting was never connected to something good, and I had never realized what an art it was. I thought it was just playtime.”
McGiver’s father was born in New York City and became a high-school English teacher after graduating from Fordham University and getting a master’s from Columbia and Catholic University. After serving in Europe during World War, II he returned home and went back to teaching.
In 1955, after performing in a handful of off-Broadway plays, John McGiver became a full-time actor. He was all over television throughout the 1960s, and got roles in films such as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) and “Midnight Cowboy” (1969). He died of a heart attack at home in West Fulton in Schoharie County in 1975 at the age of 61.
“He moved the family upstate after the fourth child was born but just as a summer home,” said McGiver, who is 54. “After the seventh child, he made it our permanent home. He didn’t want his kids around the business. There were plenty of pitfalls, and he didn’t really like the fame. None of us did. There’s a lot of demand in this business.”
McGiver might not have become an actor if not for the urging of Bruce Bouchard, the founding artistic director at Capital Repertory Theatre and also an adjunct drama professor at the University at Albany.
In 1986, when McGiver was studying at UAlbany and serving as an intern at Capital Rep, Bouchard pushed him to audition for a part in “Ironweed,” the 1988 film based on William Kennedy’s novel that starred Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.
“I was spending a semester working at Cap Rep, and when ‘Ironweed’ came to town I didn’t want anything to do with it,” remembered McGiver. “I just wasn’t attracted to the energy that kind of thing creates. Nobody in my family wanted anything to do with publicity. But Bruce set up an appointment for me for one of the smaller roles. He told me, ‘what’s the big deal? Just go and audition and we’ll cover for you at Cap Rep.’ ”
McGiver went to the audition, remembers being very upset with director Hector Babenco for being two hours late, and then left convinced he wasn’t going to hear from them again.
“I wasn’t right for the role, but I did get a phone call that night, telling me they wanted me as a utility actor for the whole show,” he said. “I didn’t really know what a utility actor was. They were willing to pay me 50 bucks a day for the whole shoot, four months, and Bruce told me, ‘go, go, I’ll give you 12 credits for just doing that.’
“So I went to the Turf Inn on Wolf Road, and I’m sitting there in this small room and in walks Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, and then Tom Waits and Hector. I sat for two weeks around the table with those four people while they read their lines and I read all the other lines. What an amazing introduction to the business that was.”
McGiver did get to share one small scene with Streep in the movie, and by that time a career that followed in his father’s footsteps seemed inevitable. Earlier, he had hoped to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“I got accepted to the Air Force Academy, I have the plaque, but I went to their exchange program and was told to wait a year,” he said. “But during that time my physical makeup changed ever so slightly, my knees were questionable, and I got bumped,” said McGiver.
“It was the biggest heartbreak of my life. But then I went to a few different schools, spent about a year and a half at Albany and then went to NYU for my master’s. NYU was a great acting school and I got three years of intensive training there.”
No doubt of talent
Bouchard, now executive director of the Paramount Theatre in downtown Rutland, Vermont, said he never doubted McGiver’s talent as a performer.
“I encouraged him a lot, which is what I do with young actors who deserve it,” said Bouchard. “If I see a kid who can have a career, I pull him aside and say, ‘hey, I need to have a serious talk with you.’ Boris was one of those kids. He occupies a special place in my heart.”
As a busy actor in New York City in the 1970s, Bouchard had the opportunity to meet John McGiver.
“I tangentially knew Boris’s father because in my early acting days we hung out at some of the same watering holes,” he remembered. “I met John when he was a god. When his son comes along a few years later I sort of took him under my wing. He’s so talented, but then the best thing about him is that you couldn’t find a sweeter, more considerate and compassionate human being than Boris McGiver.”
Film critic and UAlbany professor Rob Edelman is also a big fan of the McGiver acting clan.
“Boris McGiver is one of those actors whose face is familiar but whose name you might not recognize,” said Edelman. “In other words, he’s just like his father. He may not have what it takes to become that major star. He’s no Brad Pitt, so you might not see him on the red carpet. But he’s a talented guy and that talent will get him endless roles in television and film.”
John McGiver was perfectly cast in movies such as “Midnight Cowboy” and “The Manchurian Candidate,” according to Edelman, and his son is continuing that wonderful legacy.
“I screened ‘Midnight Cowboy’ in my film class, and John McGiver is great in that role,” said Edelman. “Then he’s a completely different character in ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ with [Frank] Sinatra, and he’s perfect in that role, too. I’m a big fan of ‘House of Cards,’ and I’ve also seen Boris in one of my other favorites, ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ Like his father, he can play any kind of character and does a great job.”
Role in ‘lincoln’
In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” McGiver played Alexander Coffroth, a tame and timid member of Congress who in one scene had to deal with the scorn of his colleague, Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones.
“Tommy and I had a great time doing that scene,” said McGiver. “We didn’t need more than one or two takes. He is the best, obviously, and I was able to step up to the plate and hang in there with him, or maybe hang on to his coattails. The whole movie was a great experience. Steven Spielberg is beautiful, humble human being. I loved working with him.”
McGiver returned to Schoharie County in 2007 and lives in West Fulton, where members of his family have created a not-for-profit arts venue known as Panther Creek Arts. Along with his vast TV and film credits, McGiver has performed live theater around the country, and acted on Broadway in “The War Horse” (2012) and “Desire Under the Elms” (2009).
Only 13 when his father died suddenly, McGiver never received any professional advice from the premiere character actor of that time. His mother, Ruth Schmigelsky, however, assured her son that an acting career was something he should pursue. Schmigelsky, a scenic designer and a Chicago native, passed away in 1991.
“My whole family is fairly dramatic, but I’m the only one who gets paid to act,” he said, laughing. “After my dad died, if I needed someone to talk to it was always my mother. She told me once about acting, ‘of all my children you have the blessing.’ She said I had the diligence for it.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]