Saturday, September 23, 2006

INTERVIEW - JONATHAN DUNN RANKIN

I donned my nurse’s outfit to visit Jonathan Dunn Rankin at his home where he is recuperating from open-heart quadruple bypass surgery recently. We chatted up a storm about his life and career and plans for the future. I inspected his scars from his recent surgery and found him alert, mending nicely, and anxious to get back to the business of life.

Cuauhtémoc Q. Kish (CQK): When did you get the acting bug?

Jonathan Dunn-Rankin (JDR): It started when I was very young. My parents and brothers and I used to play the old-fashioned charades where you act out the syllables and words. My parents were very fond of theatre.

CQK: And from there...?

JDR: We were living in a little town called Surfside just north of Miami Beach. I remember my fifth grade class at North Beach Elementary was assigned the school assembly program for Halloween. Our teacher, Mrs. Elam, read us a few stories about ghosts and goblins and witches and then announced that we were each to write a play for the occasion and the class would pick the best one. Out of 25 kids there were 24 plays about ghosts and goblins and such. But I chose to write about a bunch of kids who got dressed up in costumes and went trick or treating. They were invited in by Mr. and Mrs. Apple and entertained with games and a fortune teller, a part I had written for myself. The class overwhelmingly picked my play to perform. But Mrs. Elam said, “Jonathan, don’t you think because you wrote the play someone else should play the fortune teller?” It was then that I made a decision. If you can’t act the part, there’s no fun in writing.

CQK: So you pursued and limited yourself to acting from that point?

JDR: I had the leads in my junior and senior class plays and was active in the Drama Club.

CQK: When did your broadcasting career begin?

JDR: We moved to Winter Park, just outside Orlando, in the middle of my junior year. And at Winter Park High School I formed the Radio Production Club which presented a program of high school news from the region every Saturday on station WHOO called High News at High Noon. The staff announcer assigned to the program said to me the first Saturday, “You have a good voice. How would you like to be the announcer?” And a broadcasting career was born.

CQK: How did you manage to get a paying job on radio at such a young age?

JDR: There was no pay for High News. But the program director on WDBO (“Way Down By Orlando”), who doubled as Uncle Walt on a kiddies show, heard me and hired me for weekend work. On Saturday mornings I played 45s and read commercials before the station joined the network for Let’s Pretend and Grand Central Station. I also did the station breaks between shows on the Sunday night lineup of Amos & Andy, Jack Benny, Fred Allen and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

CQK: And after high school...?

JDR: I graduated in 1948 and received a scholarship to Columbia College in New York, my father’s alma mater. The big city was quite a heady experience for a boy from a small town in Florida. I volunteered for the campus radio station and tried out for a play by a Columbia graduate about Abelard and Heloise called The Edge of Doom. I was cast as Leotulph of Navarre, the young monk who read the damning heresy of Abelard at his trial. I couldn’t make sense of it and read it in a sing-song fashion while gazing with sheep’s eyes at my fellow monk and mentor, Alberich. It was just what the director wanted and drew gales of laughter. I was hooked. But my studies were affected and I dropped out after a year to work at various jobs. I moved into a one-room flat on 108th Street in a fifth floor walkup with a shared kitchen and bath. I was soon rescued by my mother’s sister and her husband, Aunt Lillian and Uncle Voorhis, who invited me to board at their home in Hackensack, New Jersey. I paid them a token $10 a week for room and board.

CQK: How long did you stay with Aunt Lillian and Uncle Voorhis?

JDR: About a year. I then returned to Central Florida to enroll as a freshman day student at Rollins College. My brother Derek was a student as well and was editor of the school’s weekly newspaper, The Sandspur. I became his proofreader and features editor while working weekends at various radio stations until I had worked at all of the stations in Orlando. I also got back into acting appearing in two plays, The Walrus and the Carpenter and The Warrior’s Husband, with Tony Perkins before he went on to Broadway and Hollywood. Another classmate was John Reardon who enjoyed success on Broadway and with the New York City Opera. Also at Rollins was Fred McFeely Rogers of Mr. Rogers fame.

CQK: Did you secure your degree at Rollins in theatre?

JDR: I dropped out of Rollins after my junior year to work full time at WHOO. I had a regular dinner hour show and was a vacation fill-in for morning drive, midday country music and afternoon jazz programs, quite an eclectic mix. When the woman who prepared the daily logs, listing all the commercials, promos and public service announcements, went on maternity leave, I took over her job as traffic director as well. But since I had lost my student deferment, I was soon drafted into “the new Army” and sent to Camp Gordon, Georgia, for basic training. I had dreams of working for Armed Forces Radio but at the end of basic training they told me I was going to become an MP. My face fell. Not the Military Police! The sergeant saw my dismay, scanned my record, noted that I had been a radio announcer and said, “Maybe something in the Signal Corps would be more your line.” While I was on leave I got orders to report for a 20-week course at Camp Gordon’s Teletype Maintenance School. I aced all the written tests and was declared outstanding graduate of the cycle. But there was one final test not counted in the scores, to actually fix four problems in teletype machines. I failed in all four! I was shipped to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, near the Mexican border. The town outside the base was called Fry because the place was so hot. It was later changed to Sierra Vista. Instead of working as a teletype repairman, I gladly accepted a TI&E (Troop Information and Education) position when it was offered to me.

CQK: Did you discover theatre in the town of Fry?

JDR: Actually on the post, yes. I played Waldo Lydecker in Laura and Carleton Fitzgerald in Light up the Sky with The Fort Huachuca Players until I received orders for Europe.

CQK: Where were you assigned in Europe?

JDR: Saran, France, outside of Orléans. By a strange twist of fate I ended up working another TI&E position in the small Signal Company until I left the service.

CQK: Any theatre participation in France?

JDR: Yes, this time with the Orin Players, where I played the same roles I had in Arizona. The Army offered an early release to attend college and I returned to Rollins for my final year in January 1956.

CQK: At Rollins College I assume you majored in Theatre?

JDR: Actually, no. I did manage to be cast as Prospero in The Tempest, Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, and the twin brothers Hugo and Frederic in Ring Round the Moon, however. The theatre majors were not very happy with that. It was only in my last term at Rollins that I actually enrolled in an acting class.

CQK: What happened after you graduated from Rollins?

JDR: I went back to Columbia, to the Graduate School of Journalism. This time I knew what I wanted to study: TV News. I was one of 72 students in the school on the way to securing a Masters. We were assigned news coverage like any professional in the field. I actually interned for a week at CBS in New York and observed every step in producing Douglas Edwards with the News.

CQK: And after you graduated from Columbia...?

JDR: I returned to Central Florida and applied and got turned down by the three local affiliates of NBC, ABC, and CBS. I secured a job with the Orlando Sentinel as a reporter on the coveted court house beat. A year later the ABC station, WLOF-TV, hired me as news director. Actually, I was the entire news department – cameraman, writer, editor, and newscaster on two nightly 15-minutes newscasts.

CQK: How long did you continue with this news program?

JDR: For two years. I placed an ad in Broadcasting Magazine and got a call from KYW in Cleveland. They flew me to Ohio, interviewed me and immediately offered me a job as night news editor. I stayed with them for about nine months.

CQK: Were you offered another job somewhere else?

JDR: No, I left due to some peculiar circumstances in which I ended up being the fall guy, but management wrote me a nice letter of recommendation and gave me a handsome severance package, so I had money in my pocket. I just hopped in my car and began driving across the USA visiting 63 newsrooms along the way, determined not to work where it snowed in the winter.

CQK: Eventually you ran out of gas?

JDR: Not exactly. I accepted a job in Phoenix as a newscaster/reporter for KTAR-TV and stayed for two and a half years.

CQK: Was San Diego the next stop on your career ladder?

JDR: Yes. In 1965 I was visiting San Diego over Easter weekend with friends and I walked right into a job at Channel 8.

CQK: How long did you stay with Channel 8?

JDR: I stayed with KFMB-TV for 13 years. I had volunteered to be the union shop steward during my tenure there which was good preparation for other positions with AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, later on. I was let go at the end of 1977. Everyone assumed it was because of my activities as a militant union shop steward, which was illegal, but proving it was another matter. So, I took the 16 weeks of severance pay and went on unemployment for six months.

CQK: Was that the end of your broadcasting career?

JDR: More or less. After that I was invited to be a guest lecturer at San Diego State University and that led to teaching assignments at San Diego City College and Grossmont College as well. I did this for about six years.

CQK: Somehow you managed to find a third career with your participation with AFTRA, correct?

JDR: I had been the Acting Executive Director of the San Diego Local when I applied for and was hired as a National Representative of AFTRA, serving newsroom units at small stations in the west - Portland and Eugene, Oregon, Sacramento, Fresno, San Diego, and Honolulu. After 14 years with AFTRA National, I officially retired in 2000, although I have been called back every two years for the union’s biennial conventions. I’m on the schedule for 2007.

CQK: Where did theatre fit into your busy schedule during your participation with broadcasting and your many positions with AFTRA?

JDR: While I was with Channel 8, I performed in ten plays at The Old Globe Theatre when it was a community theatre, winning three Atlas Awards for outstanding performances in Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Balcony, and The Man in the Glass Booth with Leonard Nimoy. There were also roles in Incident at Vichy, Light up the Sky, The Unknown Soldier and His Wife, The Physicists, Sheep on the Runway, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Under Milk Wood. Since I retired from AFTRA I have also performed with Lamb’s Players, North Coast Rep, and Diversionary Theatre, where I served on the board for six years and as president for five. I’m also on the boards of the Actors Alliance and Bravo San Diego.

CQK: Weren’t you involved with the local Emmy Awards?

JDR: As executive director of the Pacific Southwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for 22 years, I was actively involved in the annual production of the regional Emmy Awards until I retired from that post in 2002.

CQK: While you were with Channel 8 you also became involved with a group called The Scripteasers…

JDR: Yes. Jack Aaronson, a fellow actor in Incident at Vichy, introduced me to the group and I became intrigued with the challenge of finding the character in the lines and making it come to life in a cold reading without any prior rehearsal. And I’ve been doing that every other Friday now for 40 years.

CQK: What do you feel you bring to a role?

JDR: Believability.

CQK: Describe yourself in three words.

JDR: Aging would-be Shakespearean actor.

CQK: Are there any obstacles to your future successes?

JDR: Age which limits the roles I’m fit for.

CQK: Where’s your retreat?

JDR: My home.

CQK: What’s a perfect day for Jonathan Dunn Rankin?

JDR: Breakfast, a meeting, a rehearsal...

CQK: What’s your favorite theatrical word?

JDR: Bravo.

CQK: What’s your favorite theatrical work?

JDR: Pygmalion.

CQK: What’s your favorite quality?

JDR: Selfishness, in the sense of surrounding myself with the people I know and like as well as the things that I acquire which make my life richer.

CQK: If you somehow made the wrong turn and ended up facing the devil at the end of your life and career, what would you say to him?

JDR: You steered me wrong.

CQK: Robert Frost summed up everything he learned in life in three words: “It goes on...” How would you sum it up?

JDR: It’s worth living.

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