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Courtney Vance rides theater skill to Hollywood

Brian Wright O’Connor
Courtney Vance rides theater skill to Hollywood
Actor Courtney Vance, a Harvard graduate, spoke about his journey at the university’s Winthrop House residence hall on Sept. 18.

Courtney Vance with Winthrop House co-masters Stephanie Robinson and Ron Sullivan at Harvard University.

Courtney Bernard Vance, widely known as dapper District Attorney Ron Carver from television’s Law and Order returned to his alma mater on Sept. 18 to talk about his journey “From Harvard to Hollywood.”

But coming off an award-winning Broadway run, the 1982 Harvard University grad largely skipped over the small- and silver-screen phases of his career to focus on his greatest love — the roar of the lights and the smell of the crowd — and its lessons for us all.

In an introspective, 75-minute jazz-inflected riff on the wonders of the stage, Vance invoked basketball verities, celebrity encounters and thespian training to weave the message that the theater prepares you for the unexpected and plumbs depths of character rarely accessible to those who never dare.

Vance’s appearance kicked off the Perini-Woods Memorial Speaker Series at Winthrop House, an undergraduate residence hall. The dorm’s co-masters, Harvard Law professors Ron Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson, provided a wing-back chair for the injured thespian, clad in a dark blazer, open-collared shirt and black Nike warm-ups.

“The foundational training prepares you to do what jazz musicians do,” said Vance, who arrived limping after surgery for a torn meniscus, aggravated during the long run of Lucky Guy, in which he played “Hap” Hairston alongside Tom Hanks. “They use their training to speak the same language of rhythm and notes that’s obscure to the rest of us.”

To illustrate his point, the 2013 Tony Award winner sounded a basso-profundo note, followed by a tenor measure — a musical monologue that filled the wood-paneled Junior Common Room with the fading light of late summer coming in from the tall windows overlooking the Charles River.

“On the stage, just like a musician in a live performance, you have to be able to close your eyes and just go — trusting in the play, the actors and the audience. At times, you’ve got to make it up as you go. Just like life,” said the 53-year-old Detroit native.

Showing up at Harvard as a three-sport all-star jock more interested in track than theater, Vance found during his freshman year that he wasn’t expanding his mind or making new friends by running fast and turning left for hours every day. Meanwhile, his classmates seemed more sure-footed in what they wanted out of an education.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I came here, but everyone else did. I remember going home and my mother and father said to me, ‘You don’t seem yourself. What’s wrong?’ I told them I was thinking of taking some time off. You can imagine how that went over.”

Vance’s mother, a librarian, and his father, a grocery store manager, hadn’t sacrificed to send him to the private Detroit Country Day School so he could become an Ivy League drop-out. He stuck it out. “It was time to let competitive athletics go. The coach wasn’t happy. I came back my sophomore year and I started doing plays. And every time I did a play I met new people. My aunt, who lived in Boston, came to see me in a play and said, ‘You should be an actor.’”

By his junior year, Vance had gone beyond Harvard Yard in search of theatrical opportunity, riding his bike across the Charles River to join the Boston Shakespeare Company. His schedule had him rising at 5:30 a.m. to deliver newspapers, then moving on to classes, rehearsals and homework. “I was doing anything and everything on stage. It had nothing to do with color and everything to do with my interest and passion,” said Vance.

The routine proved just as grueling after he polished his craft at Yale Drama School — where he met his future wife, actress Angela Bassett — and started landing roles on the New York stage.

“We think of Broadway as glamorous, but think about doing eight shows a week. How am I to get myself up to what I have to do again and again and again? And what complicates it even more is that life happens on the way to theater. But you discover that your best performances may come when you’re tired, when you think you can least do it. The magic happens when you don’t think about it,” he said, looking to the ceiling and passing his hands in front of his face. “The music starts and whoosh! You’re in it.”

He compared “the zone” that live performers enter to the honed instincts of professional athletes like the Miami Heat’s Ray Allen, who took an inbound pass, turned and sank a three-pointer to tie game 6 in the NBA finals against the Spurs. “Why did he have the ball? Why did Larry Bird always have the ball at the end of the game? Because they’re in the gym taking shots two hours before practice begins.”

In his first Broadway performance out of New Haven, Conn., Vance played the role of Cory Maxon alongside James Earl Jones in Lloyd Richards’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Fences. Jones, an accomplished Shakespearean actor who made his mark in popular culture as Darth Vader in Star Wars, played Troy Maxon, the stifling father whose shadow the son longs to escape.

Though schooled in theater at Harvard, Yale and elite acting workshops in the Berkshires, Vance didn’t know enough to avoid stepping on theatrical toes. Richards, directing the play, gently pointed out that when addressing Jones, Vance should move downstage and turn his back so that the celebrity star faced the audience.

“’You’re upstaging him,’ Lloyd told me. The lightbulb went on. So that’s what it means!”

Awards, recognition, and new opportunities poured in for Vance after Fences. He won a Tony nomination for his performance as Paul in Six Degrees of Separation in 1991 and wide acclaim for his role as Jim in the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. By then, he had begun moving from the stage to film roles, including in 1990 The Hunt for Red October and his first appearance in Law and Order. He also played the Rev. Henry Biggs in the 1996 movie The Preacher’s Wife with Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington.

In 1997, he and Bassett married. They are now the parents of 7-year-old twins.

His return to the stage this season for Lucky Guy after a 20-year absence from Broadway brought back the butterflies and fears but also the rewards of acting on the edge. The play marked a return to Broadway for Hanks as well.

​“We had Oprah in the house, Denzel. They all came backstage and we took pictures. We are the most picture-ing-est-taking cast on Broadway. Then Meryl Streep came. Meryl Streep? There’s nobody like her. We stood back and nobody dared asked for a picture. I saw Sophie’s Choice. I read the book. She’s the reason I went to Yale. Up on stage, nobody goes that deep — except my wife,” said Vance.

Vance’s primer on theater as life concluded with two points. The first, that the stage teaches us “to live in the moment, to synthesize. You leave these hallowed halls and out there it gets ugly. You’ve got to innovate.”

Second, the stage teaches responsibility to show kindness. He recalled meeting a mother and her daughter backstage with Tom Hanks, who was left weeping by the teenager’s story of how his movies helped keep her alive during a serious illness.

“Afterwards, Tom said to me, ‘You think we just do what we do and we go home. But we never really know how we’re affecting people. That’s why we have to be kind.”