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The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin - Off-Broadway

Roundabout Theatre Company presents the world premiere of Steven Levenson's drama.

Tom Durnin’s David Morse on Making Movie Magic in The Green Mile and Finding the Humanity in Monstrous Men

Tom Durnin’s David Morse on Making Movie Magic in The Green Mile and Finding the Humanity in Monstrous Men
David Morse
David Morse's future as an actor was sealed after reading a play aloud in eighth grade.

From St. Elsewhere to The Green Mile to John Adams to Treme, David Morse has worked steadily on TV and in feature films for more than 30 years. His stage work is less well known, but anyone who saw his performance as Uncle Peck in the 1997 premiere of Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive knows that Morse is unsurpassed at bringing intensity and humanity to deeply flawed characters. He’s doing it again this summer in the title role of The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin as a Ponzi-scheming lawyer who emerges from prison hoping to reunite with a family whose lives were destroyed by his crimes. Morse’s Role Call goes all the way back to Mrs. Baker’s eighth grade English class in Massachusetts and includes a trio of films that sparked his distinguished career.

Role That Was a Perfect Theatrical Experience
“I don’t think any of us understood how extraordinary How I Learned to Drive [1997, as Uncle Peck; Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Awards for Best Actor] was until we saw the effect it had on an audience. Paula [Vogel] took a challenging situation—a character who was a pedophile—and presented the story in a way that moved people in a surprising way. She wrote the play with so much love, and that’s what I worked from. Uncle Peck would never see himself as a pedophile. He says he loved Li’l Bit [Mary-Louise Parker] from the day she was born. Clearly, terrible things had happened to him in World War II and he was a victim of child abuse, but he didn’t allow himself to think about that. Mark Brokaw’s staging was impressionistic, which is one of the grand things about theater: When it engages the imagination, it becomes powerful. The entire experience felt like a gift.”

Role With an Inspiring Mentor
“I’ve had the chance to work with Christopher Plummer, one of the great stage and film actors, a couple of times, including on Prototype [1983], the first TV movie I ever did. It was science fiction in the Ray Bradbury sense, written by the famous team who created Columbo, Levinson and Link. Christopher Plummer played a scientist, and I played a computer he created that looked like a human being. He discovers that the government is going to use his creation as a killing machine, so he runs away with it. The movie was really a simple love story about the relationship between a father and son, although the “son” was a piece of artificial intelligence. I had the great good fortune of working with Christopher Plummer, Frances Sternhagen and Arthur Hill early in my career, and it set a standard for the kind of work I want to do.”

Role in an All-Star Ensemble
The Green Mile [1999, as prison guard Brutus “Brutal” Howell] was another experience where no matter where you looked on the set, someone was doing the best work of their career. It was one of those extraordinary scripts everyone wanted to be part of—Tom Hanks, Patricia Clarkson, Gary Sinise—just an amazing group of actors. Michael Clarke Duncan, who passed away recently, and Michael Jeter, who passed away a while ago, had so much heart; they are a big part of what makes that movie so meaningful to people. My character, Tom Hanks’ right-hand guy, was very tough and unsentimental, but he had a great appreciation for the humanity of the people on Death Row, and that’s what I loved about him.”

Role That Was the Most Contemporary
“The role I’m doing now [in The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin] is a hard one; it's emotionally demanding, but I love the play. Tom Durnin was like a lot of people living the high life, making a lot of money and pushing the limits of what’s legal. He’s isolated from the world by his greed and arrogance. [In rehearsal] we never even talked about Bernie Madoff, who was in a different league in terms of betrayal of people from the guy I’m playing. This was a classic white-collar crime, and he took the fall and did his time. When he gets out of prison, he has lost everything—all he has left is his family, who will not have anything to do with him. He has incredible flaws, but to me, he’s just a guy trying to get in touch with the most basic things in his life, which is the love he had for his wife and children.”

Role That Sparked My Movie Career
“I never intended to do television, but after St. Elsewhere, I did nothing but television for 10 years. Sean Penn changed my life by casting me in his first movie [as writer/director], The Indian Runner [1991, as Joe Roberts]. He had written a beautiful script about two brothers, from the Bruce Springsteen song ‘Highway Patrolman.’ He cast Viggo Mortensen as the “bad” brother, a guy who came back to Nebraska from the [Vietnam] war and kept getting into trouble. The producers wanted a big star for the other role, a small town sheriff, but Sean fought for me, and then he cast me with Jack Nicholson in his next film, The Crossing Guard. It’s still hard for me to believe that he hired me for two films that were so precious to him. It was a real honor, and it helped me make the transition back into the movies. I even think that experience led me to How I Learned to Drive.”

Role That Made Me Want to Act
“I want to talk about my very first play, when I was in eighth grade. One day, my English teacher, Mrs. Baker, announced that we were going to read On Borrowed Time out loud in class. I was a mediocre student; I was terrified that she was going to call on me, so I hid my head. Well, she did call on me, and she asked me to read the role of the grandfather [played on screen by Lionel Barrymore]. I began reading, and something woke up in me that was just thrilling. We stopped at the end of the first act, and I wanted to keep doing it. The next week, we read the second act, and again, I had this feeling of leaving myself—I was a 13-year-old kid, but I believed that I was 80. To this day, that’s what I love the most: finding and playing characters who are out of my experience.”

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