Category: Archive

One happy man

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

At one point, in working up a “backstory” for his character, a sort of personal history or biography actors often create in order to flesh out what they’ve been given on paper, the Bronx-born Clohessy came up with a name for the man he’s playing, but, talking with a visitor before a recent evening performance of the play, he couldn’t remember what it was.
What the late playwright provided was mainly the establishment of Juror Six as a house painter who regarded serving on a jury for a capital case as a kind of welcome vacation from the tedium of his occupation.
It was easy for Clohessy to supply the easygoing, humane demeanor that makes his character so appealingly watchable, despite the fact that, among the jurors, he probably has the fewest words to say.
The actor pronounces his name on its second syllable, so that it rhymes, more or less with “so messy,” has a philosophical attitude toward making his Broadway.
“I guess its happening at a good time,” he said. “I went to SUNY Purchase, and when I first started out as an actor, my goal and my dream was always to get on Broadway. For the first five or six years, I did a lot of Off-Off-Broadway, practically acting in the East River. Broadway never happened, and then I got a TV show.”
The television series in question was “Hill Street Blues,” in which Clohessy had a running role, a job, which moved him to California. That was in 1986.
“After that, I lived out there for 12 years. I met my wife, Catherine, and had two boys,” he said.
In his Playbill bio for “Twelve Angry Men,” where it calls for “special talent,” the actor lists “coaching the baseball and basketball teams of sons Byron and Myles,” who are 16 and 12, and its easy to believe that he’s a terrific husband and father.
“My wife, who comes from Rye, just hated Los Angeles, so in 1998, things changed. We decided to move back,” Clohessy said. “There’s an area near Litchfield, Conn., where my wife used to go to ski when she was a kid, so she went back there and bought a house and we moved back. I thought it was a good opportunity to get back into the theater, instead of just doing TV.”
There is a certain amount of theater going on here and there in Los Angeles, but conditions are generally primitive, and the prevailing word is that you can’t get people to bestir themselves enough to come and see drama anyhow.
Whatever the reasons, Clohessy never involved himself with the theater in California.
“The first thing back, I did ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at Hartford Stage, playing Mitch in a great cast,” he said.
At this point, TV came back into Clohessy’s life, in the form of a part in the HBO series “Oz.”
“At one point, when we weren’t shooting ‘Oz,’ I went up to the Yale Rep and did a Canadian play called ‘Heaven,’ in which I played opposite Michael O’Keefe.”
O’Keefe is also back on Broadway at the moment, in another Roundabout theatre venture, the group’s revival of the Craig Lucas comedy “Reckless.” The two actors had a reunion recently when O’Keefe saw “Twelve Angry Men.”
After his stint in New Haven, Clohessy was approached about the role he’s playing now. Not that it was automatic or easy, exactly.
“Most of the parts were already cast. The part I was up for was one of two or three that weren’t, and I had to audition for it. I hadn’t read the play and I hadn’t seen the movie,” he said. “I more or less went in because it had come up. I auditioned and I got it.”
That’s how Clohessy came to be a member of one of the best ensemble casts in Broadway history, with the actors’ respect and affection for each other virtually visible from the audience.
“We got along really well, and I think that’s a big reason for the production’s success,” he said. “It’s amazing. We trust each other, and we’re able to go further, take a few chances, and help each other if necessary.”
In a sense, Clohessy, growing up in an Irish family in the Bronx, was accustomed from the start to being a part of a group that was, basically, cooperative and mutually supportive.
“My father, John, was a New York City cop,” he said. “He’s dead now, but he spent 25th years working in Fort Apache,” he added, referring to the notorious 41st precinct in the Bronx.
“My youngest brother, Michael, is a detective in New York, in the Internal Affairs division,” the actor said.
Clohessy is the fifth-born in a family of eight, five males and three females. “One of my brothers is about to retire after being a prison corrections officer for 25 years, and another one spent his life in the Marines. He’s out now, working for the city, running a housing project.”
Speaking of his character in “Twelve Angry Men,” the actor said: “I think he’s there because he wants to do the right thing. In a sense, he’s doing something he’s proud of doing, proud of participating in. Starting out, he’s convinced that the accused is guilty, until Juror Eight, the holdout, puts the idea in his mind that there may be doubt. My guy is one of the middle ones, willing to listen to reason once he hears the term ‘reasonable doubt’ and starts to think about it.”
Juror Six is probably the most humane of the 12, at one point coming to the defense of Juror Nine, the most elderly of the men, when he is attacked by one of the others. Something in his character’s kindness appeals to Clohessy.
“I like coming to the aid of the old man, sticking up for him,” he said. “I like his sense of doing the right thing. I like being there, because I like the character I’m playing. I like the guy.”
Clohessy finds playing what he calls “a small role” uniquely satisfying. “Last year, I did ‘Rounding Third’ at the John Houseman Theater. It was a baseball play, a two-character play about Little League coaches. I was a kind of a hard-ass guy, and Matthew Arkin, the younger, less inexperienced one, was a little bit softer. But there we were, on stage for something like two-and-a-half hours, with everything depending on us. With ‘Twelve Angry Men,” once the train starts moving, you can’t help but be on top of everything, because it’s like being in traffic.”
The audiences vary considerably. Sometimes they cheer as the jurors, one by one, change their positions from guilty to innocent. Sometimes they sit in hushed silence. In a way, the play is a kind of civics lesson, both for the audience and for the actors who are playing the jurors.
Robert Clohessy, as it happens, has dual citizenship, mainly because his grandparents were from County Clare. “My father’s parents, came to Manhattan when they were teenagers,” he said. “I got my Irish citizenship about 10 years ago, and then, maybe six years ago, I got my passport.”
The actor hasn’t been to Ireland in perhaps 20 years, but the future of the play he’s in may change all that. “There’s talk of taking ‘Twelve Angry Men’ to London, which would make it easy to get to Ireland, and I’d really like that,” he said.
With any luck at all, Robert Clohessy’s wishes will be granted.

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