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06 Mar 2015

Teddy Roosevelt's Darkest Hour: Laurence Luckinbill Brings the 26th President to Life at the McCallum Theatre

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Laurence Luckinbill as Theodore Roosevelt in Teddy Tonight! Laurence Luckinbill as Theodore Roosevelt in Teddy Tonight!

Laurence Luckinbill was originally supposed to perform his one-man show Teddy Tonight! at the McCallum Theatre a year ago.

That didn’t happen.

“I broke a bone in my foot—a nothing bone, a tiny bone,” Luckinbill told me over breakfast at The Palms Café in Rancho Mirage on a recent windy morning. “That transmuted into a four-inch tear of the lateralis muscle in my thigh. I would up spending two weeks in the hospital, right when I was supposed to get going.”

As a result, Luckinbill, 80, had to cancel the show, during which he plays Theodore Roosevelt on one of the former president’s most trying days. However, Luckinbill has now recovered—and he gained a greater understanding of himself in the process, he said.

“My own spirit said, ‘You need to take stock. You need to change,’” Luckinbill said.

He’s slated to finally perform Teddy Tonight! at the McCallum on Thursday, March 19.

The one-man show is one of five in his arsenal; these shows mark the latest chapter in a long and fruitful career by the actor and author, who not too long ago made the Palm Springs area his home, along with his wife, Lucie Arnaz (the daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz).

Luckinbill has been acting since the 1960s, and has had success in movies, on TV and in the theater world. He may be best known as one of the stars of the groundbreaking 1970 film The Boys in the Band; he also has an Emmy Award win and a Tony Award nomination to his credit.

However, Luckinbill’s career did not make him a household name—and he’s OK with that. He said that whenever an opportunity came along to take his career to the next level, “various things in (his) nature” kept him from doing so. For example, he decided he wanted his children to go to school somewhere besides Los Angeles, so that meant moving away from Hollywood.

“I did what I could have done,” he said about his career.

He got his start doing one-man shows in the mid-1980s, when producer David Susskind challenged Luckinbill to play President Lyndon B. Johnson in a PBS special. He initially refused.

“I hate the son of a bitch,” he said he told Susskind. “He responded, ‘You’re going to change!’”

Luckinbill indeed changed, and came to an “understanding” regarding Johnson, he said. Luckinbill would go on to have a great deal of success with the LBJ show, and later began doing a second show as Clarence Darrow, the famous defense attorney in the Scopes Monkey Trial. He performed both of these shows at the LBJ Presidential Library, and gained the respect of Harry Middleton, the library’s director. When the library decided to do a show on Teddy Roosevelt, Middleton called Luckinbill, and asked: Got anything?

“There were a couple of plays out there. They were really unexciting, basically chronologies,” Luckinbill said.

Luckinbill decided to research Roosevelt himself, and headed to the library; he wound up with 35 books. However, he could not find any inspiration, he said, until he opened the last book, My Brother Theodore Roosevelt, by Roosevelt’s sister, Corinne Roosevelt Robinson.

“I thought it would be nothing but treacle,” Luckinbill said. “I started reading it, and that’s truly what it was.”

Well, that’s mostly what it was: Turns out the book included an anecdote that would become the motivation for and provide the plot of Teddy Tonight!

In July 1918, Roosevelt was slated to give a speech in Saratoga, N.Y. However, before the speech, Roosevelt received word that the plane flown by his son Quentin had been shot down over France, during World War I.

“When he got to the place to speak, he had his speech written out … but he didn’t finish it,” he said. “He put it aside and spoke from his heart about what we owe to veterans, these young boys who go out to die for us.

“I thought: This is the motivation. This is what motivates the man.”

Luckinbill said he now considers Roosevelt to be his “inspiration.” Luckinbill noted that when Roosevelt was in the White House, his children would sometimes interrupt cabinet meetings—and that Roosevelt would actually cut short those meetings so he could play with his kids.

“This is a man to me,” Luckinbill said. “This is the real thing.”

In addition to the shows on Johnson, Darrow and Roosevelt, Luckinbill also does a one-man show as Ernest Hemingway, and is working on refining The Abraham and Larry Show, in which he plays both himself and the biblical figure. He hinted that he’s also thinking about another biblical figure for a possible sixth play in his one-man-show arsenal.

But for now, Luckinbill is focusing on Teddy Roosevelt. He promised his McCallum audience would develop a greater appreciation for the man who was our 26th president.

“(The audience) will see Teddy in full oratorical mode, and … the most intimate and hurting side of Roosevelt,” Luckinbill said. “They will see a man fighting to keep his composure and do his public duty as the foundation of his family has been challenged in the most fundamental way by the death of his son.”

Teddy Tonight!, starring Laurence Luckinbill, will be performed at 7 p.m., Thursday, March 19, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $15 to $65. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

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