20 Questions

(PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)

Harvey Cocks

By Bonnie Blackburn
t’s impossible not to be swept up by Harvey Cocks’ myriad tales of life on Broadway. He’s Fort Wayne’s ultimate name-dropper, with totally legitimate reasons. His has been a life lived from Broadway to Fort Wayne. At 86, he shows no signs of slowing down.

An interview with Cocks turns into a fabulous series of vignettes, a life told in a series of scenes. Not that unusual, when you consider that life is, in fact, a series of scenes and we all play a different character depending on which scene we’re in at a given moment. Or so he says.

Cocks’ father, Harvey Cocks Sr., was a theatre manager who carried his family across the country before settling in Fort Wayne in the late 1930s. Indeed, the younger Cocks attended 38 schools before graduating from South Side High School in 1943. As a young man, Cocks Jr. worked steadily on Broadway (he played Clarence Day Jr., the male juvenile lead, in “Life With Father” for three and a half years), as well as on radio and television for three decades before returning to Fort Wayne in the 1970s, to run the Quimby Village theater and shops for his late father. In 1978, he joined the Fort Wayne Youtheatre as director and he’s been there ever since, directing countless children in the dramatic arts. Cocks continues to act in and direct adult plays as well, with a recent turn as Morrie Schwartz, the dying mentor in the play “Tuesdays With Morrie,” where he had to learn to repress his constant need to move, as well as how to leak tears from one eye only. Find out how he continues to find dramatic inspirations, who his favorite actor is and what he told Ethel Merman to do as we play 20 Questions with Harvey Cocks.

 

What’s your first memory of being on stage?
We were living in Sea Cliff, Long Island, and I was (playing) one of the Bobbsey Twins. I was in the third grade. I had the flu, but the show must go on! I remember being very sick but making my debut anyways while burning up!

If you hadn’t gone into the theater, what would you have done for a profession?
I never wanted to be anything else.

What was your favorite production?
“Tuesdays With Morrie.” I admire this man and his bravery. “Life with Father” was my favorite Broadway show.

What was your favorite part of “Life With Father”?
We were a family on and off stage. It was the first time I planted roots. I got to work with so many wonderful actors. I loved everybody in it, and everybody’s gone now and it just breaks my heart.

What appeals to you about being on stage?
I’m quoting Judy Garland here, but the audience is my family and the need for a family is very strong in my life. The love you receive — it’s a wonderful feeling. Being accepted by (the audience).

Do you ever get stage fright?
Every time I do a performance.

Still? How do you deal with it?
I use it as energy. I find a way to use that fright. And it’s all over about three minutes into being on stage.

If you could go back in time and talk to your younger self, what would you say?
I don’t think I would change anything. Though I never got to play Hamlet. Or play in a John Ford Western.

You’re 86 years old and you’re still working every day, putting on multiple productions each year. To what do you attribute your longevity?
I think I’m afraid to stop. I’ll drop dead. I’ve always got things to do. 

You’ve known so many famous names in show business, but there’s one icon in particular, and that’s James Dean. Why do you think there’s still such fascination with him?
There’s a time when teenagers feel a need for independence. He represented such independence. He was so different. He was also so honest. Young people face life with such honesty. They haven’t had to play games yet. I sat with him a couple of times in waiting rooms (for auditions), and he’d sit there with his coat pulled up over his head. He didn’t want to be bothered. He was a brilliant young actor.

Tell us about singing with Ethel Merman.
I had an audition for “Call Me Madam” and I had to learn a song to sing with Ethel Merman. I was so nervous. She came in, and she was so loud. She said, “Come on in, sweetie.” She knew how to relax a person. She said “What can I do for you,” and I said, “Sing softly.” We sang three times, and by the end we were in sync.

Your father was the manager of the Embassy for a time. What do you hear when you go into the Embassy now?
I hear his cough, and I hear Bud Berger’s laugh. I don’t think he ever left. It’s very discombobulating. There are so many memories there.

How did you get involved in working with children’s theater?
When I was on Broadway, on my day off I would go to an orphanage and do improv there. I worked with a children’s theater (in New England). It was preordained that I’d work with them.

How are you helping plan for Youtheatre’s future without Harvey Cocks?
I think (Executive Director) Leslie Hormann is taking care of that. The children are Youtheatre. It was here before I got here, and it will go on forever because of the love everybody has for the children.

Are you planning to retire?
No. I will never. If they kick me out of here, I’ll volunteer at the hospital or work with children somewhere.

What do you do when you’re not working on a play?
I garden, and I rake leaves. I read books. I’m reading a biography of Myrna Loy. I have a book in every room in my house! I’ve been writing a book for five years. It’s a murder mystery with Mike Todd and Joan Blondell. I write longhand, and then it goes on to the typewriter and then onto the computer. It’s a very long process.

What’s your favorite part of Saturday morning (when Youtheatre rehearses)?
Knowing I can go to the theater and teach kids. I have a reason for getting up in the morning.

Who is your all-time favorite actor?
Laurence Olivier. I idolized him. I met him and he offered me a cup of tea, and I was shaking so hard and he said, “Why don’t you sit down, dear boy?” Christopher Plummer is my current favorite. Helen Hayes was a wonderful woman. I had tea with Margaret Rutherford. I’ve met some great people.

You’ve played two very different roles in the perennial Christmas favorite, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Clarence, the angel, and Mr. Potter, the villain.
Oh, yes. There’s so few (villain) roles out there. I can be very vicious and very evil. I can!

What do you like about directing?
I studied directing with Elia Kazan, and he said if you have an actor who’s on the right track finding a character, leave them alone. I love watching these actors and guiding these actors to become someone else. To see these characters come alive is very exciting. Being a director, I’m in charge. I never thought of it before. Maybe it’s the control. My whole life has been a search for control.

Posted: Thu, 12/01/2011 - 3:38 pm
Last updated: Wed, 05/23/2012 - 3:12 pm