Stage People: 275 pounds of character | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Stage People: 275 pounds of character 

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Dan Frick's chest, arms, legs, and face are smeared with green makeup, applied for his role as a speaking slave in Lyric Opera's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. He also has on a truly hideous black wig, baggy orange Bermuda shorts with makeup-covered straps, and sandals over yellow socks. He's been wearing this getup for four hours, and the emerald makeup, which is still wet from the glycerin in it, is rubbing off on everything he comes near.

Frick has been acting since he was eight, making his living at it for the last 17 years. Recently he's been onstage as everyone from Max in Pinter's The Homecoming to Max in The Sound of Music; he's also been in a lot of commercials and industrial films as well as the odd movie. Right now he's at the Civic Opera House in two contrasting roles: the surly innkeeper Lillas Pastia in Carmen, and the burly slave in The Magic Flute. As Pastia he has to speak colloquial-sounding French; as the slave he's called upon to make himself understood in German. He studied Spanish in school--a not particularly useful tongue in the world of grand opera--but he says other languages pose no real difficulty. And anyway, he's well coached.

His first role with the Lyric was a little more conventional. "I fell into working at the Lyric 12 years ago, when they still had their spring seasons. They held a major cattle call for The Merry Widow, and I was one of the six they cast. Every now and then they call me--'We have a job we think you'd be good for.'"

The greatest challenge of being a character actor, says Frick, "is the simple fact that you're not going to fit into every show. The roles are fewer and fewer. Most theaters these days will take a character role in a musical and give it to somebody out of the chorus--instead of spending the bucks to hire a character actor. And usually the guy out of the chorus does it poorly, because he doesn't have the experience to bring a character role to life. I try to give myself lots of options, to be as versatile as possible."

Another challenge is his body type: Dan Frick is a big guy, standing five eleven and tipping the scales at 275. That makes him perfect for a lot of roles but automatically bars him from others. When you're hefty, he says, "people are prejudiced against you. There are so many products and programs that you cannot represent being heavy. I'm never going to do a beer commercial or a food commercial. The only spots I'm going to get are as someone on a diet or playing [a corporation's] idea of what their competition looks like. When you're heavy, you're seen as dumb and not very businesslike."

The plus side, he says, is that "those roles are written better. They're more fun to play. They want to think their competition is fat, slovenly, and not too bright. So you get to do a lot of fun, crazy things that are a real challenge." He points to his yearlong traveling gig as "The Duke of Mustard," invented to introduce French's Bold 'n Spicy deli-style mustard. "I had a ream of information and anecdotes about mustard that I had to spew out while doing cooking demos on talk shows around the country: Cincinnati, Dayton, Pittsburgh--I threw out the first ball at a Pirates game--Kansas City . . . I did call-ins on radio shows, and you cannot imagine the questions I got. One loony called in and asked, 'Is it true that the wool of Falkland Islands sheep is warmer because they eat mustard grains?'" He can still tell you anything you'd like to know about mustard, its antecedents, and its uses. "I tend to retain all this stuff--I have one of the most trivial minds you'll ever find."

Frick, who describes himself as "single and looking," does a fair amount of travel. He has performed in Milwaukee and Detroit, and has toured with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and, a few years back, with the Second City National Touring Company. He's equally at home as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor and as a news vendor in The Untouchables (in a scene that took two full nights to film but ended up on the cutting-room floor). He's worked with Kathryn Grayson and Placido Domingo, and has appeared in commercials for everyone from Amoco to Illinois Bell to Husqvarna chain saws. A true singing actor, he has a wide range, "everything from bass-baritone to tenor. If they want a tenor, I use the head voice."

One of his favorite shows last year was the "radio" version of Kiss Me Kate, put on in the Civic Theatre with full orchestra. It wasn't staged; the actors stood in front of microphones, sitting when they were "offstage." Yet Frick and the other comic gangster added visual flourishes to their performances. "And pretty soon the audience started to chuckle as soon as we stood up, because they knew what was coming."

Frick's tempted by the thought of Los Angeles and film work. But for now, he says, "I enjoy doing what I do. I like being able to bounce back and forth--every venue exercises different muscles, if you will. When I do straight theater, I exercise my acting. In musicals I exercise my singing. In commercials I exercise my camera techniques. In voice-overs I exercise my voice.

"I enjoy the workout of the Lyric, because the acting here is so much bigger--we're talking about five to six times the seating capacity [of most theaters], and you have to play to the balcony. In a 300-seat house it would be overacting, and I'd be laughed off the stage. It's a challenge to move from a 3,500-seat house to a 500-seat house, to a 1,200-seat house, to a commercial, where an eyebrow raised is overacting. I enjoy it all--and I hope it keeps me sharp."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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