Thursday, February 23, 2012

For Daniel von Bargen (Kwan Seum Bosal)

Through the 1980s, as a pre-teen with season subscriptions to Trinity Rep's upstairs and downstairs theatres, I saw, to say the least, a great many plays directed by Adrian Hall and others, and became so familiar with the acting company I almost felt I knew them. I was not a "fan" so much as a student already, many years before I entered Trinity Rep's conservatory.

Still, these actors became something like titans in my imagination. William Damkoehler and his wife, Cynthia Strickland. Anne Scurria. Ed Hall. Richard Kavanaugh. Barbara Orson. Richard Kneeland. George Martin. Timothy Crowe. Keith Joachim. Bob Colonna. And more. There was a newer generation of actor within the company playing prominent roles, including my teachers Brian McEleney and Stephen Berenson, Becca Lish, Fred Sullivan, Janice Duclos, Dan Welch, David P.B. Stephens, the late Margo Skinner, Phyllis Kay, and more.

Some of these actors moved on and became very well known on television and in films. Richard Jenkins. Peter Gerety. Barbara Meek. Amy Von Nostrand. Although they have moved on from Washington Street and the old Majestic Theatre, I admit to thinking of them as Trinity Rep actors and some of the best in the business.

As large as they loom in my memories, they are ordinary people and they suffer and die just like ordinary people. The first lesson was when the world lost Richard Kavanaugh during my high school days, alone and sick in his Providence apartment. A little while later it was Richard Kneeland, also alone when he fell and hit his head, silencing one of the most powerful voices I've heard on any stage. Others have followed, as we all must.

This brings me to the shocking news of Daniel von Bargen and his attempted suicide.

Von Bargen is known to a large audience as Mr. Kruger from Seinfeld. He is also a familiar face with a distinctive, smoky voice from other television shows and many movies, as recently as 2009 and the comedy London Betty.

Yet I remember him, naturally, as a Trinity Rep company member. In the 1980s, he was in his thirties. As good as he is on camera, his live performances had an extra dimension. His presence was striking, and he was the kind of actor who made it look deceptively easy, to be so precise and yet so natural. He could be terrifying, he could be soft. Legends from that time suggest he could be a difficult person, and in recent years many of his close Trinity colleagues had lost touch with him. As one put it to me yesterday, they assumed he had retired on his television money and was watching the Ohio river flow by.

Not so much. Because of Dan's celebrity, his 911 call was leaked (sold?) to, and the call reveals much about his life. He has lost one leg to diabetes, and was due to lose "at least a few toes" on his other leg. Unwilling to go through with it, he took his .38 Colt and fired a bullet into his temple. Still conscious several minutes later, he changed his mind and called for help. On the call he tells the 911 dispatcher that he has no children, is alone, and feeling tired.

The latest news as of this morning is that Dan is still in hospital, in critical condition.

I call him "Dan" but we were never close. I remember meeting him -- appropriately, it was at Trinity Rep, in the upstairs green room. I was now appearing in the upstairs theatre myself, and Dan von Bargen paid a visit to his old theatre and his friends, glowing with his success on Seinfeld. I had an opportunity to tell him about roles he had played in the '80s, the impression he had made on me. He simultaneously looked pleased and startled.

Today he is 61 years old, and facing a torment I can only imagine.

[Photo: Von Bargen (on the right) in Trinity Rep's production of "Golden Boy" in 1990. His scene partner here is William Damkoehler, a long, long time company member who is alive and well and living in San Diego, though it is hard to imagine Trinity Rep without him.]

1 comment:

Jim Barton said...

Just read this---thanks for sharing---and, of course, brought to mind our dear teacher (& recently-departed) Kelli