June 18th is George Hearn’s birthday. The two-time Tony Award winning actor was born eighty-two years ago in St. Louis, Missouri.
Speaking with him recently, his voice depicts none of the wear and tear that a role like Sweeney Todd might potentially have done to it. Although he told me that he hasn’t sung for two years—“not even in the shower,”—that voice still rings in my ears from all the years I saw him in shows, whether they required him to sing or not. For Hearn, though a great musical theatre actor, was an actor first and foremost. Originally trained for the opera, his talents couldn’t restrict themselves to only one art form.
Not long after arriving in New York after a stint in the army, Hearn fell in with an emerging producer who had flair enough to spare for a dozen impresarios—Joseph Papp. Before even officially creating the Public Theatre, Papp’s mission statement was to tour the city parks with a troupe of young actors (whose biggest concern was not to get mugged too often) while Papp worked behind the scenes to insure a permanent stage in Central Park. As Hearn put it: "Through a connection I had in the military I was lucky enough to be invited to come to New York and work for Joe Papp and tour As You Like It in the five boroughs with a mobile theatre. Our young company consisted of James Earl Jones, Charles Durning, Sam Waterston ... oh, we had a ball."
Before long, the enormous power of Hearn's deep baritone led him to leading roles in musicals. From his Broadway debut in the short-lived A Time for Singing, Hearn went on to become a major replacement in the long Broadway run of the original 1776, where I saw him play John Dickinson at least ten times. From there, he was part of the ensemble of David Storey’s The Changing Room, and back at work for Papp again, as Horatio opposite Sam Waterson’s Hamlet.
But the biggest break of his career was when he was tapped as the second Sweeney Todd after Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury had finished their year's run in that demanding Stephen Sondheim musical. Alongside Dorothy Louden, Hearn was an exemplary Sweeney and was chosen to continue on in the role when the national tour was announced, Lansbury was all for going out on the road with it, but Cariou was not. This led to a major disappointment on Cariou's part when, without his knowledge, a deal was struck that the production would be taped in Los Angeles at the final stop of the tour. This is why Hearn got to preserve the role in its original production for all posterity instead of Cariou. At Emmy time, in an odd experiment that didn’t last long, both sexes competed against one another in the same category for Best Performance in a Musical or Variety Program. Imagine trying to decide that one: Do you vote for the actor as Sweeney or the actress as Mrs. Lovett? Well, the Academy chose Hearn which is why he has an Emmy on his shelf, and Lansbury can only console herself with her 6 Tonys, since after 18 nominations (with 12 consecutive ones for every season of Murder She Wrote) she has still yet to bring home an Emmy.
Hearn’s first Tony Award was for creating the role of Albin in La Cage Aux Folles. It was a personal triumph and those that saw him sing “I Am What I Am” on stage will never forget it. Equally compelling was his performance as Max in Sunset Blvd, and his solo rendition of “The Greatest Star of All.”
Now enjoying the life of a retired gentleman farmer in upstate New York perhaps Hearn could be tempted to return to Broadway if the right role comes along. Four years ago, when he appeared in the musical Scandalous, even though the show got bad reviews, critics singled him out. As David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter noted, “it’s a shame he wasn’t handed more songs.”
Ain’t that the truth.