Meet the cast, episode 49: Tony Todd, star of “Candyman” and “Platoon” is making his Denver Center debut in the world-premiere drama, “black odyssey,” playing Jan. 17 through Feb. 16.
By John Moore
Whether commanding the silver screen or stalking the stage, Tony Todd always seems larger than life.
To moviegoers, Todd was loved and loathed as The Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand. In the Denver Center Theatre Company’s new world-premiere play black odyssey, Todd’s 6-foot-5 frame and menacing voice strike fear into the hearts of gods and audiences alike as he declares to Deus, “As long as (my son) is in pain, so will your great nephew, Ulysses!”
Todd plays Paw Sidin, god of the sea and king of the fish. That’s pronounced “Poseidon” (get it?) in Marcus Gardley’s inventive reimagining of Homer’s classic, “The Odyssey.”
As each day of rehearsal passes, one can’t help wondering: What is this guy doing here? Tony Todd is a movie star, with more than 170 film and TV credits to his name. He was Warren in the Oscar-winning Oliver Stone film Platoon. Captain Darrow in The Rock. And according to his imdb.com resume, he has 11 films – 11! – that will be completed or released in 2014 alone.
He’s here, he says simply, because he has to be.
“It’s important for me to come back to the stage because the stage is where I started,” said Todd, who was born in Washington D.C., and raised in Hartford, Conn.
“I grew up a single kid in the lower-middle class, and theatre saved my life, literally, when I was 14.”
What happened at 14? “I had a tremendous growth spurt,” he said. “I grew 6 inches (in one year). I couldn’t walk down the hallways without tripping into the lockers. I didn’t have any friends. All the basketball coaches used to shake their heads at me because I couldn’t dribble.”
And then one day, an English teacher handed Todd a copy of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and said, “Try this.”
“I went home and I read it like I was reading a comic book,” Todd said. “I saw the words come to life. And that was it. I was hooked. I auditioned for something, and I didn’t get it. So I pulled the curtain, and I was the best curtain-puller in the world. The very next production, I got in. And I knew this is what I want. From that moment, on I felt like I owe this enormous debt to the stage. It’s the thing that satisfies me the most.”
Tony Todd as The Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand.
Regular screen success has not diminished Todd’s love for the stage. He had recurring roles on TV’s “Transformers Prime,” Chuck” and “24.” (Who can ever forget his chilling turn as General Benjamin Juma?) But Todd has a standing rule with his manager and agents: He won’t go two years without going back on the boards, no matter what higher-paying TV and film jobs he might miss out on. “I have made that very clear to them that that’s what I am,” Todd said. “They hate it whenever it comes up, but I know what makes me happy.”
Todd has a philosophy: “Film buys a house, TV buys the furniture. But theatre feeds the soul.
“You have to come back to it, “ he added, “otherwise you can get lost with the frosting … when I want to bake the cake.”
That kind of dedication has not been lost on acclaimed black odyssey director Chay Yew, who was last in Denver two years ago to direct “Ameriville” for the nearby Curious Theatre Company.
“It is definitely a blessing for our field to have a wonderful actor like Tony Todd return often to his roots and his love - the American theatre,” said Yew, artistic director of Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago. “Tony is an exquisite actor. He’s always immediate, open, giving and emotionally porous throughout the process. I deeply admire his courage to continually refine and redefine his craft on the stage, breathing, living every complex moment with audiences. We are all the luckier for it.”
Todd was raised by an aunt, “and without a doubt, she put her handprint on me,” Todd said. “From the time I was 10, I was in a different program every summer, whether it was science or geology or the Boy Scouts. She made sure that I had activities that kept my mind active. I think that’s the key. You have to have an active mind. The more time you have to waste, the more likely you are to be influenced by your peers. And the more likely you are to go down that bad road.”
Todd used to watch old black-and-white movies with his aunt, which helped him develop his unlikely appreciation for actors such as John Garfield, James Cagney and Charles Laughton, star of Mutiny on the Bounty.
“She would use their stories as morality tales,” said Todd. “That’s how I got my love of film. She lasted long enough to see that I was successful. She died with a smile on her face, so she is always in my heart.”
While in Denver, Todd is using what little free time he has away from creating black odyssey to scour churches and local radio stations to help let “the forgotten people” know that this play is coming.
“I want to make sure that our audience for black odyssey is new, fresh, vital and multicultural, he said.
He’s telling them that black odyssey is a new play, “and a new play is a precious thing,” he said. “We know the plays that get done over and over, so we need new canons. I was fortunate enough to work with August Wilson directly before he died. (Todd originated the title role of Wilson’s King Hedley II in Pittsburgh, Seattle and Boston.) I got to work with Athol Fugard (The Captain’s Tiger at the Manhattan Theatre Club and Kennedy Center.) So for me, when a new play comes along, you’ve got to treat it like a little sprout growing in the desert. You’ve got to water it. You’ve got to nurture it. You’ve got to be there for it.”
What he’s telling people about black odyssey specifically is that it’s a play that bridges many generations of the black experience in America, using “The Odyssey” as a storytelling guide marked by key moments in U.S. history, such as the 1963 Alabama church bombing.
“I just tell them that it’s an adventure,” Todd said. “Yes, it is based on The Odyssey, but Marcus has taken the liberty of transposing time. Our hero is a soldier coming from Afghanistan and he is searching for his home, which is not unlike a lot of at-risk, lost people in our society. Some of them will come back, and some of them won’t. Some of them don’t even know that there is a journey to take.”
Tony Todd’s seminal films:
The Rock (1996)
The Crow (1994)
Lean on Me (1989)
Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Final Destination (2000)
Le Secret (2000)
black odyssey ticket information:
When: Through Feb. 16
Written by: Marcus Gardley
Where: Space Theatre
Information: 303-893-4100 or go to the Denver Center’s ticketing page
Tony Todd in rehearsal for “black odyssey.” Photo by John Moore
"Meet the Cast video series," previous 2013-14 episodes:
Leonard E. Barrett Jr.
Kathleen M. Brady
Aaron M. Davidson
John Patrick Hayden
Steven Cole Hughes
M Scott McLean
Jonathan Earl Peck
Jamie Ann Romero
William Oliver Watkins