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Harold & Morrie: Perfect Together
Both offer major life lessons.
And as "Tuesdays With Morrie" - the stage adaptation of the taut best-selling autobiographical Mitch Albom verbal album about a teacher and the young man he taught way beyond Brandeis U.'s brittle walls - gets ready to play the Merriam Theater beginning Nov. 1, actor Harold Gould puts on his thinking cap and gown to invest Morrie with more of the menschedick he's applied to so many of his other characters.
Gould gilds golden agers with a shiny mettle. Even before he turned 82 recently, Gould occupied octogenarian roles with graceful agility.
It's been an amazing grace: "I've always been interested in playing older characters," says the veteran New York actor who made the grade decades ago on stage, in film - debuting 43 years ago in "Two for the Seesaw" - and TV. "In fact, I've played old men for a long time - since grade school."
It's a grand role he appreciates, having "loved my grandparents - my mother's folks - growing up with them and feeling so comfortable with them."
He's also feeling comfortable these days in the skin of Morrie Schwartz, adding his own interpretive wrinkles to the late professor's relationship with former student Albom, which sets the stage for a sad inspiring drama.
Albom first made book on the idea in 1997, when the Akiba Hebrew Academy grad and prominent sportswriter watched as his nonfictional salute to his amazing mentor - whom he visited every Tuesday when Morrie was ailing with ALS - took to the best-seller list and wouldn't let go for more than 200 weeks. Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher hatched this stage adaptation years after the book was made into an award-winning telefilm.
And here on stage, life is an open book for Gould to explore as Morrie, the former sociology professor, professes the benefits of life lessons in his final days that one will never find in a blue book.
The former Harold V. Goldstein of Schenectady connects with the character so well. After all, the Ph.D. taught for many years as a drama prof at the University of California at Riverside before siding with the thespian aspect of his talents. Students - not unlike Albom with Schwartz - have stayed in touch with Gould through the years.
And some of those seniors have become … seniors. "I would get these long letters from women, now in their late 60s, who I taught, telling me how important my classes were to them."
Lessons were illuminated often by the soft spotlight of theater. "I would read portions of plays to the class, plays that illuminated issues," recalls Gould.
He remains a leading light on stage, having toured in recent years with "Waiting for Mr. Green" and "Old Wicked Songs" - "Both plays [focus on] older Jewish men and younger men who learn from then; how about that?" - and has cast a shadow for others to heed in TV, too.
Father figures have always figured prominently in his roles; after all, who would have been a better dad to "Rhoda" (Valerie Harper) than this Jewish gem of a gentleman?
And if Mrs. Delafield (Katherine Hepburn) were destined to fall for a sweet Jewish man, of course it would be Harold Gould who would play him.
You don't have to be an Einstein - he played him, too, on "Touched by an Angel" - to know Gould's as good as it gets.
And so was Morrie - intelligent, witty. When Harold met his sallies … "There are so many identifying points with this role," contends Gould, citing the facts that he and Schwartz are Jewish - both men "have that sense of social justice, are liberal - but not extreme liberal - and family are very strong with us" - and both taught on the university level.
"The whole teaching function is what sealed part of my motivation for doing this play," says the actor of the 13-city Broadway Across America national tour.
Actor as teacher, teacher as touchstone for humanity. "From talking to people at Brandeis" - where "Tuesdays" played prior to the Merriam - "I understood how Morrie lived the humane life - helping, communicating, teaching."
His life was a class act, and his personal classrooms were never empty. "He always had people around him; he was so popular, you had to make appointments to see him. He had this thing about collecting people."
Gould has collected accolades throughout the years, enjoying a career shifting between media - including voice-over work for commercials, which, he claims, helped during any fallow times.
It's hardly been a hardscrabble career; Gould's bio would exceed baggage limitations if he decided to send his résumé flying through the air.
Indeed, it has been a career crammed with memories, including those days as Rhoda's Dad. "It was so nice," he recalls. "The Screen Actors Guild does these tapes of older actors being interviewed, and they asked Valerie to do mine. It was wonderful catching up with her.
"And, you know, she's going to be playing Golda Meir this year on tour in 'Golda's Balcony.' "
Such pride. Just like a Jewish father; it's as if his TV daughter just grew up to be Israel's prime minister. "I'm glad she's had such success."
No … he's not reaching for the pictures, is he?