The Barkeep Who Made it to Broadway
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When the Hartford Stage Company presented To Kill a Mockingbird in February 2009, Horton Foote, the playwright who had won an Oscar for his screenplay of the Harper Lee novel, was in the audience the first night of previews.
“Mr. Foote—‘Horton’; I don’t think he would want me to call him ‘Mr. Foote’—saw the first preview performance from the front row,” recalls Mike Boland, the actor who portrayed Bob Ewell, the mean town drunk, in the play. “I thought he was sleeping—he was slumped down in his seat—but he saw everything. Afterward he said to me, ‘It was a wonderful performance.’”
It was also hard-won. Boland, 46, had spent two years on the road in the 2006 Roundabout Theatre Company production of Twelve Angry Men, starring Richard Thomas, and the next year had a star turn himself in Bobby Dogs, an independent film in which he played a recovering alcoholic hot-dog vendor haunted by the past and his own self-doubt. The film, wrote critic Phil Hall, “has a secret weapon in the astonishing performance of Mike Boland . . . a big bear of a man who is capable of instant mood swings from playful joy to heart-crushing sorrow.”
Boland’s alcoholics are not stumbling, slurring drunks from central casting—the late Dudley Moore’s character in Arthur, for example, or Otis from “The Andy Griffith Show.” Instead, he portrays them from an inner well of pain and loneliness he knows only too well. “I think actors who have been where he has been are very affecting when they have to go back,” notes Michael Wilson, who directed him in Mockingbird. “He knows what he’s playing. He’s been down that road, so he’s never playing an ‘idea’ of being a drunk, which is what you sometimes see on stage. He plays that reality.”
In fact, playing that role in real life nearly killed the actor.
A Fairfield native, Boland, who is gentle, gregarious and very funny, grew up among the kinds of characters found in Eugene O’Neill plays: Irish boozers and barroom brawlers; men unable to express their feelings but very good at spinning stories and pipe dreams. In a way, he got his start as a class clown of some repute in grade school, middle school and Roger Ludlowe High School. “In grade school, he would stand and read a report and have the whole class laughing,” says Bruce Benway, a friend of Boland’s since fourth grade. “I always knew he had talent, I just didn’t know he if he could keep it going.”
No one did, including Mike Boland. In 1987 he dropped out of UConn a semester before graduating; five years later he left a job at The Meriden Record-Journal two weeks after being awarded his own column. “I felt like I was going to screw it up at any moment,” he recalls now. “I started feeling like a total fraud and I couldn’t write anymore.” Meanwhile, his drinking, which had started in his early teens, was advancing in earnest.
In 1994, unemployed and living back at home in Fairfield, he was watching a late-night talk show with his mother when Alec Baldwin came on and began talking about how he and his brothers had all become actors. “I said to my mother, ‘Do you really think everybody in that family has so much talent that they’re all actors? How hard can it be?’ I was in a bad way with her because I wasn’t paying rent because I’d quit my job. And she said, ‘Well, why don’t you try it and see how easy it is?’”