One of the best actors in the Southeast is living quietly in north Tampa, seemingly ignored by area theaters. And that's more than a shame.
I first saw Michael O. Smith on stage nine years ago, in American Stage's Proposals, and I happily praised the great skill with which he portrayed an abandoned husband whose natural strength was being undermined by an irrepressible longing for his ex-wife. A year later I saw him in The Immigrant, also at American Stage, and I said in my review that as a well-intentioned Texas banker he was "masterful" and that his talents were "prodigious." But if I enjoyed these early encounters, I was bowled over by Smith's 2004 impersonation of Theodore Roosevelt in The Bully Pulpit at Sarasota's Florida Studio Theatre, a one-man show written and acted by Smith and as close to Roosevelt's reality as one could hope to come this side of heaven.
Not surprisingly, the show had a 10-week run in New York City and has played to rave reviews all over the East Coast. Add Smith's many performances at the Asolo Theatre and FST that I wasn't fortunate enough to see, his work in Broadway tours of Amadeus and The Elephant Man, his appearances in the TV series Murder, She Wrote and B.L. Stryker, and you've easily got one of the most successful thespians to call the Bay area home. So why hasn't he been on stage here in over a year?
One answer is that he can't quite let go of Teddy Roosevelt: "I have yet to do it in the Tampa Bay area," he says with some surprise that no one locally has come calling. But does he want to be acting in other roles here too? "Oh sure, I would love to," he says. "I guess I'm kind of burnt out, as I have been some other times in this business, trying to get a foot in the door and say, 'Look, I've really got a good show here,' or 'I'm a capable actor here.; But I realize, hey, what the heck, I'm 67 now, there are not a whole lot of roles open for 67-year-olds."
Still, he's definitely willing to put Roosevelt aside "and start earning my keep again as a 'character actor' — that verbiage seems to be in vogue for me now." And if local theaters aren't calling, there is, after all, an offer that would have him directing and acting at Blowing Rock Rep in the Carolinas. Yet — the Bay area is his home.
Smith has been performing professionally since he was 22 — and managing, unlike most local actors, to make a living at it. He was born in Elvis Presley's hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, went to high school there, then attended Inter-American University in Puerto Rico, where he studied theater, Spanish, English and music. He served for a year in Vietnam, relocated to New Jersey, and found himself drawn to the New York theater scene.
Smith played summer stock in Long Island, toured the country in various roles, and then found, after visiting a brother in Clearwater, that he and his wife wanted to settle in Tampa. In 1976, the year of his tour with the Broadway musical 1776 (he played John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and then Ben Franklin), he bought a home here.
Since then he's worked almost constantly, though recent years were dominated by his work on The Bully Pulpit, which he began in the mid-90s, wrote and rewrote endlessly, and premiered at FST in 2004. The show toured to Atlanta and Stone Mountain, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and then in May 2008 to Off Broadway. "The reviews were just outstanding," Smith said. Having seen the show myself — and raved about it in the Sarasota CL — I can attest to its great power.
But that was then. Now Michael O. Smith is available again to work, and every theater in the area ought to be excited by the prospect. I'm going to go out on a limb here: I have his contact information, and I'm willing to pass it along it to any local theater producer who contacts me at [email protected].
And I'll just say this bit more: Smith is a figure who's already proved his value a dozen times over. It's time, it's past time, that he returned to our stages.