Alum thespian brings silver screen to classroom

Everyone knows the highfalutin spiel about Williams College: It’s where students sometimes sit across logs from their professors and intimately ponder questions of life. Besides the logs necessary for this Williams ideal, we need profs who are willing to sit at the other end. Kevin O’Rourke ’78, visiting lecturer in theatre and artistic director of the Summer Theatre Lab, is the type of professor with whom any student would love to share a log, though sharing a nook in the theater would probably be more appropriate. Having acted in The Aviator, 10 episodes of Law and Order and a slew of other movies, television series and Broadway plays alongside such personages as Al Pacino, Mickey Rooney, Jerry Orbach, Charles Gurney and William Fichtner, O’Rourke has taken on teaching in order to pass on the tricks of his talent.

Despite his claim to fame, O’Rourke, like any actor, started small. He caught the acting bug in seventh grade when he landed a small role in his school’s play, Inherit the Wind. He played the character named Billy, and to this day remembers his one line: “Train’s coming! Train’s coming! I can see the smoke way up the track.” When he attended the College some 30 years ago, his class was the first for which a major in theater was offered. One of four daring students to take on the new major, O’Rourke’s plunge seems all the more daring given that “there were some questions to whether it was a serious major,” O’Rourke said.

Fast forward to 2004, and no one was questioning the legitimacy of acting when it came to flashing lights and paparazzi on the set of The Aviator, which won five academy awards that year. While O’Rourke only acted in one scene as Spencer Tracey, the love interest of Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blachett), he described being part of such a high-budget movie as an incredible experience. The production flew him out to Los Angeles, and gave him a big hotel suite in Hollywood and a driver who took O’Rourke wherever he asked. Besides working with Cate Blachett (“She was incredibly nice”), O’Rourke became acquainted with none other than Leonardo DiCaprio, who played Howard Hughes. To sum it up: “It was fantasy land.”

Playing various characters for Law and Order in 10 episodes that aired from 1991 to 2010, O’Rourke grew to be close friends with Jerry Orbach, who stars as detective Lennie Briscoe. “Jerry was one of those guys who would show up to work every day just so happy, and he knew everybody on the crew by their first names – he would ask about the wife and kids,” O’Rourke said. Nevertheless, O’Rourke remembers a hilarious instance when Orbach was less than the gentleman. One time, O’Rourke shot an episode with Orbach at an L.A. driving range that involved a set of golf clubs. About a week later, the clubs arrived at the New York studio with Orbach’s name on them. “The producer came in and said, ‘No, those golf clubs aren’t for you.’ And Jerry said, ‘What are you talking about?’ Turns out the producer had meant to send the leftover clubs to his son,” O’Rourke said. Yet the usually amiable Orbach refused to relinquish the clubs. “‘Nope, they have my name on them,’ Jerry insisted. They had this big fight over it,” O’Rourke said. The way it ended up was that the company sent the producer another set.”

Although being a star comes with such amazing perks – companies sending sets of free golf clubs to settle petty disputes, for one – O’Rourke has seen first-hand that fame does have its downsides. Take his good friend and co-actor Al Pacino. When O’Rourke would ride the train into New York City with Pacino about 15 years ago (height of Pacino’s fame), every person in the train would stare at them. “He’d wear a disguise. Dark glasses. A mustache. Sometimes a hat,” O’Rourke said. “He’d sit close to the window and put me by the aisle so people couldn’t see him.”

Luckily, O’Rourke himself has never had too many paparazzi problems. “Usually when people recognize me, because of Law and Order or something, they’ll say, ‘Hey, didn’t you build my deck?’ They have no idea that they saw me on television.” Once, when O’Rourke was playing a sleazy soccer coach who was having an affair with a young girl in The Sopranos, the moment of recognition wasn’t as harmless or petty. “I had just moved into a new town, and I was in the supermarket, and a guy came up behind me and said, ‘Child molester!’” O’Rourke said. “That’s one of the hardest things about the business – people see you as that character.”

People may recognize O’Rourke’s face from his blockbuster and television appearances, but his work has also taken him to little off-Broadway theaters – like the last one at which he worked on 43rd Street. Paid practically nothing and required to clean the dressing rooms himself, O’Rourke said that this is what he likes about the business – how real it is. “It’s about the work,” O’Rourke said. “It’s not about the private jets, and the trappings and the clothes. Well, it is for some people, but not for me. It’s about making the creative product.”

Unpredictable as his work is, six years ago it led him back to the College to work under Robert Baker-White, professor of theater and department chair – and none other than one of O’Rourke’s frosh for whom he was a doting JA back in 1977. Working with O’Rourke for the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2004, Baker-White mentioned he wanted to make the ’62 Center a year-round place for undergraduates and graduates. “I said I’d do it, and came up with a plan: What if we ran a program where we did workshops – got alumni to bring in projects that students could work on? Alumni could teach and students could work with alumni,” O’Rourke said.

Now, O’Rourke is finishing his one semester stay as a visiting lecturer, teaching two “Acting I” classes. “I’ve had to go back and look at all the different basic materials – what I call the master teachers – people who really created techniques and methods for actors to learn the craft of acting, like how to access emotions and character development,” O’Rourke said. “For me to go back and do exercises again and do all this stuff again that I learned 25 years ago has made me examine how I put a character together.” Though he’ll be leaving “Acting I” in three weeks, you still have time to drop by the ’62 Center for a talk and to glean some words of wisdom from this actor extraordinaire, and, for theatre majors – he’ll still be around for the Summer Theater Lab.