Dan Lauria considers himself the luckiest guy in the world. The Brooklyn native, best known for his role as Jack Arnold on television’s Emmy winning show The Wonder Years, has played opposite great ladies including Judith Light, Priscilla Lopez, and Wendie Malick. He and Malick will soon appear in upcoming episodes of NBC’s This is Us.
Tonight, he opens the New York premiere of The Stone Witch, a new play by Shem Bitterman. The open-ended Off-Broadway run is playing at the Westside Theatre. In it, Lauria plays Simon Grindberg, a celebrated author and illustrator stalling for creative inspiration. The role somewhat mirrors Lauria’s own life. In addition to his acting credits, he’s authored The Godfather Tales, a children’s book series co-written by Cathryn Farnsworth.
Lauria is nothing like the curmudgeonly, middle-class father he portrayed on the six-year series. The friendly and approachable Vietnam veteran has a heart of gold for his fellow actors and is instrumental in supporting two important charities.
Manhattan Digest recently spoke with him prior to a performance at the Westside theater to talk about those charities, his new play, the children’s books, and the differences between television and stage.
MD: Tell us about The Stone Witch and how it parallels your own life as a children’s book author.
DL: The creative people love this play because it draws a fine line between creativity and madness. All of us as actors, writers, and directors go through that. I’ve always written. In fact, My MFA from University of Connecticut is in playwriting. I’ve written lengthy letters of protests about current events. I wrote the children’s book series for my godson, Julian. The purpose of these stories is to encourage children to write. I try to teach kids that anything and everything can be a story.
MD: Do you have a preference for television versus stage acting?
DL: Oh! Television’s not acting. It’s all an editing machine.In my lecture in colleges, I’ll show two minutes of a modern film and describe where all the cuts have been made. Then I’ll show them Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant going around a desk for 5 minutes and 40 seconds without a cut. At least I know that those two can act. Did you know that the longest cut in the movie Argo was 27 seconds? I have no idea if, in a modern movie, most people can act. In theater, when the curtain goes up, you’ve gotta carry the freight. If you can’t, you shouldn’t be there.
MD: A year before The Wonder Years, you were credited as “Man whose wife gives birth aboard plane” on Growing Pains. The next year, you had your big break. I heard that you almost didn’t get the role.
DL: Neal Marlens and Carol Black, who created The Wonder Years, met while they were both working on Growing Pains. Neal and I hit it off quite well when I was on the set of Growing Pains. One night I went out with Joanna Kerns, who was starring in Growing Pains. She asked me if I auditioned for Neal’s new show. I told her that my agent couldn’t get me in because they were looking for a big name. Joanna called them and told them I would be perfect for the role. Neal and Carol insisted that they didn’t want anyone recognizable in that role.
MD: Does it bother you that people instantly recognize you as “Jack Arnold”, your iconic television role?
DL: No actor likes to hang their hat any singular hook but if you had to, The Wonder Years is a pretty classy hook. We were proud of the work we did. They almost didn’t cast me in Broadway’s Lombardi because they didn’t want a TV actor, but Tommy Kail, the director, pushed it. Then they cast Judith Light–another TV personality! We ended up running a year.
MD: I understand that the proceeds from your book go to two charities that are near to your heart?
DL: Yes. Part of the proceeds are split between Return to Freedom, a wild horse sanctuary and advocacy group. The other one is the Global Medical Relief Fund. They take kids from all over the world who have had life-changing tragedies. We bring them to the United States for free medical care. It’s a hard charity but they do such important work.
MD: What’s next for you? TV? Stage?
DL: Well, I’ll do TV to keep the bills paid, but I’ll go anywhere to do a play. This is my 63rd play. Ya know, actors never stop acting.
The Stone Witch opens tonight, Sunday March 25th for an open ended run. Westside Theater 407 W. 43rd St. NYC