When the rave reviews appeared earlier this year for Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer at Seattle Repertory Theater, I was not surprised to read that among the actors on stage “the real show-stealer, stumbling about, spitting out curses in his charming brogue,” was my old friend Sean Griffin, whom I had met for the first time during our college days at the University of Notre Dame.
To put it simply, he is one of the best actors of his generation. The man is an actor’s actor, a guy who loves to work, and he’s continued to work for nearly four decades. Sean has appeared on Broadway and on the most prestigious regional stages across the country, in countless roles, and he’s played dozens of parts on film and television, not to mention commercials and voice-overs.
SO YOU WANT TO BE AN ACTOR
By Hank Whittemore
PARADE – June 7, 1987
“I was born in Limerick, Ireland, where we spoke only Gaelic in school. In 1956, when I was thirteen, my family took the boat over to the United States. Then we took the train out to Indiana and rented a small house in South Bend. My father became a night watchman in a ball-bearing factory.
“It was difficult being in a new country. The only Irish kid in school, and I still had a heavy brogue. I was picked on because I was different, an outsider. Had to learn to defend myself.
“I worked my way through high school. Cleaned floors, washed blackboards, sold soft drinks at lunchtime. Studied hard, got good grades. Won a four-year business scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, there in South Bend.
“My picture got in the paper. A story about the night watchman’s son getting a great scholarship, which was the only way he could go to college. At the high school, some of the guys came after me. They were angry at ‘this foreigner come taking stuff that should be ours.’ Pinned me to the ground with a baseball bat across my neck.”
Sean Griffin and I met in 1961 at Notre Dame, where we were acting in plays at the University Theater. His brogue still limited his range of roles. He played, I recall, the court jester in Hamlet and a crewman in Billy Budd. He was not regarded as a leading man.
Yet I could sense, even then, a curious blend of fire and poetry in his soul. I did not know then that he was still struggling to break free of the stereotype as a “foreigner” and to find his own identity.
The way Sean expressed his real feelings was by appearing in front of an audience, disguised as someone else. Only then, playing a role in a world of illusion, would he begin to expose the stormy emotions inside him.
“One of the things I love about theater,” he once told me, “is coming out onto the empty stage after a show. It’s a strange, lonely feeling. But a good one.
“Acting has to be a very lonely profession. You can be onstage with live other people, but you’re still alone in some way. It’s as if you’re stripped naked. It’s frightening, but at the same time you get this feeling of exhilaration.”
Sean and! became friends. One time I asked if he wanted to be a professional actor. Sean laughed. “Are you crazy?” he replied. “Do you know what kind of life that would be?”
Nearly twenty years later, I was walking by a Broadway theater in New York City one night, when a large photograph of the cast caught my attention. There, among the other actors, was the familiar face of Sean Griffin. My God, I thought, has Sean been an actor all these years? He’s on Broadway!
The stage door opened and Sean and I stood facing each other for the first time in two decades.
He was basically unchanged, although his brogue was gone. I was startled to learn that he had appeared on Broadway three other times. And that he had acted in popular TV shows such as Starsky and Hutch, Barnaby Jones, Columbo and a string of daytime soap operas.
“From the beginning,” he said, “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I just kept working and learning. Just tried to get better at what I was doing.”
As Sean spoke, he revealed how tough it had been to survive as an actor. He had waited on tables, made the rounds of casting agents and auditions, faced rejection over and over. And yet, because of his past, the idea of quitting never occurred to him.
“I was married for seven years,” he told me, “but all the ups and downs took their toll on my family life. Rehearsing, traveling, often gone for months. Marriage is difficult enough, but when you’re separated so much…”
A few years ago, Sean decided to return to regional theaters, where he has appeared in one play after another. “The important thing for me is to be working,” he explained one night. “Eighty-five per cent of the actors in New York and Hollywood are unemployed. The top people make millions but, on average, an actor’s yearly income is $4000. Maybe less.”
Sean has steadily earned his living by living steadily out of a suitcase, making at best about $14,000 a year. In 1985, he toured with Cyrano de Bergerac to 47 towns and cities. That fall, Sean performed in South Bend, where his parents still live. I flew out there and joined him.
We visited the Notre Dame Theater Department, where Sean – their “returning hero”- told the students: “If you don’t have the drive, forget it. You need a bit of healthy insanity. If you don’t have that, do something else.”
I joined Sean at his parents’ house for a family meal. Amid the good-natured irreverence and laughter, I began to realize that here was the real secret inside Sean. Here was his wellspring of love and warmth and support.
Cyrano is about an uncomely man who is mocked and scorned. But inside, this is no ordinary man. He has, within him, that “bit of healthy insanity” and, by the end of the play, he also embodies the highest ideals of love, courage, integrity and the magnificent possibilities of the human spirit.
Sean played LeBret, the only man who understands Cyrano. At one point, he was left alone onstage, standing midway up a giant staircase. His gaze swept the South Bend audience until he seemed to be staring directly at his father and mother, sending them a silent message:
“I’ve gone a long way, to come back on my own terms. Thank you for understanding. I’m home up here. This is who I am.”
Sean lives in Seattle (where he’s also a recognized artist as a painter!) with his wonderful wife Bernadine (Bernie) C. Griffin, who is currently Director of Theater Advancement and Development at the historic 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle (and, so I hear, soon to be the new Managing Director).
Here’s from of another rave review of Sean in The Seafarer:
“You could feel it. Sometimes the audience just want a play to end so they can get out of there. Last night the audience wanted the play to end for an entirely different reason. They wanted to applaud the hell out of Sean G Griffin. The rest of the cast were pretty good too but Griffin as irascible old codger, Richard Harkin, dominated the stage from start to finish … Prost Amerika has reviewed many shows at the Rep but can honestly say that Griffin’s portrayal of Richard Harkin was the most dominating single performance we have seen here.”
Keep up the great work, Sean!