Illinois State University Alumnus Actor Gary Cole '77 has an IMDB profile that’s longer than a gang member’s rap sheet so you might be surprised he is often asked by random people if he’s famous because they recognize him from somewhere. Cole is among the busiest actors in the business. He’s currently on six TV shows and he has at least two movies coming out this year.
The actor from Park Ridge, IL attended Illinois State University from 1974-1977 and said it was the variety of experiences and acting techniques he learned there that helped him have, as he put it, long "shelf life" in a fickle and competitive business. "I remember I did Restoration comedy and I did Shakespeare. I did plays that were written by students here at the university that were in competition for regional festivals. I did all kinds of things ... a few musicals here and there," he said during a one-on-one interview after taking questions from students. "That was a great training ground; to be able to do and execute a lot of things. It helped me later because having some diversity can prolong your existence,"he said.
The star of such movies as Office Space, Pineapple Express, and Talledega Nights: The Tale of Ricky Bobby along with TV shows such as The West Wing, Veep and his latest Mercy Street was inducted Thursday into the ISU Fine Arts Hall of Fame. He’ll also be giving a commencement speech for Fine Arts graduates Saturday at Braden Auditorium.
There Is No Handbook
Cole told theater students during a Q and A session following his Hall of Fame induction ceremony there is no handbook for success in what can be a challenging business. Cole quoted advice someone once gave to him. "Worry about the show. Make sure you have the show ready to go and yourself. Worry about the business after that cuz if you got the show, hopefully the business will follow," he advised.
"Sometimes obtaining opportunities is out of your hands. I think it's more important that if you do get one, make it count," he offered up when asked about secrets to being able to maintain an acting career. Cole said he has no regrets about roles not taken. "I've never turned down anything that I regret not doing."
It seems Cole enjoys doing comedy and drama equally and prepares the same for any kind of role. He realizes his role as Bill Lumbergh in Office Space is a fan favorite. He often gets people quoting back to him their favorite lines, 'I'm going to need you to come in Saturday' or 'I'm going to need that TPS report.' But, when he was asked by a theater student about a landmark role or experience that he carries with him as an actor, Cole talked about his experience working on a play called Tracers, written by Vietnam veterans.
Cole first performed the play as part of the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago in 1984. It was directed by fellow ISU Alum Gary Sinese of Blue Island, IL. "We visited Vietnam veterans in psychiatric hospitals and in substance abuse hospitals but they were exclusively for veterans." Cole said. He explained Sinese had those veterans look at the script and provide insight. It then developed into getting input from veterans following the show during nightly talk-backs after performances.
According to Cole, those encounters were special. "That's when theater can really be something beyond what happens when the lights go up and the lights go down because they [veterans] were instrumental in what they gave to us when we would go out there after we had those encounters and after we performed."
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