Performer Bill Irwin was shaken silly when he was a boy. He and the lad sitting behind him couldn’t resist cutting up in class.
“I was a shy kid, wasn’t necessarily an extrovert, but I couldn’t help doing voices,” he says.
“The kid behind me, we had jokes going. He was better at laughing softer than I was, so I remember being shaken – which they’re not allowed to do now – but I know why they chose to do that, because you don’t forget it.”
He didn’t forget it. And that shaking shook something loose in Irwin that remains with him to this day. While many know him from more than 20 movies, as the recurring therapist on Law & Order: SVU, or as Mr Noodle on Sesame Street’s Elmo’s World, deep down Irwin’s a clown – a bona fide clown.
He’s an alumnus of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and though the baggy pants and the artful pratfalls are fewer today, the agile movements are apparent, as he unspools his long legs in a bucket chair in a hotel meeting room here.
Irwin displays some of that hard earned expertise as the geeky scientist in FX’s new Legion.
Adapted from a hero in Marvel Comics, the title character finds himself in psychiatric care, and Irwin plays one of the unconventional therapists treating him.
Irwin says his goofy antics grew out of necessity. “I am the oldest of three. I was in charge of making sure my brother and sister were OK, and also entertained, so they didn’t bother my mother who had a job at home. I was forever, ‘I know you’re mad at me. Don’t tell mother. I’m the guy who can’t fall off the bed, whoaaaaaa!’ Clown bits under pressure,” he grins.
“From the earliest memories I have I liked physical, funny things. I used to watch the Jackie Gleason Show and Phil Silvers, those early TV things. And a lot of them were patterned on the silent comedies of the 1920s. There’s that lineage. It was kind of natural for me to look for a way to work in vaudeville mode, even though vaudeville didn’t exist anymore.”
In spite of his exhaustive work as a producer, choreographer, avant-garde theatre actor and writer, Irwin says there was a time when he considered quitting show business.
“My son was five or six. I was offered a tenured teaching job. I thought, ‘Well, I could do some things on the side.’
“This agent said, ‘I think you’re an actor. I think you’re a performer.’ And that’s when I realised I love teaching and do it as much as possible, but only as a lesser part of my work. If it were ever the other way around, I don’t think I would have as much to offer students.
“And it just wouldn’t work for me,” says Irwin, who’s wearing a navy-blue suit, maroon tie and Prussian blue dress shirt.
“In the business of this business you should always take every job,” he nods. “Sometimes you say, ‘They’re offering me this, but I’m not ready or I’m not right.’ You have to listen to instinct, but it’s really hard because you have bills to pay, a calendar you want to work elegantly.”
It was especially difficult when his ageing parents outlived their resources. His dad died at 100, his mom 94. “It’s a hard thing to talk about,” he sighs. “You can talk about all aspects of life. As a show business person you’re supposed to have some spicy sides, that’s the easy part to talk about. Money is much harder to talk about. My parents ran out of resources. They outlived all the bets that Franklyn Delano Roosevelt had put on them, and my father’s pension.
“They were solid, middle-class people, so this was shocking to us all. But my sister and I – it wasn’t smooth and easy, it was a lot of angst and tension – but we started to realise we have to step up … For a lot of those years we had to meet those bills. It’s a portrait of these times and our culture.”
Irwin, 67, is married to his second wife, Martha Roth, and they are parents to an adopted son, now 26. “We tried to have a family the biological way and found we couldn’t,” he says.
At first he was reluctant to consider adoption. “Then you get on board and become an adoptive family. Pregnancy is not easy, but it’s the easy way. You’re pursuing somewhere between a business project and a grant-writing project, a spiritual pursuit and an audition – you’re always putting yourself forward – and suddenly it happens. In 1990 we became parents. That changes you totally,” he smiles. – Tribune News Service/Luaine Lee