This article was originally published in June, 2004.
Wow! My Tony is eight years old now. How did that happen? Tony Time spins around faster every year. This year I am fortunate to welcome the Tony celebration as a cast member of Caroline, or Change, nominated for six Tony Awards.
As I reflect on my Tony, I go into the hall and get it off the shelf where it lives. I hold it in my hand and I can still see my reflection. Its silvery shine has dimmed only a little bit. It is perhaps a little heavier than it was the first time I felt its weighty wonder--heavier with the all-too-speedily accumulated weight of time, and experience. Its black, shiny lacquer cubic base is solid and more than capable of supporting the elegantly etched comedy and tragedy masks that adorn the central disk.
Before winning I had seen Tonys up close, but never actually touched one. I remember the time the cast of The Life was being graciously entertained at producer Roger Berlind's lovely home. I found myself in a room practically lined with Tonys! I froze in a kind of giddy wonder, trying to imagine each of their stories.
Every Tony has an incredible story to tell. Great reward always involves great risk. And there's nothing more dramatic than risking millions of dollars, and the Herculean effort of many dedicated and talented people. As I looked at Roger's Tonys, or rather, as I coveted them, I dreamed of having one of my own, some day. Funny, the first time I saw one, I was in the show that would soon yield mine.
When we got our 12 nominations for The Life, the party was on! Tony fever was everywhere. The luncheons, the tributes, the press events. Sardi's, the Friars Club, the Plaza. It was the equinox of a very rarified culture, a culminating event of glorious gravity, a vortex generated by great wealth, strong talent, and outrageous passion. It was, and continues to be, wonderful to sail in the winds it generates.
To be "in the room" as it were, with the best in the business is quite a thrill. In my category alone (Best Featured Actor in a Musical) there was Sam Harris, nominated for his awesome Jojo in The Life. Sam would hold this high note at the end of "You Gotta Use What You Got" for what seemed like two days. I mean, really, you could go out for pizza and he'd still be holding it when you got back. Joel Blum, who melted his way into the hearts of everyone who saw his great performance in Steel Pier, was also nominated.
And Mr. Andre De Shields--what can I say about such excellence? From The Wiz to Prymate, Andre has crafted performances with consistent, eloquent artistry. In my view he is a prime candidate for a lifetime achievement Tony. What an honor to be in fraternity with brothers of such high caliber.
The most common question people ask is, "What did you think when they called your name?" When Rosie O'Donnell said, "And the winner is Chuck Cooper," it was like she pushed the button that zapped me into warp speed, and all the stars in the sky, and in that hall, became ribbons of light shining on me. Suddenly, I was connected to an acute sense of past, present, and future. It is feeling, more than thought, that I remember.
Time bends in moments like this. My float to the podium (that's exactly what it felt like) seemed to be in slow motion. The light and love of the people sitting around me was so warm, it felt as though I was lifted by them. The oldest of my three awesome children, Eddie, was sitting next to me that evening. He was then in his first year of high school (he has since graduated in the class of 2004, with a BFA in acting, from Ithaca College). By the time I made it up the few red-carpeted steps to Rosie, the full measure of that magical, majestic moment was filling all my storehouses to overflowing. Right off, I babbled something stupid to Rosie about my kids going to see her in The Wizard of Oz at Madison Square Garden. Like, I win a Tony, and I'm plugging Rosie on my time! Clearly, I was already delirious. She hands me the Tony, I turn to the mike, and I address "The World"!!!
How can I tell you how jazzed I was, standing there, downstage center, at Radio City Music Hall, with a Tony in my hand, with my son sitting there, knowing my father (who was an actor in community theatre in Cleveland's Karamu House Theatre) was also up there in the balcony with my friend Vanessa, and my fellow cast members?
I had actually written something to say. Days before I had calmly sat myself down and taken the time to think about who to thank and what to talk about. But in the fullness of those precious seconds, phrases crumbled and stumbled out in a futile attempt to communicate a state of being that mere words could only diminish. I had told friends and family who would be watching on the tube, that if I won, I would pull my earlobe as a sign to them that I was thinking about them. I totally spaced and almost couldn't remember my children's names, much less to pull my earlobe. I knew that Alex (then 9), Lilli (then 5), and my ex-wife Tisa were watching on the tube. I was in the middle of blubbering something about how my three beautiful children teach me simplicity, patience, and compassion, when another huge wave of happiness hit me, and I exclaimed, "Oh my God, I just won a Tony!"
Just at the crest of that joyous wave, my eye caught the huge countdown clock at the back of the hall that shows the time remaining before they play the "get off" music. "Nine seconds," it said. AHHHH! How could there only be nine seconds of this bliss left? Do I make them get out the hook, or can I say it all in the remaining fleeting specs of time? I acknowledge my ancestors in the person of my father sitting in the balcony, I acknowledge the future in the person of my son seated next to the place I just moved away from, and the present resonated with my final grandiose, eloquent words, "Hi diddle dee dee!" That's right, Hi diddle dee dee, the actor's life for me. Being an actor had never felt so good!
I walked away from that moment a new member of a very exclusive club. I was now Tony Award-winner Chuck Cooper. I had been given the nod, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
My first jolt of reality was almost immediate. When I walked into the wings I discovered that the Tony Rosie had given me in front of the camera, was not my Tony. It was a prop. It was only after they promised that my real Tony would be delivered to me at a later date could the prop Tony be wrenched from hands.
Eight spins around the sun later, I sit here with my Tony in my hand and ask myself, "What does this mean to me?" I now have a lot of ambivalence about the Tony. The yin-and-yang dimension of the comedy and tragedy masks succinctly captures an enduring truth about life, and the Tony. You truly can be riding high in April, and shot down in May. Both yin and yang came with my Tony.
Winning a Tony has interesting side effects. More than once, I've gotten wind that there was some show that I was right for, but they assumed they couldn't afford a Tony winner. Ha! This one cracked me up when I became aware of it. I certainly would have liked to at least talk about how expensive I might be, especially when my unemployment insurance was about to run out. I've heard this one too: "We're looking for a Chuck Cooper voice." HELLO! Last time I checked, I'm still here!
In the eight Broadway shows I've done, only three times did I originate a role: in Amen Corner, The Life, and Caroline, or Change. Before I was a Tony winner I might take an understudy gig, but now, how would that look?
We live in a complex culture and world, and the reality is that for some, a Tony Award means one thing, and for others, it means something less. Let me put it this way. Theatre is the black sheep of the entertainment industry, and if you're a black person in the theatre, where do you think that puts you?
It would make quite an interesting study to compare and contrast the careers of various Tony Award winners, e.g., blacks vs. whites, or men vs. women. I'll bet anyone my Tony that white men do far better than black women. A Tony, an Emmy, or an Oscar for a white artist usually represents increased marketability. The truth is, it does not alter black artists' professional careers. These awards give white artists more bargaining power, but not black artists.
A key reason is because a producer knows, even if it is on a sub-conscious level, that black and ethnic artists have little clout in commercial theatre. We are grossly under-represented, so we are generally hungry for the few jobs available to us. Thus, no bargaining power. How can a Tony make a substantial difference if there are so few stories being told or produced that include, or regard, black people?
It seems the only people who are impressed by my Tony are people who can do nothing for my career, with the exception of my great agents at Leading Artists. We have worked together for over twenty years, through thick and thin and every spin of this crazy game we love to hate. A Tony Award has tremendous cache among the powerless. Its most mundane aspect is that it is a temporal tool the rich use to make more money.
That being said, winning a Tony Award does beat a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. A Tony is a gem of many facets. My Tony's greatest gift to me has been the love that its prism has focused my way. So many have voiced their care for me in their joy, triumph, and excitement for my fortune. There is an enduring sense of achievement that is shared by all who know you. Anyone who is awarded one, shares it with, and is connected to so many wonderful people.
I have enjoyed being able to give back to my community. As a Tony-winner it has been my privilege to perform in benefits and fundraisers for organizations that do great artistic and social work. The Amas Musical Theatre, Audelco, Blackberry Productions, The Arts Center for Education, Theatreworks USA, 52nd Street Project, Theater Resources Unlimited, The Hofstra Cultural Center, The Times Square Group, The American Foundation for AIDS Research, and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS are but a few of the organizations I have been honored to assist.
I have enjoyed the speaking engagements that my Tony has precipitated. The most fun was at my alma mater, Ohio University, for the 2002 College of Fine Arts Convocation, where I was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award from the School of Theater. This tickled me for two reasons. First, I was getting an award for getting an award. And second, at the time they invited me to accept my award and speak, I was ever-so-broke and unemployed. I remember thinking, "Boy, they must be scraping the bottom of the barrel if I'm the Distinguished Alumnus." It is exactly this kind of cosmic currency that continues to fill my storehouses.
My Tony's story has twists and turns, ups and downs. Spins come with the territory. It took more than ten years of workshops and backers auditions for Cy and Ira and David and Marty and Roger and Sam and Michael and Joe and Terrie and Pam and Lillias and Sharon and soooooo many others to get The Life to Broadway. Life and death are truly part of this story. Joe Layton, David Newman, who are no longer with us, were instrumental in the making of The Life.
My Tony still shines its light on me, in ever-so-surprising ways. Ever since the day my "real" Tony was delivered it has surprised me. Mine arrived with Lillias White's. Two very cool looking black boxes left at the stage door of the Barrymore Theatre. We had quite the great time taking them out of the velvet-lined boxes they came in, and playing with them. After carefully reading all the inscriptions, we discovered that if you take your finger and push the edge of the central disk, the large round medallion on which the comedy and tragedy masks are molded, it spins! You can't eat it, and it won't necessarily get you a job. But hey, it spins! Pretty cool I think.
So I'll put my Tony back on the shelf where it lives, and give it one more spin, as I do every time I walk by it. And smile.
* * *
Chuck Cooper won a Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 1997 for The Life. He more recently appeared on Broadway in 2004 Best Musical nominee Caroline, or Change.Revised April 23, 2012