Often, when seasoned actors are asked for their best advice to newcomers, they'll say something like, "If you don't want an acting career more than anything else in life, don't waste your time pursuing one." In a sense, Richard Seff's autobiography, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, challenges that prevailing wisdom.
As a young man, Seff had a promising stage career under way. He appeared on Broadway (with Claude Rains) and later toured (with Edward G. Robinson) in the 1950 adaptation of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. But Seff, a self-professed "nester," soon became convinced that the vagaries of the actor's life weren't for him—at least at the time. He detoured into a successful, two-decade stint as a New York theatrical agent and sometime playwright, only to return to the boards with measured success in the mid-1970s. Seff's story underscores the idea that there's no single road to becoming a working actor—that there's even, perhaps, a path for those with some misgivings.
Seff proves to be a highly talented storyteller (not a surprise, as one of his plays, Paris Is Out!, made it to Broadway in 1970). The book follows Seff—born Richard Siff—through his Brooklyn childhood, his first career triumphs and disappointments, his dizzying (literally) time on the road with Darkness, his jaunt with My Fair Lady during its out-of-town tryouts, and his run-ins with big boss Lew Wasserman during his agenting days with MCA.
It's in the last portion of the book, though—when Seff begins reassembling his acting career—that you really pull for him. And you flinch at every setback as he struggles for years to get the musical Shine!, for which he wrote the libretto, a fair theatrical hearing.
Seff spares few details. He tells us, to the dollar, how he fared on his investments in plays and musicals and how much he made from his various film and TV residuals. He also chronicles with candor some backstage squabbles and personal fallings-out. And the early chapters present a surprisingly upbeat look at what it was like to be young, gay, and working in theatre in pre-Stonewall Manhattan.
Supporting Player is entertaining and frequently absorbing: a highly recommended read.