Actor/director Jack Lynn owes his illustrious nearly 70-year career in the theater to giving the worst audition anybody had seen in ages at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in England, at age 15.
The 84 year old Lynn, director of the Woodland Opera House’s current delightful production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” spoke with Oscar winning actor Robert Donat (“Goodbye, Mr. Chips”), an adjudicator for RADA, following his audition. Donat explained that they were not looking for finished or polished performances because “if someone is already polished there would be no need for instruction.” “We’re looking for potentiality,” he said. “We can see that you have talent, but you just don’t know what to do with it.”
Donat became one of Lynn’s mentors. Another mentor was a man named Robert Atkins, best known in England (at that time) for being the only man to have directed all 37 Shakespeare plays, some of them many times.
Lynn apparently fulfilled his mentors’ view and within three years he had done “a little directing, a little instruction and a lot of acting” (including a season at Stratford-Upon-Avon, under Atkins’ direction).
He was recommended by Donat for a position at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse, at the conclusion of the World War II. The Playhouse, established in the late 1920s, had become an accredited college by 1937. It had as many as five independent stages in operation at any given time, making the it the single most prolific theatrical producing organization in the world.
Donat, who expected his protege to concentrate on acting was surprised to discover that he preferred teaching. “I love instructing,” Lynn admitted, clarifying that he feels you can’t teach acting. “The talent has to be there in the first place, so ‘teaching’ is the wrong word.”
(A lifetime of instructing has formulated one of his philosophies – “The more I learn, the more I realize the less I know. I hope when I was young I never had the attitude that I find so many young people have today--learn a little and think they know everything.”)
In 1947, the 25 year old Lynn moved to the United States for what was to have been one term at the Pasadena Playhouse. Before the end of his term, he was invited to stay on permanently. He eventually became the head of the Shakespeare Department and, in 1956, became dean of the college. “ I was told that I was the youngest dean of any educational institution in the U.S.,” he says, modestly.
For personal family reasons Lynn returned to England in 1959. “Until then I had been visiting England every summer while living in the states. Now, between 1959 and 1987 I reversed my life and was living in England and coming to California every summer. I think that might be a record — since 1947 there has not been a single year I have not been in both countries. It’s what has kept me poor all my life.”
Upon his return to England, he was contacted by John Fernald, who had taken over as head of the RADA in the early 1950s, and asked to join the staff as an instructor/director. “I told him I thought it was a very good idea to employ ex-students,” Lynn said. “Fernald’s reply was ‘We’re not employing you because you’re an ex-student, but because of your work with founder Gilmor [sic] Brown at the Pasadena Playhouse.’ It was then I realized how famous the playhouse really was,” said Lynn. “It was world renowned.”
His students, at Pasadena Playhouse and RADA span the gamut of theatrical greats from Anthony Hopkins to Ruth Buzzi, and include such luminaries as Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and Charles Bronson.
During his time back in England, Lynn became the producer of Knightsbridge Theatrical Productions, with over 10 West End productions in London, including “Pygmalion,” with Diana Rigg and a then-unknown Bob Hoskins (“We can claim to have helped him start his career”), “Candida,” with Deborah Kerr (“A wonderful person”), “Hamlet,” with Ian McKellan, and “Lord Quex,” with Judi Dench and John Gielgud.
Both Dench and Gielgud became good friends. Lynn wistfully remembers the late Gielgud fondly. “He was a wonderful actor, a wonderful man. So modest it was unbelievable. He had no idea how good he was.”
His “closest and greatest friend” is Paul Scofield, who won both an Oscar and Tony playing Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons.” “A very fine actor and friend.”
"I've been so lucky over the years with people I've worked with and the friends I’ve made,” Lynn said. “Great actors are some of the nicest people. They have a basic humanity and a basic kindness. They have to be nice, unprejudiced and open minded if they are to portray people of all types and styles. If you have a closed or prejudiced mind, you are unable to really understand the characters and it affects your performance.”
But Lynn saves his greatest pride for his “adopted son,” actor, novelist, playwright and director Ian Ogilvy, well known in England as Simon Templar in “Return of The Saint,” and seen in the U.S. in many television productions including “Murder She Wrote,” “Jag,” “Murphy Brown” and “Diagnosis Murder.” He is now making a name for himself as an author of children’s books. By mutual agreement, Ogilvy did not take his adopted father’s name, feeling that nepotism was a terrible thing. “His attitude was that because I’d been a producer and goodness knows what if he changed his name people would think I used my influence to get him work, and he wanted to earn it on his own.”
As an actor, Lynn has been in several television productions, such as the Rabbi in “Bar Mitzvah Boy.” His last movie appearance was as the bookseller in the film “Yentl,” and says he adored director/star Barbra Streisand. “She was an angel to work with,” he said, contradicting those who warned him that she would be difficult. “She’s kind and considerate as long as you do your work. If you don’t she can be critical.”
In the early 1990s, following a run as Cardinal Woolsey in a production of “A Man for All Seasons,” with Charlton Heston, Lynn was invited to come to Sacramento to work with friends Jerry and Laura Grisham, who ran the now defunct Stagedoor Comedy Theater in Sacramento for over 25 years. He remained with the Grishams, doing some coaching and some directing, and acting in local productions.
“To talk about my life would fill a three volume novel,” Lynn laughs. Instead he now does a one-man show, “Life and Laughter in the Theater,” in which he reminisces about his over 68 years in the theater. It was this show which first brought him to Woodland at the invitation of Woodland Opera House Artistic Director Jeff Kean. He has since taken the show to Scotland and England, and will present this one man show for the last time at the Chautauqua Theater in Sacramento on Sunday, February 11 at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., as he plans to retire to England soon after.
The show is described by Chautauqua as “the story of his life in entertainment, filled with humour and poignancy. A fascinating talk followed by questions.”
Health problems have compromised his ability to direct as he always has. “I’m one of those directors who likes to get up on the stage and demonstrate things, but the most frustrating thing is that I have to stay seated because I’m being incapacitated.” Instead he now sits in the house and actors come to him following a scene, in order to get instructions.
“The Importance of Being Earnest,” currently at the Woodland Opera House, will be his swan song as a director (“It’s one of my favorite plays”). He is very happy with this production. “The secret of good directing is to cast the play with the best possible people,” he says, pointing to all of the cast, but particularly Jerry Lee, in the role of Jack Worthing, with whom he first worked when the young actor was merely 15. “Jerry has made the greatest advance of any young actor I’ve ever worked with,” he says, proudly.
When he returns to England, Lynn will move into Denville Hall, a retirement community for theater persons outside of London, where he recuperated from surgery on his previous trip to England.
“It’s going to be a terrible wrench for me,” he says, sadly “I shan’t be coming back to the States every summer. Thank goodness a lot of my English friends whom I see every summer are very happy that I’m going to be there.” Among those friends is the Chairman of the Board of Denville, a former RADA classmate, Richard Attenborough, who first suggested that Lynn make Denville his permanent home.
For health reasons, Jack Lynn may be giving up the more energetic of his career activities, but something tells me that we have not seen the last of this delightful, talented gentleman.