Hal Landon Jr. has been playing Scrooge in South Coast Repertory’s production of A Christmas Carol every year since 1980. As one of the founding members of this LORT powerhouse in Costa Mesa, Calif., he’s been acting in its resident company for the better part of his career, which has also included film and TV roles (you may remember him as Ted’s dad from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure). As he embarks on his 35th outing in the top hat and scarf (the show runs Nov. 29–Dec. 26), Landon talked to American Theatre about his life in the theatre, past, present and future.
Are you the longest-running Scrooge in the U.S.?
Somebody looked it up once and told me there may have been somebody in a community-theatre production somewhere who might have done it as many times as, or even more times than me.
How did the South Coast Christmas Carol get started, and how has it changed over years?
Our intent in starting the company was to do edgier kinds of plays and classics; we didn’t really have anything for the family audience. So the idea of Christmas Carol was to do something for families. Our literary manager at the time, Jerry Patch, wrote an adaptation, which is the one we’re still using. When we first did it, there was kind of a cartoon element to it—we pretty quickly realized that really wasn’t what we wanted. The evolution of the show has been toward a more adult tone. It’s funny, but when you emphasize the humor and fancifulness of the story onstage, that just takes over, and you lose the Dickensian flavor. So my Scrooge has become darker, colder, more unyielding over the years.
I recall that you do a pretty significant physical stunt near the end. Are you still managing that?
At the end, I do a somersault over the bed and into the top hat—and yes, I’m still able to do that. I have to keep my weight down and do my military presses to keep my shoulders strong.
Where are you from, and how did you get started in the theatre?
I’m from Tucson, and got a degree in drama from the University of Arizona there. My parents were both actors, actually—my dad did a number of films in the 1940s—but I didn’t do any acting until I got to college. By then it was the early ’60s, when the resident theatre movement was starting to take off. I headed to the Actors Workshop in San Francisco as soon as I got out of school and was an apprentice there for a while. Then I heard about this new company that was starting in Southern California, and by then my dad lived in Arcadia, so I came down and auditioned and joined the South Coast Rep in 1966.
Does “repertory” in the name refer to the way you staged plays originally, or to the resident acting company?
It’s odd, a lot of theatres have “repertory” in their name, and hardly any of them run plays in repertory. We flirted with it briefly a couple of times, but it’s so hard to do; now we do mostly just a season of five or six plays. And there was an understanding that the founding members would have a certain number of work weeks in the year. They held to that until we turned 65; it’s a little harder to guarantee roles to that age group.
Did you get a lot of the roles you hoped for over the years?
There were times where you bristled when somebody else got a part you felt you should have gotten; there were times when they couldn’t offer us parts, and we wondered if they were trying hard enough. But we were incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity. We worked in a company, had a degree of job security and played wonderful roles over time.
You get a lot of press for Scrooge, but what other roles at SCR have you enjoyed doing?
We did a play this last spring by Sam Hunter, Rest, and I had a part in that which I enjoyed as much as any I’ve ever played. Also, a few years ago we did The Drawer Boy; I love that play. It wasn’t me, but it was a character that really fit me.
What do you do when you’re not doing theatre?
I teach a couple of acting classes. And I’ve taken up golf, though I’m kind of sorry that I did. What is so hard about hitting a ball into a hole, you might wonder? But I can’t seem to do it with any consistency. I have two granddaughters who are five and two, and they’re all energy. The five-year-old will get to see the show for the first time this year.
Be honest: Does playing Scrooge get old after a while?
Well, the reason I still enjoy doing it is that people come up to you and say things like, “Our Christmas doesn’t start until we see Christmas Carol,” or, “My parents brought me, and I brought my kids, and now my kids are getting ready to bring their kids.” It’s in the show—Fred’s line about the spirit of Christmas and the joy of coming together; where else do you get that? People want to go back to that time when the holiday was a joy, and it was about charity and thinking about others. When I get that kind of feedback, that makes doing the role a lot more bearable.