Reuniting with the voice of Alan Tracy—Thunderbird!

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The young Olivier
  • The young Olivier
The recent "Pawnee Commons" episode of Parks and Recreation opened in the studio of Derry Murbles, the mumbling, near-comatose talk show host of Pawnee's public radio outlet. Murbles was played by one of the most successful actors in America, and I doubt if anyone recognized him.

I didn't—I spotted his name in the credits.

Yet many years ago, when he was starting out in Chicago, Dan Castellaneta and I had both been involved in a "seed show" project that teamed up a few writers with young improv actors from Second City to create one-act plays. Also in the mix was Steve Carell, and is there anyone today who can't recognize Carell?

Not so with Castellaneta. But then, he's an actor without a face: since 1989 he's been the voice of Homer Simpson.

Once upon a time, when I was a little boy in Sudbury, Canada, there was a young actor in town named Matt Zimmerman, barely out of his teens. One time he babysat us, and my sister Dixie and I locked him out of the house. So he swears, though I don't remember this and neither does Dixie. But he insists, and as he would know, I'm happy to believe it's true. One generation later my daughter Molly locked her sitter out of the house, and I like the idea of this kind of wickedness being genetically determined.

Zimmerman made a name for himself in Sudbury's amateur theatrics, which is how he became friends with my parents. The next thing we knew he'd set up shop in London, and someone had hailed him as the "young Olivier." A few years went by and we spotted him playing a small role in the Oscar-winning A Man for All Seasons, sharing celluloid with Paul Scofield. We awaited his stardom.

But lives are stubborn things and have a mind of their own. What came instead of stardom for Matt Zimmerman was celebrity, as his life soon took a turn Dan Castellaneta would appreciate. In 1965 a British TV producer named Gerry Anderson, exploiting what he called a "supermarionation" process, came up with a puppet show about a derring-do 21st-century family of adventurers. These were the Tracys, who from a secret island base ran—I'll quote the Guardian newspaper here—"International Rescue, a secret emergency service . . . aided by London agent Lady Penelope and her butler, Parker." The show was called Thunderbirds, its catchphrase "Thunderbirds are go!" And although Anderson produced new episodes only through 1966, Thunderbirds lives on in Britain as a frequently revived cult classic.

The Tracys were all named after American astronauts. Matt Zimmerman was the voice of Alan Tracy.

Alan Tracy--Thunderbird
  • Alan Tracy—Thunderbird
I wasn't there, and two weeks ago I couldn't have written with any authority that Thunderbirds was as big as all that. But over the holiday our family visited London, and I called Zimmerman, introduced myself, and asked if I could drop by and see him. And as it happened, the day after we arrived Gerry Anderson died at the age of 83.

When I called Zimmerman he said he'd been on the phone all day reminiscing about Anderson for reporters. He told the BBC: "I remember him coming to me as a young man when we finished the series of Thunderbirds and he said, 'Matt, this will be your pension,' and I laughed, but he was right."

But it wasn't just Anderson he was remembering, Matt wanted me to know. The actor Jack Klugman had also just died, and he'd acted with Klugman in The Odd Couple. And the day before Christmas Britain lost the composer Richard Rodney Bennett, who'd done some things with Zimmerman's late wife Shirley Chapman when she sang with the Sadler's Wells Opera.

I hadn't seen Zimmerman since I was a kid. I prepared myself to drop back into the life of the wunderkind I dimly remembered at a moment when he must have felt impossibly old.

So he poured me a cup and we talked and there was nothing maudlin about him.

I mentioned Castellaneta to Matt by way of claiming to understand the life he's led. It's not exactly the same, Matt replied. We were all celebrities, he reflected; we made public appearances; people knew us. What's more, even though at that moment nothing about Zimmerman mattered except his history as Alan Tracy, he's had a long career in the theater and it's kept his face before the public.

Matt's in his late 70s now and he doesn't consider himself retired, because no actor is. The reason parts don't come along often anymore, he said, is that he's too fit to play his age. This appeared to me to be true. Perhaps he's always looked younger than he was. He broke into musical theater in London, he remembered, as Tony's understudy in West Side Story, and eventually took over the role. The last time he played the part of the gang leader with an itch for something better he was 38, and he took the stage thinking, This is ridiculous. But his walls are full of pictures, and Zimmerman as a Tony pushing 40 is one of them.

Isn't that a terrible role? I asked him. Tony's supposed to be a gangbanger, but he's written as a lovesick puppy who wanders around the stage in a sappy daze. He doesn't even dance.

Matt told me he didn't play him that way. He played him as a street tough who wants to be something more and isn't sure he can pull it off. It's a thin veneer, and when his pal Riff gets knifed in the rumble it cracks. Tony picks up the knife, Matt told me, putting himself back on that London stage, and shoves it in Bernardo's gut without thinking twice.

I told him Molly had played Anita in high school.

Meeting up with Matt Zimmerman was probably the most important thing I would do in London, but as it meant nothing to anyone else I went alone to visit him in his bungalow on the edge of town. That night I joined the family for dinner at a hip oyster joint near the Tate Modern. Molly and her husband, Alex, and I got to talking about West Side Story. Alex had his doubts about how tough anyone can play Tony. There's the insuperable problem of "Maria." Thugs don't sing falsetto.

He gave it his best shot, I said. And I told them Matt Zimmerman had also been Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and at different times he'd played three parts, including FDR, in Annie. He dropped many more names—of shows and roles and actors—and he said it was Oscar Hammerstein II himself who heard his wife in a Rodgers and Hammerstein show and told her she belonged in opera. Zimmerman's wife died in her sleep ten years ago, though there hadn't been a hint of illness, and I believe his heart has ached for her every day since.

It's an odd experience to connect once again with a figure from distant childhood, someone who went on to lead a long life that had no connection with yours. You have a sense of your own life somehow gaining in unity and integrity from the reunion. Perhaps Dixie and I locked him out of the house, and as he stewed on the front porch he told himself, "I've got to get out of this town." Yes, I bet that's what happened. He went off to London to become Alan Tracy because two incorrigible children sent him on his way.

UPDATE: After the above was posted, Matt Zimmerman got back to me with his further thoughts on Tony. He wrote:

Am afraid your daughter is wrong...first of all having worked with Sondheim twice in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, and a concert performance of FOLLIES...we had discussed Tony several times...your daughter and friend have to look at the different layers of a character...when Tony (who was a tough...almost like Action), left the gang because something was happening and he didn't know what (‘Something's Coming’)...he is convinced to go to the dance by Riff and there meets Maria...according to what Bernstein told me..."from then on he has a permanent hard-on"...his singing of ‘Maria’ should not be just about a ‘LOVE SONG’ but about the strong sexual feelings that have been aroused in him. Hope that clears it up.

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