By Bonnie McGrath
"You're sort of two-dimensional on television. When you get a chance to appear on the stage, it fleshes you out to a three-dimensional person." --Joel Daly, Kankakee Daily Journal, 1992
Joel Daly and Fahey Flynn paired up in 1967, and people still talk about what happened. Some think they ruined TV news with the invention of happy talk. But everyone acknowledges their success--they won an Emmy three months after they started. Daly is still there. His Channel Seven public relations profile says the pairing brought "a humanistic approach" to "the most copied news format in the country."
But this success hasn't been enough for Daly. After being a top anchor, Daly became a trial lawyer, a pilot, and a singer in a country music band. His latest project? Building a repertory theater company to showcase the acting talent in the Chicago Bar Association and to provide glimpses into the world of law through the eyes of various playwrights.
His first star? Himself. He will play the professor in David Mamet's Oleanna.
"We want to do serious productions of legal significance," says Daly. "We want the public to see talented lawyers in a positive way. And we want people to think. We're going to have discussions with the audience afterward. This is a lot of work for one night--maybe we'll take [these shows] on the road." Daly wants to do a lot of "major-legal-theme" productions like, for instance, Inherit the Wind.
"We're not going anywhere with this," yells Paulette Petretti, a lawyer moonlighting as the director of Oleanna. She's standing in a corner of the dark, cold TV studio they're using as a rehearsal space. "We're sliding backwards. The relationship's not there."
Petretti is chastising Daly and Ruth Berman, also a lawyer and a part-time actress and singer. Berman plays the student who Daly may--or may not--have sexually harassed. By the end of the play, the two aren't exactly happy talking. In fact, Daly throws Berman down while screaming obscenities.
Berman, wearing black leather gloves to protect her from the chill, tells Petretti that she thinks the problem is that she and Daly are both trying to memorize their lines and concentrating too much on the words.
"Yeah," Petretti tells Berman, "you've lost the stuff you've built into your character. Think Joan Cusack--daffy but likable. Be lighter. Get a fun quality."
As for Daly: "Give it more punch, Joel. I'd just like a little more punch."
During a break, stage manager Lee Levin tells Berman and Daly to look around their houses for knickknacks to use for the set. He says that will make them comfortable. Then they all discuss the pros and cons of various microphones. "Daly is used to that," Levin explains. The group decides against mikes attached to the actors' bodies because of the scene where Berman is thrown to the ground; this could cause weird noises. They decide the best way to go is a "flat mike," which can be placed inconspicuously at the front of the stage.
Why does Daly keep so busy?
"It could be because I'm unsure of myself," he says.
"He's unsatisfied," offers Berman, "so he likes to have his fingers in many pots."
"He's an egomaniac," says Petretti.
Just minutes before rehearsal, Daly sat in another dark studio at Channel Seven next to Linda Yu and Sylvia Perez, reading the four o'clock news. Two diminutive technicians sat off to the side behind two small consoles. Huge cameras moved across the concrete floor.
Footage from a story about someone's pet pig played softly on the technicians' monitors while Daly and his colleagues giggled and conversed.
After the news, Daly quickly left the third-floor studio and walked down an avenue of cubicles to his small, neat office overlooking State Street. There are photos of his wife, grown children, and a granddaughter. He made a few calls before rehearsal. He juggles anchor duties with his law career.
Daly explains that he's like a lot of lawyers: he likes to argue cases, he doesn't like paperwork. Which has worked out fine for him--he's a trial lawyer and a TV news anchor, which may give him some credibility in the courtroom. He's been affiliated with the law office of Philip Corboy, and now he's with the office of attorney Burton Joseph. Recently he defended a Glencoe woman's right to decorate her yard with an art installation: "But I didn't win."
Daly began in radio in the 1950s in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. He'd been singing since first grade, and he picked up yodeling while working on a ranch near Spokane, where he grew up. After graduating from Yale, he wanted to go to law school, but he was drafted during the Korean war.
In 1967 he landed in Chicago. On his first night in town, he went to the old Bar RR on Randolph Street and hooked up with the resident band, the Sundowners. Only one member of the original group remains active, but Joel Daly and the Sundowners still play about 15 gigs a year.
After 16 years on the ten o'clock news, Daly was transferred to the late afternoon, where he's been ever since. He wondered what he'd do with his evenings. He had lunch with Dennis Swanson, then general manager of Channel Seven. Swanson told Daly he'd do anything to make his transition smooth and palatable, and offered to rewrite his contract any way he wanted. "I said, 'OK, I want to go to law school,'" Daly recalls. "'And I can't be around here 14 hours a day.'" So in 1984 Daly entered Kent as a night student. Channel Seven paid most of the tuition under a reimbursement plan. Now, Daly says, becoming a judge would be "a nice way to end it." He's already attended a seminar on how to get elected.
Being an actor would be OK, too. Oleanna, which will be performed this Friday at the First Chicago Center Theatre, is not his first play. Several years ago he heard about an upcoming production of To Kill a Mockingbird at Wisdom Bridge, and he called the director to ask for an audition. He says the director recognized "the PR possibilities," so Daly got to play Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape in a racist southern town. He describes the character as his "hero."
"I was in a restaurant on Dearborn, gulping food one night," says Daly, "and I saw Mockingbird was being reviewed. And then I saw a headline that said, 'It's Called Acting, Stupid,' and I thought I was going to be in for a vicious attack. But the headline was in reference to a different play. The review actually said 'He Is Atticus Finch.'" o