By Norm Haddad
For West Virginia South
Some will remember him as Al Pacino’s tormented, gender-confused lover in “Dog Day Afternoon.” In his first movie Chris Sarandon was on screen for only 11 minutes, but was so convincing in his role as a transvestite that he was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor.
You see him these days in a variety of venues, not just the movies, because he is at a point in his career where he can be selective. He is recognizable because all of his roles have made an indelible memory easy to recall. But who is Chris, really?
Chris Sarandon, known to many southern West Virginia folks as “the movie actor from Beckley,” may have to qualify his answer by responding, “Who am I? At what point in time do you want to know?”
Chris has been almost 120 characters ... there’s Sydney, Charles, JD, Adam, Ashton, Craig, Deputy Sam, Doctors David, Jeffrey, Gordon, Pallas, Peter, Roark, Tom, Anton, Prince Humperdinck from “The Princess Bride” and the voice of Jack Skellington from Tim Burton’s goth favorite “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” He even played Jesus Christ in the movie “The Day Christ Died.”
We shouldn’t confuse the quantity of his acting roles with quality of his work. Along with the nomination for an Oscar as Best Actor in a Supporting Role in “Dog Day Afternoon,” Chris was nominated for Golden Globe Best Acting Debut award for the same movie. And there was a nomination for a Saturn Award for Best Actor in the ’80s horror flick “Fright Night.”
“Many of the roles have been indelible in their own right, but I don’t feel identified by any one of them,” he says.
His performances, however, have been acclaimed and his skills have garnered respect for all these years since he left Woodrow Wilson High School with his eyes on acting excellence.
Chris is affable, soft-spoken, personable. He is still a local guy at heart, who got his first taste of show business as a teenager on the musical stage while playing drums with a local band called The Teen Tones. When he graduated from WWHS in 1960, the band was so good that they found themselves touring and backing up music legends of the day like Bobby Darin, Gene Vincent and Danny and the Juniors.
He learned about the world of work from a young age when he helped in his dad’s restaurant, The Eatwell Café on Heber Street in downtown Beckley. He remembers those days, as do some of his friends, who witnessed that side of Chris’ family ties to his Greek heritage.
In 1961 he made his theater debut at Grandview’s “Honey in the Rock” where he spent three seasons with the drama in a variety of roles. He retains theater ties in West Virginia associating with the Advisory Board of the Greenbrier Valley Theater in Lewisburg.
Chris graduated magna cum laude from West Virginia University, majoring in speech, and appeared in such musical productions as “The Music Man.” He went on to attend the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he received his Master of Fine Arts degree in theater.
His work took him first to Hollywood, then around the world, and in recent years to New York City. He discusses how production work has changed from being localized in California to other parts of the country, even other parts of the world, where there might be a favorable exchange rate for the dollar. The cost of doing business is a critical part of a successful movie or TV production and he now has to travel to where the work is, rather than living near his work. New York City is surprisingly a popular filming spot because of the vast resources, tax rebates and location opportunities.
New York also retains the center of theater work for aspiring as well as seasoned actors, and Chris enjoys being able to go back and forth among the types of work he does. But there are always risks — his most recent project was a series pilot for ABC television called “Gothica,” bringing many “historical” characters back to life in the form of their ancestors. ABC decided not to pick up the series in which Chris was to play Alfonse Frankenstein, the father of Victor Frankenstein.
He pointed out that young people seeking their big break into show business dominated the production, as is the case with most current theatrical activity, many of them hailing from Australia and England. He is at ease with this balance, even though it means roles for seasoned actors are increasingly fewer.
“People go into acting for the wrong reasons — it is not a shortcut to fame and fortune. If these goals are not attained, there can be bitter disappointment. Acting should be an end in itself; it’s the process that’s important. If fame and fortune happen, that’s just icing on the cake.”
His goal, he says, has never been to be a big name “star.”
“I was fortunate to make a good living at it, mainly because of my talent for being a chameleon — I fit into many roles because of my ability with accents, and makeup. I worked in regional theater and on Broadway for eight or nine years before acting in my first movie.”
Being a “name” in the business requires much time in promotion/public relations and public appearances — something that has not been Chris’ cup of tea.
“I wanted to be known by my work, and I have always thought I could get better with each role,” he said. “I have been very disciplined about my growth in this business, and that has allowed me to reach most of my goals, which were quite simply to keep working.”
Chris’ children enjoy watching classic movies on TV with him.
“They love the old stories but are under no illusions about the ‘glamour’ of Hollywood. When they were little they often came to movie or TV sets I was working on and got bored very quickly. Watching a movie made is not terribly interesting— LOTS of repetition.”
Interesting is the word Chris uses to describe what it has been like to learn about the world through the characters he’s played.
“When I portrayed a brain surgeon, I had to learn the details of the character, and that brings a bit of education about brain surgery and the related nuances of being a doctor. I can’t pretend that I’m as tremendously skilled and brilliant as these characters, but it’s always educational — I’m constantly going to school, with homework!”
He is a man who enjoys his home life, being very content with his suburban lifestyle. His current wife is the Tony award winning, acclaimed actress and writer Joanna Gleason. In 1991, he performed on Broadway in the short-lived musical "Nick & Nora" (based on the "Thin Man" film) with Joanna, the daughter of TV game show host, Monty Hall.
They were married in 1994 and have appeared together in a number of films, including “Edie & Pen” (1996), “American Perfekt” (1997) and “Let the Devil Wear Black” (1999). In the 2000s he made guest appearances in quite a few TV series, notably as the Necromancer demon, Armand, in “Charmed,” and as superior court judge Barry Krumble in six episodes of “Judging Amy.”
Other shows currently on TV where Chris has appeared include “Law and Order,” “Law and Order SVU,” “Cold Case,” “Psych,” and “The Good Wife.”
Chris and Joanna have four children between them: Aaron David Gleason, from her first marriage, and Stephanie, Alexis, and Michael Sarandon, from Chris’s second marriage. They are the proud grandparents of Will and Luke Sarandon Turner, as well. Son Michael, trained as a chef, manages two restaurants near his home in upstate N.Y., and has designs of advancing his interest in food as a restaurateur.
Daughter Alexis is currently working on her master’s degree in acupuncture, while trying to keep up her former career as an organic farmer. His oldest daughter Stephanie, the mother of Luke and Will, is a chemistry and physics teacher and volleyball coach at a boarding school in Massachusetts. Stepson Aaron is successfully embarking upon a career as an actor, while maintaining his interests as a musician/composer.
Chris has a great deal of personal pride and satisfaction returning to the theater, appearing on Broadway in “The Light in the Piazza,” which was featured on PBSs; “Live at Lincoln Center,” and “Cyrano de Bergerac,” with Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner, which was also featured on PBS’s “Great Performances. He also co-starred with Carey Mulligan (currently seen in the film “The Great Gatsby”) off-Broadway in “Through a Glass Darkly.”
He keeps up with his fellow WWHS Flying Eagles via e-mail and class activities.
“I’m not the only one who’s been ‘successful,’” he says, proudly pointing out West Virginia buddies who have gone on to be highly visible in their fields: John McBride, astronaut; Dr. Phil Halloran, a highly skilled physician/surgeon at Baylor Medical Center; Mike Massinnople, who expanded and diversified the successful West Virginia company, Mabscott Supply.
In spite of his numerous successes, Chris still has to audition for movie roles.
“I don’t have offers flying at me from every direction: As an actor ages, the roles necessary become more scarce, since the target audience for most TV is 18-49 and for movies often even younger. Now I’m often playing fathers of the lead characters. That’s the reality.”