Les Marsden

Les Marsden: ‘Veracity and Passion Run Deep in Most Armenians

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YEREVAN/MARIPOSA, Calif. — Actor, director, playwright and musician Les Marsden was born on February 26, 1957, in Fresno. He began piano lessons at age 4 and was an accredited piano teacher by age 11 and composed his first symphony at 13. As a teen, he played principal trumpet in several ensembles including the California Honor Orchestra and the Fresno Junior Philharmonic (FJP) and under Maestro Guy Taylor’s tutelage, he conducted the FJP in performances of his own works. As a teen he acted in local theatre; upon entering college (CSU Fresno) Marsden settled on a theatre career.

As a college student he wrote, produced and starred in his one-man show, “A Night at Harpo’s,” with the cooperation of Harpo Marx’s, widow, Susan, and their children. Well acquainted with the elderly Groucho Marx, he performed as that Marx Brother for years in various theatrical presentations. Groucho’s son Arthur Marx wrote the play “Groucho: A Life in Revue” and in it created the dual role of Harpo and Chico Marx specifically for Marsden who in addition to playing both brothers in and out of their well-known film personae also stunned audiences by actually playing lengthy piano and harp solos in each brother’s distinctive style.

The show had successful runs in New York and London; Marsden was nominated in the U.K. for London’s prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for “Comedy Performance of the Year” — the equivalent of Broadway’s Tony Awards. He also received the London Critics Award and many others for his work on the London stage.

Marsden was seen nationally and internationally in innumerable dramas, comedies and musicals, with countless appearances on film, TV and in commercials. While starring in a play at the famed Arena Stage in Washington, DC in 1999, Marsden had an onstage accident which resulted in a career-ending permanent injury to his left leg. Disabled, he retired at age 42. With no further need to maintain an East Coast professional base, Marsden, his wife Diane and son Maxfield moved back to their native California to live near their beloved Yosemite National Park.

In 2001 he established the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra, offering his Acting in Mariposa (AIM) program.

Dear Les, I have read about you in the 4th volume of Contemporary Television and Film Actors anthology at Yerevan Public Library when I was a student. I was impressed by your theater and TV roles and comical face. At that pre-Internet epoch it was unimaginable that one day I could see your videos and make an interview with you, so I am very glad to introduce you to Armenian readers…

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I’m humbled that I’m known — even slightly at all — in Armenia. And I’m honored to be exposed to our people through your interview. I’ve always had a sense of ethnic pride in my Armenian heritage and was fortunate to be raised in Fresno, with its large Armenian population.

Les Marsden as Groucho Marx

You have acted in plays of eminent playwrights — Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Hellman, Durrenmatt, Neil Simon. Who are your favorite authors and what were your preferred roles?

That’s a great question! Now, as the music director/conductor of a symphony orchestra I’m asked a similar question: who are your favorite composers? And the answer is easy: whose ever music I’m performing or rehearsing at the moment, and the same answer applies to playwrights and roles: you always have to be captivated by whatever role you’re playing, even if the character isn’t necessarily a likable one. Even the greatest villain doesn’t see himself as a villain: he’s only doing what he thinks is the best thing.

But I do think Chekhov is among my favorite authors. He had that remarkable ability to juxtapose the often-bitter condition of human existence with comedy simultaneously. That dichotomy has always appealed to me: the dark with the light, the tragic with the ironic. And Chekhov’s characters are all so richly drawn. Even the smallest role has great dimension. One of my favorite Chekhov roles is Lopakhin in “The Cherry Orchard.” Nouveau riche — with many rough edges, but Chekhov gives him humanity so he doesn’t come off as a coarse, insulting antagonist, and that was great to play. I would have loved to have portrayed Trigorin in “The Seagull” and Astrov or the title role in “Uncle Vanya.”

I love Shakespeare. He wrote with extraordinary facility across the spectrum of comedy, tragedy, drama, history — utilizing the magnificent poetry of the English language brilliantly. But he also demonstrated profound knowledge of that huge world beyond his Elizabethan England: his Italy of “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “Romeo and Juliet,” of “Othello” depict those worlds with veracity though he never visited them to our knowledge. Though he lived more than 400 years ago he captured the human spirit, mind and emotions in a way which speaks to us universally today, across time, across international borders, across socio-economic boundaries. He lives and breathes within us as though he wrote his plays only yesterday. I had a great time in whatever Shakespearean roles I performed, but had to turn down playing Falstaff in a production of “Merry Wives of Windsor,” as I was offered another show at the same time. And I’ve always regretted that choice.

Another of my great favorites is the American George S. Kaufman. His works are nearly all comedies and his 95-year-old daughter Anne has been a dear friend of mine for 40 years. Among his great comedies are “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Of Thee I Sing,” “Dinner at Eight,” “Once in a Lifetime” and of course, the Marx Brothers’ great 1920s stage hits “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers,” as well as their 1935 film “A Night At The Opera.” I first came to know Anne through the many revivals of the Marx shows in which I starred. The one terrific role I would have LOVED to have done: is that of the caustic Sheridan Whiteside in Kaufman’s greatest play: “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

Can we say that your Marx brothers’ performance is the most unique work that will remain in the history of American theater?

I think so. Though I played all the brothers in various shows, it was that unique role of both Harpo and Chico written specifically for me by Arthur (son of Groucho) Marx and Robert Fisher in “Groucho: A Life in Revue,” which became the standout in my career. Arthur and Bob saw me in Los Angeles in another of their shows, written about Arthur’s grandmother and his father and uncles: the musical comedy Minnie’s Boys. I starred in that show as Arthur’s father Groucho, and was flattered when he said I was the best Groucho they had ever seen! At that point, I was already known to Groucho and Chico’s offspring and knew Groucho himself due to my one-man show “A Night At Harpo’s.” I wrote that show with the trust of Harpo’s widow Susan and four children while I was still a college student in Fresno, and performed it extensively from the age of 22 everywhere from Fresno to Las Vegas to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. Knowing I played the harp and piano in my own show, Arthur wanted me to play Chico in “Groucho: A Life in Revue” but also wanted Harpo in it. But – Harpo’s widow Susan only gave her consent if I’d write Harpo into that show AND play him as well! That’s how that dual role came about. A tremendously enjoyable thing for me — with remarkably quick changes. Some people refused to believe it was the same actor playing both brothers! And it was difficult for them to believe an actor could play both brothers from the ages of 15 to 70 AND play solos in both brothers’ styles on harp and piano. But after some 2000 or so performances in theatres across North America and England, enough was enough! I also did play the title role, too.

Les Marsden and his family, with Susan Marx, right, the widow of Harpo Marx

They say it is easier to make spectators cry or get angry than make them laugh. How did you manage make the audience laugh?

The secret is — or at least it was for me the same whether an audience cries or laughs. The audience must become emotionally invested in a character. They must suspend disbelief and really care – you can’t play just the surface. What’s happening must be real and believable, and character-driven. And the same is true of getting them to laugh. With few exceptions — specifically farce or presentational comedy: it’s far easier for an audience to laugh if they believe in the humanity of your character. It’s absolutely true: “tragedy is when something terrible happens to you; comedy is when something terrible happens to someone else” — but in either case, it must be believable. And if the audience laughs or cries? Well – it’s nice to know they care.

You worked with Albert Finney, Robert Redford, Vanessa Redgrave, Burt Reynolds, Jeremy Irons, etc. Was there something particular with such celebrities?

It’s indefinable — a spark or magic; a quality which means you cannot take your eyes off them. One of the most electric moments I’ve ever experienced on stage was with Vanessa Redgrave: I was standing next to her onstage during a fundraising performance in London for the Royal Leukemia Fund honoring the actor Colin Blakely, who had recently died. Just after I finished, Vanessa performed Rosalind’s closing speech from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — the role which had launched her career 25 years earlier, making her an overnight star. She was in a diaphanous costume; she floated ethereally and you couldn’t take your eyes off her. And those magical words came from that magical mouth, suspending time, matter, everything. She concluded and the audience erupted in stunned applause. I was holding her hand as the curtain slowly fell. And as soon as it hit the ground, she immediately began to excitedly tell me a story about having lunch with Groucho in Beverly Hills years before! In a split-second, from that extraordinarily super-human, captivating performance during which you could have heard a pin drop in the massive Lyceum Theatre on London’s West End – to become the earthy real person Vanessa Redgrave is: well, that’s the best example I can think of to define that special “something.”

Music is another art form that you were in even before entering the acting world. Your biography says that you were already a piano teacher at the age 11.

 There was always a piano in our home and my parents later told me that when I was only 3 or so, I’d go over to the piano and plunk out a tune I had just heard on the TV, even though I could barely reach the keyboard! I first started piano lessons at the age of 4, and by age 11, I received a teaching credential from the California Music Teachers’ Association. I then took on a few beginning piano students who were even younger than me. By then I had also played the trumpet for a few years, and had my own trumpet students.

So after suffering an onstage accident, because of which you forced to retire at age 42, you went back to your starting point – music.

Yes. My wife and I realized that if we managed our money carefully, we could retire at that time. I had had a very hectic, physically-draining career by then — with about 3,000-4,000 stage performances alone. And people who aren’t in the theatre may not realize that acting, performing eight shows a week with only one day off, with perhaps television commercials and even film and TV work juggled into that workweek is a highly demanding thing. And an actor works on holidays: if Christmas falls on a matinee day, well: you perform one or two shows that day, too because many people go to the theatre on Christmas. Or on New Years Eve, or New Years Day or on your own birthday or anniversary. Theatre requires great mental concentration as well as physical work. And though it may sound like a very easy decision to retire as I was physically exhausted and permanently disabled, it really wasn’t easy. After all, I had decided at the age of four that I wanted to grow up to be an actor, and I had focused my entire life and education on attaining that goal. It’s one of the most difficult fields in which to attain success, and that success isn’t based solely on talent, but also upon a great deal of hard work. And most of all: upon luck. And I had been very lucky. I had made it. I was Les Marsden, the Actor.

But now, suddenly while in the middle of a successful career, it all ended. It was a tough choice, but it was the only one. After being based in Manhattan for many years, in 2001 we sold our home on the East Coast and moved home to California, to the West Coast to be near our families. My father had died in 1980 when I was 23 but my mother, my wife’s parents and many other family members were still in Fresno. Diane, our son Max and I settled in the mountains just outside Yosemite National Park, where we were married in the 1980s. Close enough to Fresno, but in an environment we preferred, just like Yosemite Valley, in a deep forest at the 4,000 foot elevation.

In 2002, you established the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra. Is it common for small American towns to have their own symphonic orchestra?

No! As a matter of fact, Mariposa is now recognized as the smallest town in all of America with its own symphony orchestra! Orchestral music has always been my passion and even during all those years as an actor, my musical training frequently turned up. Besides my performances as the Marx Brothers, I would surprise audiences by playing other instruments onstage when some roles presented that possibility. I also composed incidental music for plays in which I starred at times, or made instrumental or vocal arrangements which were needed for stage shows in which I was acting – and always enjoyed discussing music with the professional Broadway musicians who played the musicals in which I also starred. Who always accepted me as a peer in the field of music. I feel that education should never end; I’m always – every day – trying to learn more, more about everything that interests me. And so it’s been with classical music – from the age of five or so until now — 58 years later — I HAVE to learn everything I can, every day about things I never knew. And my thirst for orchestral symphonic music is just that: compulsive. I have a massive collection of recordings — probably over 8,000 CDs including rare musical works. The most obscure compositions by every known composer, plus as much music as I can find of the works of obscure composers, too. During my many years in the theatre, I’d try to attend symphonic concerts wherever I was performing — New York, London, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, all over — when an orchestra’s concert didn’t conflict with my own performance time. And I’d try to meet an orchestra’s conductor who was usually pretty easy because there’d be a little press about me in that city’s paper due to my performances. And I got to spend casual time with many conductors and musicians due to mutual friends and the like.

And so it was an easy thing to decide to create an orchestra here, in retirement. After all, I already had the training and experience as a conductor, and could compose and arrange to boot. And though I didn’t know many people here, I picked up the phone and called my first musician and he was gung-ho to give it a try. And I asked if he knew any other local classically-trained musicians, and would get another name. And so it went, and by our first rehearsal I had lined up 17 musicians, far exceeding my original goal of a small salon orchestra. But by the time we were ready for our first performance in December of 2002, word had spread and I had 31 musicians and we were on our way to becoming not a salon or chamber orchestra, but a full-fledged symphony orchestra! By our second performance we had 45 musicians and were already too large for our tiny High School stage so I had a large stage extension built to extend the stage into the audience. And now with 55 to 60 musicians in the MSO, I have a waiting list but can’t add any more musicians as we’re now too big even for that expanded stage.

What percentage of Mariposa’s inhabitants is part of the orchestra?

About one-third. The town of Mariposa has only about 1,500 residents and from the beginning, I’ve had dedicated musicians from about five or six counties who drive great distances to rehearse and perform in the MSO. It’s become a real pride of the entire area. We’re now known as Yosemite’s symphony orchestra too – we perform in Yosemite National Park three times a year, the only symphony orchestra ever allowed to perform there in that park’s 130 year history. Unfortunately, the entire orchestra is now on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic and I’ve cancelled all performances indefinitely.

You are native of Fresno. Among the Armenians this city’s name associates with that of William Saroyan’s. Have you ever met Uncle Bill?

No, and I so wish I had! My aunt knew him, and apparently he knew about me. He had a modest home not far from my family’s home but he died about the time I began performing my one-man show. I was told he wasn’t in very good health in his later years, and always trying to be a polite young man, I didn’t want to disturb him.

Both your parents are Armenians. Do you know where their families are from?

A bit. I tried many times to have my mother, Helen Boornazian, write down the family history, but she’d start to tell me fractured details instead of writing it down, then she’d forget who came from where and give up. One of the Boornazian family members created a family tree which goes back many generations. All four of my grandparents came to the US around 1900. My mother’s father was a postmaster in Pawtucket, RI but decided he wanted to farm and so in the early 1900s he moved the young family across the country to California and eventually bought 160 acres in the tiny town of Fowler, which is just south of Fresno, where my mother was born. By the way, I registered her parents’ emigration officially at Ellis Island for her birthday, and received an official document proving it. Their names are now on a wall at Ellis Island, in the shadow of Liberty Island, where the Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor. That meant a great deal to my mother. My father’s name was Karnig Marderosian, his parents first settled in Detroit, but later moved to Fresno. My father’s father also wanted to farm, but became disillusioned with it quickly and traded his farm for a beautiful (then-new) Craftsman-style house in Fresno. He eventually opened the Liberty Market in downtown Fresno, near the Fresno County Courthouse. My father and uncles worked with my grandfather in his market until the boys all went off to serve in the military during World War II and my grandfather sold the store and retired about that time. My mother’s father died a few years before I was born, and her mother died when I was about eight. My grandmother lived in America for about 65 years, but never learned to speak English; it just wasn’t important to her! And I only learned a very few words of Armenian, most of which I’ve forgotten so we really couldn’t communicate well. My father’s mother died when I was about 5, and his father died when I was about 10. I only wish they had lived a little longer so I could have appreciated them more and learned more about their early lives.

Who changed your family name Marderosian into Marsden?

Me! “Marderosian” was always misspelled by critics, and even just by the press in feature articles. It’s also difficult for odars to remember or pronounce and I found that if you had an Armenian name, casting directors only considered you for Armenian roles only and there aren’t many! And so I changed my name, but only after making sure my mother wouldn’t be upset! And it worked. Casting people considered me for any sort of role, and “Marsden” was nearly never misspelled in the newspapers.

What was typical Armenian in your family and in your personality?

When I think of “typically Armenian” things, my mind immediately goes to family gatherings when I was young. And the greatest thing about being Armenian? The food! Spending holidays with all the Armenian family gathered – that’s what I think of as “typically Armenian” and it’s somewhat sad now because with only one exception, the older generations are all gone. My father’s sister Victoria is still with us, in her late 90s, but that’s all. My mother was next-to-youngest of eight children, and she was 38 and my father 40 when I was born. By the time I was born, much of the family was already elderly or gone. My generation is mostly scattered. And so that sense of extended family, of multiple generations coming together particularly at holidays and eating wonderful foods that always contained some terrific Armenian dishes — and my mother was a very good cook — that’s what I most think of as being Armenian. And that sense of family that’s probably one of the most “Armenian” aspects of my own personality. Being raised on so many great Armenian foods, well, I love to cook those things myself. My son, who’s 22 and only half-Hye, is proud of his Armenian heritage and loves my Armenian cooking.

And my parents were very proud of this: you’ll remember I wrote my one-man show on Harpo Marx while still in college in Fresno? Well, I persuaded Harpo’s widow Susan to fly to Fresno from her home in Palm Springs to attend my opening night; now THAT’S the audacity of youth! Writing this show and then performing as her husband with her sitting in the front row is something only a 20-year-old would do! But – Susan stayed with us at our modest family home and my parents cooked up a delicious Armenian feast for her. This lovely worldly woman who had been a Ziegfeld star in the 1920s, and a movie starlet in her own right in the 1930s, in movies as the daughter of W.C. Fields and the love interest of John Wayne, this well-traveled woman: loved that special Armenian meal and evening!

And is there something typical in your art?

Perhaps strangely enough, I’ve only played an Armenian once in a play called “Nine Armenians” by Leslie Ayvazian in New York decades ago. But the aspects of my personal art that I think are most typical of being Armenian are honesty. Veracity. And passion. Those are qualities I think run deep in most Armenians: directness, total pride in being honest and truthful – and being passionate about what they do. And I feel that’s because they’re confident they’re doing what they do for the best and highest of reasons.

Are you acquainted with Armenian music and have you ever performed it?

I’m familiar with quite a bit of Armenian folk music, but only as a listener. I do have a great love of Armenian concert composers, chief among them being the great Aram Khachaturian, of course. I’ve loved his music, his modal writing, his very soul in every note he ever wrote since hearing the Sabre Dance from the “Gayaneh” ballet as a very small child and have come to know (and collect) everything I’ve ever been able to find of his music, of course. I identify with his music, with his sound though my own compositional style rarely hints at that sense of “Armenianism” or ethnic sound. Mansurian, Hovhaness, Arutiunian, too. I don’t think there’s an Armenian composer whose music hasn’t resonated with me. It’s in my soul.

Our MSO audiences prefer to hear music they already know, though I usually give them a very healthy dose of great unfamiliar music which they should know, too. I’ve wanted to perform some of the more-familiar Khachaturian with the MSO, but – in the States, his music is enormously expensive to rent. That’s the case with most composers from the (former) Soviet Union, whose music isn’t yet in the public domain.

It will be great to welcome you in Armenia – if not with all your orchestra, but with your family.

And if, some day this pandemic ever makes it safe to travel, I’d certainly love to come for a visit. It would be wonderful to walk in the land of my ancestors, to feel that Armenian earth, to breathe the Armenian air it’s already a part of me. And it’s an honor and pleasure to have met you, Artsvi and to be able to call you my friend. Thank you for all you’ve done for Armenia and will continue to do to help bring her people together.

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