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ALWAYS MOHR <br> LAUGHS FOLLOW A CAREER CHANGE

The idea of Picasso meeting Einstein in a bar called the Lapin Agile might strike many as strange. But to Jim Mohr, who appears in the Studio Arena Theatre production as an aging bar regular named Gaston, such a tableau is business as usual.

Mohr has seen more than his share of strange situations.

He began as a puppeteer, not your average job description. Fred Keller hired him at Channel 4 in the early days of television. "It was a riot," Mohr says, collapsing in laughter. He went on to a successful career in advertising, as a partner in the firm Gelia, Wells and Mohr. Somewhere along the line he got to direct the late comic great Buster Keaton in a series of beer commercials.

Mohr gave his boldest performance, though, when he was 61. That was when he left his job, climbed into a Toyota motor home his wife had bought him and struck out for New York to take acting classes. It was quite a plunge. Though Mohr had majored in theater at the University at Buffalo, his stage experience was pretty much limited to occasional Buffalo productions. Fifteen years later, though, his nerve has paid off.

Mohr has been on Broadway, praised for his role in Sam Shepard's "Buried Child," presented by Gary Sinise's Steppenwolf Theatre. In the 1995-'96 Chicago production, he shared the stage with Ethan Hawke.

Having played Gaston in the Chicago staging and the touring production of "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," Mohr has also struck up an acquaintance with the play's author, Steve Martin. He describes Martin as "a funny person, basically shy" - and surprisingly, sweetly awkward with the ladies.

"We always did comedy'

Mohr's penchant for comedy goes way back. "I've always loved the silent comedians," he says. "Chaplin, all those great clowns."

The advertising business allowed him to indulge his love for laughs. "I always did funny commercials," Mohr says. "There was no point in trying to do beautiful girls or beautiful surroundings. We couldn't afford it. Everything we did was in the studio. So we always did comedy."

Like the best silent comedy films, the story of how Mohr met Keaton is funny and sad at the same time. Mohr shakes his head, talking about how he sat around with his colleagues, trying to come up with an ad idea for the Simon Pure Brewery.

His partner Charlie Wells, he remembers, asked, "Why don't we get a big name?"

"We can't afford a big name," Mohr said.

"He said, "Well, why don't we get someone who was a name?' " Mohr says now.

A show-biz-savvy friend suggested Keaton, and told Mohr to call Keaton's manager. Mohr was skeptical, but called.

"The agent said, "Yeah, he'll do a commercial,'" he recalls now. "And he said, "And if you give us $5,000, you can do as many as you want in three days!'" Mohr was astonished. Curious clauses, he adds, followed. "He said, "You don't have to pay his travel expenses, because he drives everywhere.' And he told me, "All you have to do is get Buster to agree.'"

Keaton, who died in 1966 at 71, was in his early 60s at the time. Drying out after a bout with alcoholism, he was getting by with small jobs. Mohr found him in Michigan, where he was playing a county fair. The joy of meeting Keaton transcended the surroundings.

"Out of a blue sky, I told him, "The General' is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen,' " Mohr recalls. Keaton went crazy, throwing himself into his old role. "He went through the script, jumping around . . ."

The Keaton commercials won prizes in the advertising world. One was a zany affair in which Keaton, handed a can of Simon Pure beer, couldn't find an opener and drilled through the can with a drill, sending suds splashing everywhere.

Mohr's face clouds as he tells how 2,000 feet of outtakes - unused footage of Keaton - were later thrown out by mistake.

But he brightens telling how a friend saw a documentary in England about Keaton - and included in the film was a Simon Pure commercial. "I don't know how they got it," he marvels.

Tiptoeing around Hawke

Mohr pauses to assess the Simon Pure product. "It was as good a beer as any," he reflects. "In fact, a little heartier, because they didn't put rice in it."

Luckily, he can't resist throwing in details everywhere.

Talking about the Chicago production of "Buried Child," he volunteers that critics gave Hawke less than flattering reviews. "Everyone was tiptoeing around him," Mohr says. "He knew he was creamed."

Still, Mohr is affectionate toward Hawke, describing him as a sensitive, pleasant person who left early after every show.

"He'd run right out the door, and there'd be 40 girls waiting for him," Mohr laughs. "I'd come out and say, "I know you're not waiting for me. You're waiting for Ethan. Well, he's left.' "

Hawke, Mohr adds with a smile, wasn't always mobbed.

"At a Chicago Cubs game, we were in the stands, and Ethan was there. He had met a girl, and he was sitting there, and there were three empty seats next to him," he says. When Hawke and his friend left, Mohr asked a group of nearby women, "Did you know who was sitting there?"

He apes the women's blase tones. "Yeah, that was Ethan Hawke, the actor," they shrugged. "We respect his privacy."

It's clear that Mohr doesn't miss the advertising life.

"I can see why advertising is seen as a young person's game," he says. "I didn't like clients and blowing in ears."

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