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Michigan actor, like the play ‘Ernie,’ keeps going

“The flowers appear on the earth;

“the time of the singing of birds is come,

“and the voice of the turtle

“is heard in our land.”

Every spring, Ernie Harwell slid into baseball season by reciting that biblical verse on the radio.

And now, every spring, Will Young slides into Ernie Harwell – by shaving his mustache.

“My wife says, ‘Oh, no, there it goes,’ ” Young says, laughing.

And the transformation begins.

For the third year in a row, Young, a sprightly 73, is portraying Harwell, the beloved Detroit Tigers broadcaster, in the play “Ernie,” at the City Theatre, in the shadow of Detroit’s Comerica Park.

I was blessed to be able to write that play. I was more blessed to meet Young, who so thoroughly captures the voice, movement and heart of Harwell that people leave the theater shaking their heads and saying, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it was him.”

The funny thing is, Young arrived in Detroit in 1961, soon after Harwell did. He spent decades listening to that famous voice, he says, “like everybody else – in the car, camping, playing catch with the transistor radio on.”

But, Young notes, “I must be the only person in the state of Michigan who never actually met Ernie.”

That’s OK. He’s gotten to know him in a way few people could.

In “Ernie,” Young is asked by his fellow actor, T.J. Corbett (who plays a curious, magical boy), to “broadcast your life.” Young gets to recite stories from Ernie’s childhood, teenage years, Army service, early broadcasting stints with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, all the way to his farewell at Comerica Park, less than a year before he died from cancer at 92.

He also gets to detail the achingly beautiful love story between Ernie and Lulu, Ernie’s wife of more than 65 years. One of Young’s most nerve-wracking moments was when the real Lulu Harwell sat in the audience on opening night. Young did everything he could not to look at her. When, afterward, she complimented his performance, he exhaled long enough to blow a curtain open.

So far, nearly 44,000 people have seen Young perform this role over three summers. Not bad for a man who gave up acting for nearly 30 years, working as an English and speech teacher in the Berkley school system, driving in every day from Milford, because he wanted a small-town life.

It was only after he retired from teaching that Young felt the acting bug again, and landed small roles in local productions. He once told himself, “If I could ever get to act once at Purple Rose Theater [in Chelsea, Mich.], I could never do better than that.”

Last week he gave his 150th straight leading role performance in “Ernie,” taking a Cal Ripken Jr. approach by never yet missing a show.

Imagine the pressure of having to portray a local legend night after night. Many patrons hang around after the final curtain, just to tell Young about the time Ernie came to their church, or let them into the Tiger Stadium booth.

And increasingly, people around town see him and say, “Hiya, Ernie.”

How do you handle that?

“Usually, I just say, ‘Thank you.’ ”

The theater is rich with actors associated with one role. Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain. Theodore Bikel as Tevye. It is impossible for me to imagine anyone better as Ernie Harwell than Will Young.

And that’s not because he sounds or looks the most like him. It’s because Ernie’s spirit of decency, humility and basic goodness is the same spirit that graces Will Young, the man. The reason audiences love him so much as Ernie is because he is so much like Ernie.

Ernie was always encouraging to young guys in the business. So it seems right that one of his final legacies is giving a 73-year-old man a similar career boost. Spring is upon us, the voice of the turtle has been heard, and while Harwell has been gone three years, his spirit lives on in those who loved him – and one special man who portrays him.

Especially once he loses the mustache.

Detroit Free Press