John Buck Jr.
All the World's a Stage
But Cleveland is his home
John Buck Jr. was born October 2, 1938 in Madison, Wisconsin. He was the family's first child, later to be joined by two sisters.
As a young boy John had spent much of his free time at the University of Wisconsin, since he lived just two blocks away. The zoology department kept the animals there - dogs, cats, monkeys and of course, farm animals. Growing up in Wisconsin he had seen his share of farm animals, but never before so "up close and personal."
Just after his sixteenth birthday, and right out of High School, John joined the Navy. He started his active duty at age 17. He sang with the Navy Blue Jackets Choir for a few months but realized that this was not his motivation for joining the Navy. He wanted to broaden his experiences.
He dropped the choir and asked for ship duty. At first he was a Seaman on the Deck Crew doing manual labor. Just moments into the assignment he knew he was not well suited for this task.
He discovered there was a need in the Radar Division. He applied for, and got, a position as a radar man. He found his time in the Navy very interesting and very educational.
After the Navy, John went back to the University of Wisconsin at Madison for two years. He was taking Liberal Arts courses because it was his intention to go into advertising. In the last part of his sophomore year he transferred to Northwestern because of their renowned English and broadcasting department and he thought that would help his advertising career.
He majored in broadcasting and worked at all of the major stations in one form or another. He even worked for CBS news for many years. John has a remarkable voice for broadcasting; it is clear and authoritative and in the kindest way commands its audience to listen.
It wasn't until about his third year in college that someone mentioned his voice as a tool to use in furthering his career. While at CBS John worked on the Walter Cronkite Report. He remembers that Cronkite wanted to expand his evening news from 15 minutes to 30 minutes but the executives at CBS said "No" - it was a sure way to loose the audience. 30 minutes of news would just be too much.
John's career was taking a path he was not really interested in. There were more and more opportunities for him to become the on-air talent, but he really didn't want that. Even when he considered broadcasting as a career he always wanted to be in the background, not on the air.
What he really wanted to do was writing or production. He recalls a story he covered in which two young boys drowned. "I knew I didn't want to get used to things like that."
While at Northwestern John had taken some theater courses. The woman who was star of the Theater Department, Alvina Krause, became his mentor. John went back to Northwestern to talk to her and sort out his career paths. She encouraged him to go into the theater, something that until then he had never taken seriously.
She made some calls for him including a call to a John Fernald, who happened to be a friend of George Bernard Shaw. Fernald was the headmaster of a Drama School that Alvina Krause wanted John to enter. And he did. But Fernald would not be to the states for a year or so.
In the meantime John performed in his first job in theater; Richard III. He decided right then and there that he enjoyed the work, the atmosphere and the people. His role was small but it opened up the world of theater for him. He received a lot of positive reaction from his peers and the audience.
Ten years later he was in Richard III again at the Cleveland Playhouse, but this time he played Richard, the largest role in any Shakespearean play. "It was exhausting. No wonder Richard looses the battle to Richmond (John's role in '64) in the end. He was certainly too tired to win."
John Buck and Dudley Swetland in 1986 Cleveland Play House production of "Stage Struck" by Simon Gray
John's first audition was for the Ypsilanti Greek Theater in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He won a feature role in a series of three plays. His role in The Birds had him working with the likes of Bert Lahr, Dame Judith Anderson and Ruby Dee.
Dame Judith Anderson was so impressed with his work that she asked him to join her in New York at the New York Center in "Elizabeth, The Queen". "It didn't do as well as expected and the entire thing was cancelled. You must always expect this kind of thing to happen."
John Buck as Pasha Selim in the Mozart opera Abduction From The Seraglio
When John Fernald finally came to Oakland University he set up a Drama Department and a Professional Theater and Dance Company. John was able to receive a Certificate from the very professional and highly prestigious school.
Even before he received his certificate John was offered a job in Cleveland. It was the summer of 1969 and he joined the Cleveland Playhouse Resident Company. There were about 35 others in the company at the time he joined. He stayed there for 19 seasons until the Resident Company disbanded in 1988.
While he was with the company he performed in all five theaters doing five shows in each one. He would work for 6 weeks, then rehearse for 6 weeks and then repeat the process. "The roles were very diverse - some were quite large, others very small. But there was always at least one play going on."
John's life was immersed in the theater. "It's a pretty insular life, it's all you do. There's really no time to do anything other than the theater. Even your friends are theater people and you quite literally eat, sleep and breathe theater."
John Buck in 1989 production of The Importance Of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
The actors were "out at sea" when the company disbanded. They had not had to audition for work in a long time, nor had they been out of work for a long time. "Most actors were used to working another job in addition to the theater. But those of us in the Resident Company never had to do that - it was a full time position."
John was offered a position with the Milwaukee Resident Company. He went there and understudied the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Although it was tempting to join the Company he decided to stay in Cleveland where he had family and connections.
His wife, Nancy, was just getting started in her career as a stockbroker and she had three generations of family living here. They loved their Cleveland Heights home. When they put all fthe actors together the decision to stay was really not that difficult.
In the meantime John had also started a business of his own doing narrations and voice-overs for commercial clients such as The East Ohio Gas Company.
He had also started teaching at CWRU in 1972. As an adjunct professor in the drama department John was once again in a role he didn't relish. He would still rather have been behind the scenes or, in the very least, in costume.
John did not even like curtain calls. "I just don't like to appear in public as myself. Too many insecurities come to play when I have to face the audience like that. I did my best to avoid the after show meetings. The more effusive people were the less I could believe what they were saying! One thinks of an actor as having a large ego - and some do. But there are a lot of actors who don't like attention - and I am one of them!"
The attraction for John was the challenge of trying to interpret the writings on a piece of paper in the way the author of the piece had envisioned it. "Actors are actually working for the author - although we never, ever discount the audience."
He was thrilled to have Arthur Miller in Cleveland while the actors at the Playhouse worked on Miller's play "The Archbishop's Ceiling." "It was such a reward to have the playwright right there with us."
John auditioned for Gerald Freedman of the Great Lakes Shakespearean Festival and in 1989 he was asked to join the company. In his first production with the GLSF he acted in five different roles in Hamlet. "No wonder Hamlet went crazy. Every time he turned around, there was me!"
John has no favorite roles per se, but there are certain playwrights he is attracted to. One such playwright is John Guare, although he has never been in one of his plays. Also on his list are Simon Grey and of course, William Shakespeare.
Although he is clear that he has no "favorite roles" it is hard to ignore his more than 15 years at the GLSF playing Jacob Marley in Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
John Buck as Jacob Marley
As a result John was never able to enjoy a Christmas party or most of the holiday merriment, he was always working. When he left he was the only original cast member of the highly acclaimed production.
John had declined an invitation to sign on for another season with GLSF. Within 20 minutes of his decision he received a call from Gerald Freedman in South Carolina saying that he was on his way back to town to convince John to re-sign.
John agreed and did the show one more time. It may have been one to many for him. He got very sick with pneumonia and complications, but as they say "The show must go on" He finished the show on December 23, but had to be mic'ed because he couldn't talk loud enough to be heard. The next year, he had to say no.
"An actor never turns down work. Never. My career has truly been blessed, I worked continually. It is very difficult and very rare to actually make a career out of acting. Most actors have at least one other job. I was truly blessed."
John still thinks of himself as a beginner, but "as I look back now, I acted a lot, so I must be an actor."
On a more personal note, John met his wife Nancy Easa in 1977. He was teaching at the Fairmount Center for the Performing Arts and she took one of his classes.
John had a Great Dane named Dana who he used to take out to Squires Valley View Farm (part of CWRU) to run on early Sunday mornings. Their very first date was when he invited her along on one of the Sunday morning outings. They dated for four years and married in 1982.
John and Nancy on Labor Day 1987
"Most marriages in theater are between "acting couples" because, in general, one only has the opportunity to meet other actors. I was very luck to have met Nancy."
His retirement came almost as a surprise to him. People would always say "I hear you've retired." And he always said that no, he hadn't. In each case it turned out Buck's wife had made mention of his retirement. "Finally a year or so later I actually did retire at age 65."
"I might do another play some day - I never really considered not working. However, when asked to sign on for another season I had no choice but to say no."
John still attends all of the Cleveland Playhouse productions and it still feels like home. "It's like going back to your old High School. You know you don't belong anymore, but it is still something that holds such tremendous memories and you enjoy just being surrounded by the familiarity of it."
John's mother lived in Wisconsin until she became ill about four years ago. He moved her here to Judson Manor where he was able to spend six to eight hours a day with her for the next three years until she died last year.
Now that John has more time on his hands he has started filling it up with an enormous genealogy venture. He started on it in the mid-eighties but it has become a major project now. You can even find him on various Genealogy websites offering to help with information from some local cemeteries for people out of town.
And speaking of websites... Back in 1989 John found that although he was intimidated by the idea of a computer he found that he wanted one. He was scared, since he had never used one and wasn't sure he would be able to. Back then the libraries did not have computers and the cost was nearly $2500.
He would go to the shop and just look and the sales clerk would always ask "Why do you want one?" "Truthfully, I have always been fascinated by click and whirr - it always sounded so fascinating."
Then John heard about Genealogy programs and he had a reason to buy one. He bought one from another local actor who was selling computers. It was the best available at the time. It had a color monitor, 1 MB ram and 42 MB hard drive. It seemed enormous at the time.
John took to computers like a duck to water. Now he tries to show other people the advantages of being online. "Once a person feels comfortable and secure they can branch out and broaden their horizons. Then they are hooked, like I am."
He finds that the combination of genealogy and the computer has become all-consuming, not unlike his time with the theater. Nancy will be joining him on a trip to Wisconsin to do some research on his mother's family.
John Buck, Jr. is a fascinating man who spent a good part of his life pretending to be someone else. Yet all of the roles he played allowed a part of John to shine through that otherwise could have gone untapped. He can view the world through the eyes of Richard III or Jacob Marley and offer a perspective most of us can only read about.
He has appeared with the Cleveland Orchestra, The Cleveland Lyric Opera and the Roundabout Theater where he joined Hal Holbrook in King Lear. His life in the theater prevented him from traveling much, yet he has gone down paths few others have treaded. It is a truly a shame if you have not seen at least one of his performances; a bigger shame still that there will probably not be another opportunity.
The theater lost a fine actor and craftsman when John retired. We were lucky to have him as long as we did.
Profiled by Debbie Hanson
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