Photographs by John Rizzo
His is a face that you’ll surely recognize but may not be able to place right away. The soothing, assured voice may be more familiar, either narrating a TV commercial for Audi or one of NPR’s “Selected Shorts.”
But make no mistake about it: James Naughton – the veteran actor, singer and director – is the real deal, with a true star’s comfort in his own skin. And that puts you at ease as he welcomes you to his Manhattan pied-à-terre on the edge of the theater district. Pet-sitting for a friend, Naughton’s just in from a walk. As he settles in, he launches into some of his favorite subjects – the arts, family and his artistic family.
Naughton hosts and performs in many galas in the course of a year. Born and raised in Connecticut, where he’s a longtime Weston resident, he spoke recently at an event for the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County. As a parent and the child of teachers, he is passionate about arts education and its place in schools relevant to sports. And he has done his homework on the subject. He rattles off statistics about student success and cites Winston Churchill, who refused to move art treasures out of London during World War II, saying, “That’s what we’re fighting for.’”
Both his children, Greg and Kiera, followed him into show business. “Poor kids, they didn’t have a chance. They saw the best of this business. The most fun I can have is performing with my kids.”
Naughton has performed with his singer-songwriter son, a member of the band The Sweet Remains. Keeping things in the family business, Greg is married to Broadway leading lady Kelli O’Hara. “Both my kids finally found the right people and when I’m with them now I have four kids – and the grandchildren, too.”
Last summer, Kiera, who is an actress and director, directed Naughton in Erik Tarloff’s one-man play “Cedars” at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass., where he starred as a cranky fiftysomething defense attorney with major life troubles. “I loved it and wanted to do it but wondered who should direct.” Kate Maguire, the festival’s artistic director, suggested Kiera whom Naughton thought was perfect. But his daughter was having none of the famous Naughton charm that beguiled audiences when he played another defense lawyer, Billy Flynn, in the 1996 revival of “Chicago,” for which he earned a Tony Award. (He won another in the 1989 musical “City of Angels.”) Kiera, he says, told him, “You’re not going to charm me. You have a vast internal rage.” “I have a long fuse,” Naughton says, “but when I get angry I have a white-hot anger, very intense.”
To learn a part like “Cedars,” he takes to the outdoors with his two dogs, a Schnauzer and a Schnoodle. “I have a lot of memorizing to do and the best thing is to go out in the woods with them. We log a whole bunch of miles. I let them run and have my ear buds in.”
Naughton thinks of himself as an actor who sings. “I always sang. My father sang to us in the car. We would sing in the car back and forth to grandma’s house on Sundays.” At Conard High School in West Hartford, Naughton sang in the chorus, but baseball was his first love. In his junior year, he was cast as Emile de Becque in “South Pacific.”
“The coaches shared me so that I could do both. Today that wouldn’t happen in schools. It would be one or the other.”
At Brown University, he played soccer and baseball, but the stage beckoned. He credits the drama coach, James Barnhill, for giving him direction. “He said to me, ‘I think you could do this and then go on to Yale Drama School.’” He took Barnhill’s advice. “I was lost and didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I took his drama course in my junior and senior year and I knew this (acting) was it.”
Often the well-dressed husband or a president, Naughton is best known for his stage work. Besides his Tony Award-winning roles in “City of Angels” and “Chicago,” Naughton gained attention on Broadway in 1971 in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” for which he won a Theatre World Award. His TV credits abound, ranging from “Planet of the Apes” to “Who’s the Boss?” and “Ally McBeal.” More recently, he appeared on “Gossip Girl” and last season in “Hostages” on CBS. His steady film work includes “The Paper Chase” and “Factory Girl.”
Naughton says that some of his best movie scenes ended up on the cutting room floor: “In ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ with Meryl Streep, my character (Stephen) gets really drunk at a party, and there was a great scene with Heather Locklear that was cut from ‘The First Wives Club.’”
As an actor, it stings. As a director, he understands.
“Directing is my favorite thing to do. My whole life in the theater world is the rehearsal process – the figuring out how we tell the story.” He has directed plays, including two on Broadway – Arthur Miller’s “The Price” and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” which starred his close friend, the late Paul Newman, as the Stage Manager and was first performed at Westport Country Playhouse. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. I get to use all the tools and work with set designers, lighting and all the actors, ” Naughton says as he sips coffee from a souvenir mug from “The Price,” a play he directed first at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and then on Broadway in 1999. A member of the festival’s board of directors, Naughton has done a lot of directing there, as well as acting and singing with son.
Naughton has also witnessed some lovely personal moments at Williamstown. “I was there when they met,” he says of the late Christopher and Dana Reeve. A copy of Christopher Reeve’s “Still Me” is on one of his book-lined shelves.
Cabaret is another arena in which Naughton shines. Not only do you have the pleasure of his velvety bass-baritone voice, but he sets songs up with a story. “Storytelling” is a word that comes up a lot when you talk to Naughton, who likes to juxtapose songs that pluck the heartstrings with edgy numbers. “He is very methodical about the material he chooses, ”says John Oddo, his musical director and arranger. “He has to have a point of view with it. The material is eclectic with songs like ‘Stardust’ and Dave Frishberg’s ‘I’m Hip’.”
Oddo has collaborated with Naughton since his first cabaret act at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1997. “He has a great voice, but it’s his acting ability. He takes a song and makes it come alive and brings himself into the lyrics. He does that as good as anybody.”
Naughton has performed at the White House and had a solo show of songs, “Street of Dreams,” at the Promenade Theater in Manhattan in 1999. His show “The Songs of Randy Newman” launched the Lincoln Center “American Songbook” series and was broadcast last April, the first singing he had done in the four years since his wife Pamela became ill. (A social worker, she passed away in 2013.)
He never could imagine that his wife would go before he did. “It was a shock, something I wasn’t prepared for and it was devastating to lose her. We’ve been together for 50 years. I took care of her by myself to the end, which is a source of comfort to me now.” Friends suggested that he get help, but his answer was, “What would I do?” Naughton acknowledges that it was a huge accomplishment to be married for 47 years and says with a smile, “She would have been a great old lady.”
He carries on, finding comfort in his commitment to pal Newman’s The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for seriously ill children. “My association with The Hole in the Wall Gang gives me the most satisfaction. Paul took me up in 1988 when it was being built and I’ve been on the board of directors the last 15 years.” Naughton directs the camp’s galas, reaching out to the talented performers who take part.
He gives his time to many other charities, too, among them The Marfan Foundation, which is researching a cure for the genetic disorder; 52nd Street Project, which matches inner city kids with theater professionals to create works, and SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young. Recently, he joined the board of Symphony Space.
Naughton knocks on wood when asked about his voice-over gigs. “It’s nice to do them and a great source of income which allows you some independence. You don’t have to worry about how you look or what you’re wearing.” He was the voice of Jeep for 13 years and these days you can hear his dulcet tones pitching Cialis and Head & Shoulders as well as Audi.
But he’s never far from the stage. “I have been talking to Deborah Grace Winer at the 92nd Street Y about artistic directing and putting together a show for the ‘Lyrics and Lyricists’ series in 2016.” Fans can only hope. And he wants to explore some inequities in the theater world with Actors’ Equity. “I’m in a position now to help more. You can’t say I haven’t spent my time or paid my dues.
“It’s been a good ride. I don’t have a lot of complaints.” And what has surprised him most in his life: “I realize my children are my best friends. That’s a surprise, I guess, but a delightful one.”