Broadway and screen actor Robert Dorfman, 63, is probably best known in the Twin Cities for playing Shylock at the Guthrie Theater in spring 2007 in “The Merchant of Venice.” That production kicked up discussions around tolerance and stereotypes. But the actor made his name in Larry Kramer’s AIDS-themed play “The Normal Heart,” which opened in April 1985 at the Public Theater in New York and is being made into a film directed by Ryan Murphy.
Dorfman has acted in “The Lion King” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” in New York and at regional theaters across the country. He has had plentiful character roles on screen, including on such TV shows as “Boardwalk Empire,” “L.A. Law” and the short-lived drama “Leg Work,” where he played a Jewish sidekick. He recently moved from New York to the Twin Cities, where he is starring in the one-person preschool show “Balloonacy” at Children’s Theatre. We caught up with him between performances recently.
Q What made you decide to relocate to the Twin Cities?
A I came here for personal reasons. I fell in love with Jim Lichtscheidl, who is a just an extraordinary actor/artist and a wonderful man. I like to say I’m in my third trimester of life, and to be so invigorated, in my personal and professional life, that’s exciting.
Q But you have longtime ties to the Twin Cities.
A Yes. I grew up in the projects in Brooklyn. I wanted to be a clown, so I went to clown school down in Florida. I performed with the Flying Karamazovs and did that for a while. But when I wanted to get into something more serious, I came out and auditioned for the Guthrie. That was in 1982. Through pluck, luck and open calls, I got hired, and did “Candide” for [former Guthrie artistic director] Garland Wright, and “As You Like It.” Garland recommended me to some people, and it set me off on this journey of serious theater.
Q And you did “The Normal Heart,” which put you on the map.
A Yes, it did. I got a high-powered agent out of it. I got work in TV and Hollywood. And the play was special. When we started, our audience was made up of mostly people with lesions. Then, in the middle of the run, Rock Hudson died of AIDS, and overnight, the audience changed. It was all kinds of people out there and we saw that AIDS was no longer a pariah disease.
Q Now you are doing “Balloonacy,” Barry Kornhauser’s wordless piece where you can go back to using physical theater.
A It’s based on an old French film, “The Red Balloon,” about a little boy who is hurriedly on his way somewhere. He finds a beautiful balloon entangled. He saves it, and they become friends. The conceit of this show is that this little boy is now an old man. And he’s forgotten how to play, how to live with other people. The balloon flies into the window and wants to play. It insists on a relationship and ultimately friendship.
Q The emotional arc reminds me of a crabby old man and a playful puppy. The puppy wants to have fun but the old man would rather remain crotchety. He finally relents, but then something comes up and throws a wrench in the friendship before everything gets straightened out in the end.
A Exactly. Parents love it and children, this is their native language. It is about friendship, about what it means to share yourself, your energy and time with someone.
Q You’ve worked with some heavyweights in your life, including Julie Taymor. How does a show like this compare to, say, “The Lion King”?
A This is as hard a job as it is doing a musical on Broadway and it has the same satisfaction. The communion with the children, you can’t recommend it enough. They are at an age where they believe everything. If you make a single false move, they catch it immediately. They keep me very honest in a piece that’s so over-the-top physically. This is as big an acting lesson as I’ve had in my 40-year career.
Q But you are officially retired, no?
A Yes. I’m drawing a full pension from Actors’ Equity. They allow me to work. And I’m drawing a partial pension from [the Screen Actors Guild]. For a guy who came out of the projects with no education, I’ve been very lucky. I had a TV series [“Leg Work”]. I got to work with some great directors and actors. I got an education along the way.
Q You also seem free.
A When you’re an actor, you’re constantly unemployed. Every job ends. I’ve been lucky that I’ve always had work. But this period of my life is incredibly exciting. Every day is a great big gift.