The vaudeville actors played by Peter Michael Goetz, 70, and Raye Birk, 69, in "The Sunshine Boys" have known each other for 40-plus years.

Off-stage, the two have a friendship dating back 50.

The stage veterans team up in the Neil Simon comedy that opens Friday at the Guthrie Theater.

"Our relationship is show business, and this play is about show business," said Goetz. "The end is nigh for them -- show business, their relationship, their lives."

Like Simon's more famous comedy, "The Odd Couple," "Sunshine Boys" centers on two argumentative friends in their twilight years. Willie Clark (Goetz) and Al Lewis (Birk) used to be a successful comedy team until Lewis decided to retire. They have not spoken to each other for a decade but the pair have been asked to get back together for a TV special.

"They dislike each other [but] love each other," said Goetz.

"I know people like that," Birk jumped in. "At this time in their lives, they have nobody else."

The two actors said that the show is full of laughs. But working with director Gary Gisselman, they are careful to make sure that the humor comes out of characters, not gags or shtick.

"It's tricky business, and we're negotiating it," said Goetz.

Paths changed by theater

During a post-rehearsal interview at Sea Change restaurant, Birk and Goetz, who met when they were in a graduate program at the University of Minnesota, sipped martinis and reminisced about how they got into this business in the first place.

Before his freshman year at Springfield (Mass.) College, Michigan native Birk had never had any contact with acting. "I was intending to be a physical education teacher," he said. "I was a very mediocre athlete."

At Springfield, he was encouraged by an English teacher to try out in the spring production of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." He did, and got the part of Reverend Tooker.

He made such an impression that the headline of the local review read "Birk Scores in Local Play."

"It's never happened since," he laughed. "It turned my head 180 degrees. Somewhere, in that constellation of events, I went home and fell in love with acting."

That summer, Birk did two plays in community theater. He transferred to Northwestern University, known as a good school for theater.

Goetz, a Buffalo, N.Y., native, had a similar awakening with a Williams play.

"I was intending to become a commercial airline pilot," he said. "Then I got cast as Roger [friend of the star, Alma] in 'Summer and Smoke.'"

Peaks and valleys

Over half a century, the two men have done well in the industry, making their living entirely by acting. Goetz's Broadway debut was memorable for its brevity. "Ned and Jack," the show in which he starred as John Barrymore, closed the same November night it opened in 1981. On the other hand, he performed in "Brighton Beach Memoirs," which ran for three years on Broadway. He has done eight shows on Broadway and numerous roles onscreen.

Birk played the villain in a few of the "Naked Gun" movies. And he appeared on shows like "Cheers" and "Frasier."

Goetz recently played James Tyrone, another aging actor, in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" in Washington, D.C.

He described the O'Neill as akin to weight training.

"That kind of heavy lifting stretches you," Goetz said.

Both men praised the precision of Neil Simon's script, and they likened the comedy writer known for New York schmaltz to Shakespeare.


"Absolutely," said Goetz.

"The thing that you have to realize is how brilliant the writing is," he continued. "In their exchanges, they think and talk a little bit like a routine. But it's not a routine. It's them communicating with each other."

"It's written to sound like Noo Yawk -- what can I say?" Birk said, breaking into his character's accent. "My wife at home has to put up with this."

"I don't have my wife here yet, so I'm talking to the walls," said Goetz.

The acting life

In "Sunshine Boys," their characters' views on acting are opposite of their own. Birk's wants to quit. Goetz's character wants to act as long as he can, even though the actor feels like he's winding down.

"At our age, it's getting harder and harder to just put up with the angst" of the acting life, said Goetz.

"One doesn't know, is this my last show or the last role of this size?" said Birk. "I'm fortunate to be cast as King Lear at Park Square in the fall."

"You've always been terrible about lines," said Birk.

"I've been known to say a few unusual things," said Goetz. "I never stop talking and everybody covers for me. We always find our way back."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390