Fifty-one years ago this week, Richard Jenkins got his first big splash of ink in The Pantagraph.
The press-worthy occasion: Illinois Wesleyan University's impending production of "Will the Real Jesus Christ Please Stand Up?," a one-act comedy about the quest for an actor to play Jesus in an upcoming biblical epic.
In the photo/story heralding the McPherson Theatre-bound show, Jenkins is ID'd as the young man in the plaid shirt sporting a thick head of coal-black hair.
Most of us eyeing that photo today likely wouldn't equate the 20-year-old IWU sophomore with the decidedly less follically endowed actor we well know from the close to 120 film and TV credits he's logged between 1985 and 2017.
Which is all for the best, as it's turned out.
"I'm a character actor," says the Dekalb native matter-of-factly. "I've always seen myself as that. I played leads in theater, but I never considered myself a romantic lead. Ever."
About that thick-haired young man in the 1967 photo?
"It's funny," he muses. "The more hair I've lost ... the more characters I've played." And, lately, the more honors he's garnered:
- An Independent Spirit Award Best Supporting Actor nomination, for 1996's "Flirting with Disaster."
- An Academy Award Best Actor nomination, for 2007's "The Visitor."
- An Emmy Award, as Outstanding Actor in a Limited Series, for 2015's HBO series, "Olive Kitteridge."
- And, most recently, a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture, for Guillermo Del Toro's acclaimed "The Shape of Water" (finally confirmed to open in B-N Jan. 19 at the Galaxy 14 Cinemas in Bloomington; dates at other area theaters could not be confirmed as of press-time).
It's not over yet, awards-wise: This year's Oscar nominations are due Jan. 23, and Jenkins' "Shape of Water" role is being suggested as a possible contender there, too.
"Well, I have to say I was really surprised," he confessed in a GO! interview conducted in mid-December, fast on the heels of his Golden Globe nomination.
"But then you're always surprised when these things happen. It takes you a little aback. But it's great, yes. And humbling ... very humbling."
He continues: "I had my success later in life, so you really do appreciate any perks that come along with it. And the older I get, the more I appreciate how damn lucky I've been to have this absolutely amazing life in theater and movies. So ... thank you!"
As it turned out, Jenkins' thanks had to be contained to the nomination, with Sam Rockwell awarded the Globe for ("Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri") at Sunday night's ceremony.
"I always thought I could do better at this," says Jenkins, now 70 and as busy as ever, averaging three or four movies a year, in addition to praised TV series work like "Six Feet Under" and "Olive Kitteridge."
"I always like to play the parts that people don't know what to do with."
When he turned up on the campus of IWU in the mid-1960, it was his life he wasn't quite sure what to do with.
"I came to IWU as a drama major, with no experience, no set goal: I actually transferred out one semester, then came back," he recalls of that indecisive period.
The only acting he'd done prior to IWU, he confesses, was a single high school play.
But: "I loved it. And I loved the idea of it. I just didn't know if I could articulate that back then."
A major turning point, says Jenkins, occurred at the movies, aptly enough.
"I remember going to the movies a lot by myself. One night, I went to see 'Alfie'," he recalls of the 1966 classic in which a young Michael Caine played the titular London cad that earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
"I can't remember the theater (according to Pantagraph archives, it was Bloomington's Irvin Theater, where it played two weeks in February 1967).
"I was still not sure that acting was what I wanted to do ... was it even possible? Then I saw Caine as 'Alfie' ... and I thought, my god, if I could do anything like that! It moved me so much, and I connected with him. It came along when I really needed it."
And how: 40 years later, Jenkins would be up for that same award Caine was, courtesy "The Visitor."
More important than "Alfie," though, was Jenkins' motivating mentor at IWU: His acting class teacher John Ficca, who summoned the most silent loner among his students to his office.
Ficca: "Why aren't you participating or auditioning for roles?"
Jenkins: "I don't know how."
Ficca: "If you want to do this, you'll have to participate."
Jenkins, to himself: "What makes him think I want to be an actor? I got into this because it's cool, but I don't have any experience, and I'm terrified at what actors do.
"I didn't know the first thing about it. The first play I saw (at IWU) was 'Hamlet,' and I thought, 'Are you kidding?? I'm expected to do something like that? How do you do that?"
Thanks to Ficca's encouragement and support, the terror waned and the talent, backed by confidence, emerged.
One of Jenkins' first roles, circa the summer of 1966, was a harbinger of things to come in the realm of playing parts "people don't know what to do with."
"It was a summer stock production of 'Dracula,' and I had two or three scenes playing one of the sanitarium attendants, who was sort of the comic relief ... and I loved it," Jenkins recalls (the Pantagraph announcement story billed him as "Dick Jenkins"; his co-star was Shari Eubank, future leading lady of Russ Meyer's X-rated "Supervixens").
Thereafter, "John was always there to give me encouragement, and he cast me in a lot of things that were a lot of fun."
Those ranged from Feydau's "A Flea in Her Ear" to "My Emperor's New Clothes," an original children's play by another IWU theater major headed for greatness: Larry Shue, future author of "The Nerd," who would die tragically young in a plane crash in 1985 ... the year Jenkins' movie career took off.
"He was one of the great actors and writers ... the most gifted dude I have ever worked with, just one in a million."
All told, Jenkins four-year stand at IWU "was a real awakening," he says, "and a wonderful time. Once I made my mind up, it never occurred to me to do anything else. And I think it was probably because I couldn't do anything else!"
For Jenkins, all career roads lead back to Ficca's taking charge in that pivotal office meeting.
"Anyone who is given that kind of encouragement is forever beholden, and I love him to this day. He is one of a kind."
Post-IWU graduation in 1969, Jenkins spent a year in graduate school at Indiana University, eventually landing an apprenticeship with the Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, R.I., where he remained the next 13 years, honing his skills in dozens of plays and serving as artistic director for four years).
As the 1980s wore on, Jenkins began getting work in made-for-TV films, which led to his entryway into theatrical films via "Silverado" in 1985.
Ever since, those parts people don't know what to do with have run the character acting gamut, encompassing both mainstream box office hits ("The Witches of Eastwick," "Wolf," "White House Down," "There's Something About Mary") and award-garnering critical successes ("Hannah and Her Sisters," "The House of Mirth," "Flirting with Disaster," "The Visitor").
In "The Shape of Water," set in 1962 Baltimore, Jenkins plays one of those parts that people don't know what to do with: Giles, the gay best friend of heroine Elisa, a mute science lab custodian played by Sally Hawkins.
Elisa has crossed paths with a god-like aquatic creature and engages in a relationship that takes the film into the lyrical but frankly transgressive areas that have earned it a degree of controversy and notoriety.
Jenkins' Giles, an understanding outsider by virtue of his being a gay man in 1962, is a key component in the film's great compassion for the disenfranchised, be they alienated creature from below the sea or mute science lab worker.
"If you were a straight white man in 1962, life was great. But if you were anything else, it was not so great, and that's why he (Del Toro) set the film in this time ... because it's the past that you're always remembering when you say 'Let's make America great again.'"
Even though Jenkins has been directed by some of the giants in the business (Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, the Coen Bros., Clint Eastwood, etc.), he considers his experience with Del Toro one of the most fully rewarding to date.
"This is as close for me to what it must have been like to making movies in the 1940s ... the way he shot it, the way he tells the story, the way he edits the structure, all like an homage to great filmmakers like Frank Capra and William Wellman.
"Nothing in this movie is unintentional; it's been conceptualized down to its toes ... and it's brilliant. I almost expected to see Spencer Tracy walk around the corner at any minute."