A cardiologist with no acting experience might not usually be a theatre director's first choice for a key role. But when John Collins was looking for someone to portray the father of the title character in an enactment of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, he went straight to the real-life dad of the actor playing Gatsby.
Now Ross Fletcher is among a 13-strong cast performing the UK premiere of Gatz in London on Friday. The 75-year-old chief of staff at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington DC and professor of medicine at Georgetown University, plays Henry C. Gatz. His actor son, Jim Fletcher, plays his on-stage son Jim. In Fitzgerald's book, readers learn Jay Gatsby's real name is James 'Jimmy' Gatz.
"They were looking for someone who looks like my son's father," said Ross, who had never acted before accepting the role. "I do look like him and sound a little like him, so it makes the perfect fit. Then all I needed to do was learn how to act."
In Gatz, an office employee finds a copy of Fitzgerald's 1925 novel on his desk and starts to read it aloud – and does not stop. The office staff bring the book to life. The eight-hour play, which has been a hit in New York, is spread over four parts with breaks.
Audience members worried they might nod off during the lengthy show should spare a thought for Ross's son. "Often when it's that late in the play, my main concern is to not fall asleep and when he [Ross] comes on and starts talking, that's the point if I were to fall asleep [I would] because it's so soothing," said Jim, of Brooklyn, who took up acting 13 years ago following the birth of his daughter, Shana. "One of my earliest memories is being in my bed in my room and hearing him speaking out in the other room to someone else. It's a very basic thing I had forgotten about until I started doing this."
The 48-year-old is, however, yet to see his dad perform. "I guess it doesn't spoil the story [to say] that when he is on [stage] I am dead so I don't actually see him, but I feel him on stage quite a lot when he comes close to me," he said. "I can feel his breath on my cheek, I can smell him, I can hear him; but I don't get to see him, so I still haven't seen my dad act except on video tape."
While off-stage his father, as a physician, is used to checking for vital signs, Jim is doing his best to suppress them on-stage. "It's very odd to commit to being dead for my dad," he admits. But he will do so for 23 performances at Noel Coward Theatre, which is hosting Elevator Repair Service's production as part of this year's London International Festival of Theatre.
Ross, who lives in Ashton, Maryland, is taking a long holiday from his day job to perform in London. His wife Margaret, son David, and three of his grandchildren are making it an even bigger family affair by joining him and Jim in the capital.
Despite having already starred in 158 performances of Gatz across the globe, he still relishes treading the boards with his son. The cardiologist, whose granddaughter Shana persuaded him to take the role, sees it as a "wonderful opportunity". But would he consider acting in other shows after Gatz? "Any time there's a need to play the father of my son, I'm available!"
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