VERSATILE TO THE MAX T. MAX GRAHAM MAY BE BEST-KNOWN AS A DINNER-THEATER ACTOR, BUT NOW HE'S VENTURING INTO DARK TERRITORY
October 28, 1996 By ROBERT TRUSSELL Publication: The Kansas City Star
T. Max Graham, waiting for his coffee to arrive, explained the rather large bandage on his thumb. One night in rehearsals for a show at the Unicorn Theatre, Graham and co-star Matt Rapport were handling a dummy representing a body when Graham's thumb got caught in one of the corpse's joints. ``Between the torso and the thigh,'' Graham said. ``Careful how you quote that. Smashed it like a grape. '' Just goes to show that the actor's life isn't all fun and games, even though Graham, at 55, still sees it that way. This man, whose list of credits include David Lynch's first feature, ``Eraserhead,'' a growing number of mini-series and TV movies, and years of dinner-theater performances, enjoys a level of comfort many actors never achieve. His frequent service in television and radio commercials and industrial films, in addition to his stage and movie work, allows him to make a good living - prompting him to rap his knuckles on the wooden booth where he shares brunch with a reporter. At the moment, however, he's chalking up a first by appearing at the Unicorn, Kansas City's venerable Midtown theater company that specializes in the provocative and offbeat. The play is ``At the Feet of Doves,'' a grisly comedy by local writer Ron Simonian about two hit men who have wide-ranging philosophical discussions as they bury their most recent victim in the woods. Graham signed onto the project about two weeks before rehearsals after another actor dropped out. It all began with a phone call from director Cynthia Levin, who had known Graham professionally for years. ``Simonian's just madder than a hatter, so I thought, 'Well, let me read it,' '' Graham said. ``I'd never worked at the Unicorn and thought it might be time. And I like the heck out of Cynthia. She did sound on the first version of 'Greater Tuna' that Dennis (Allen) and I did at Tiffany's. How many years ago is that? Twelve or 13 years ago. '' Graham knew Simonian and had read snippets of his work, and he liked the script about hired killers - one young, one older - with very different views of the human condition. ``His stuff is pretty mad, pretty dark and very funny,'' Graham said. ``Somebody said - maybe it was me - that 'At the Feet of Doves' is 'Pulp Fiction' meets 'Waiting for Godot. ' '' One of Graham's first movie appearances was as the manager of a pencil factory in Lynch's bizarre, black-and-white ``Eraserhead. '' And Graham said Simonian's play reminds him of the odd vision exhibited by Lynch, the creator of ``Twin Peaks. '' ``The world Ron's pieces live in compares pretty strikingly to some of the places David Lynch's realities live,'' Graham said. ``There's a zone. You can see the edges of it. And it all goes to black outside the immediate moment. '' Graham has already told his mother that she cannot see the show.Simonian's reliance on four-letter dialogue would not be her cup of tea, Graham figures. Max Graham wasn't always Max Graham. You won't see that name in the credits of ``Eraserhead. '' But you will see listed an actor named Neil Moran, a former traveling salesman who found himself involved in movies and theater in California's hippie heyday in the 1960s. ``On some level I guess I'm still something of the hippie that I became then - if that's what I was,'' Graham said. ``I quit shaving for a while. If that and wearing a tie-dyed derby made me a hippie, then call me a hippie. '' Neil Moran grew up in the country east of Independence and performed in school plays at Fort Osage High School. His father farmed and worked as a carpenter for Standard Oil in Sugar Creek. His older brother and proud mom still live in the Independence area. In the late '70s Graham began fishing around for a new professional name. ``Neil Moran wasn't getting any work at all,'' he said. ``Graham is my middle name. Max Graham is my great, great grandfather. The 'T' is for the rhythm. It's just one of those pretentious first initials.It had nothing to do with (arrest) warrants. '' It may have been his family's strong work ethic that drove him into show business, Graham said. He carries memories of his father getting up at 4 a.m. to plow before driving in to put in a full shift at Standard Oil. ``The idea of working for a living just made me shudder,'' he said. Graham returned from California in the early '80s when his father took ill. Ultimately he had to decide whether to return or stay. As it turned out, staying was a wise choice. He began working more than he ever had on the West Coast. He became a local star in a string of productions at the old Waldo Astoria and Tiffany's Attic dinner theaters, often performing with Vicki Oleson. In recent years Graham has scored roles - sometimes major supporting roles - in network TV productions shot in the region. He has held his own quite nicely opposite such well-known actors as Jason Robards, Patty Duke and Martin Sheen. Earlier this year he appeared as a police chief - he often plays cops and lawyers - in ``Gone in the Night,'' a mini-series starring Shannen Doherty and Ed Asner. ``You know, I guess I look like a cop,'' he said. ``They think I look like an authority figure. Where they get that, I don't know. '' Graham is given to hyperbole, and when he's in a stage role that fails to totally engage his interest, he can ham it up and ad-lib to his heart's content. But the thing that can be easily overlooked by those who think of Graham as a ``dinner-theater actor'' is that he is good at what he does. Levin, the Unicorn's producing artistic director, said: ``I think he's been incredible in those TV movies, and I hate all of them. He is a craftsman. He can do it. He's been like so many actors in this town. You get stuck. You get pigeonholed in this rut people perceive you in. '' When not performing on stage or appearing in TV films, Graham keeps busy with commercials and industrial movies - including a series of insurance sales training videos that has made him a sort of superstar to people in the insurance business. The Kansas City Star Date: October 28, 1996 Page: E1 Copyright 1996 The Kansas City Star Co.