I remember Arthur’s son, Arthur III, a playwright, telling me his Dad exemplifies excellence, integrity and professionalism. The many artists who have worked with Arthur French over the years would certainly agree. Due to Covid 19, I conducted a phone interview with him. These are edited excerpts from the conversation:
Roger: You were in the original cast of the play, “Ceremonies of Dark Old Men.” Your character, Jenkins was West Indian and I remember your accent was so perfect. Are you from the West Indies?
Arthur: I was born and raised in Harlem and the Bronx. My mother and father were born in St. Vincent (Caribbean island) and my mother spent some time living in Barbados before moving here. My parents didn’t know each other in St. Vincent. When they met in New York they found out their parents knew each other in St. Vincent.
Roger: How influential were they in you choosing acting as a profession?
Arthur: My father always believed in developing a trade, but my mother really supported me when I was a kid. Early on I was interested in dance, singing and music. She sent me to different artistic schools and I even had a piano recital at Carnegie Hall – I was about 13. When I was older, there was a singing group in my neighborhood in the Bronx. They called themselves, “The Crickets” and they had an engagement in Cleveland. I had a car and they asked me to drive them there. At that point, I wanted to be a disc jockey. Alan Freed was a popular DJ then and I used to hear him on the radio. So I decided to go to a Disc Jockey School, but the payola scandal hit the music scene and the school was closed. That stopped me from pursuing becoming a DJ.
Roger: At what point did you begin your acting career?
Arthur: The Disc Jockey School that was closed was in the same building as Lee Strasberg’s Dramatic Workshop. (laughs) I just signed up for acting, movement and speech classes. Peggy Feury was one of the teachers. She was really good. She taught many actors who went on to have very successful careers, but the most important person in my artistic life was Maxwell Glanville. He ran the American Community Theatre. I heard a reading there. No costumes. No scenery. And I felt it was magical. I attended weekly classes and one day Maxie asked me to direct a play. I had never directed a play, but I said yes.
Roger: You were very courageous.
Arthur: I was very stupid (laughs). See, Maxie encouraged us by giving us opportunities and letting us do what we wanted to try. I loved him for that. The play I directed went well.
Roger: You were one of the original members of Negro Ensemble Company. So much good work was produced there. What was that experience like?
Arthur: Robert Hooks (one of the founding members of Negro Ensemble Company) saw a play I was in and asked me to become a member. I appeared in “Happy Ending,” “Days of Absence,” “Ceremonies of Dark Old Men” and many other plays. At NEC, I just turned myself over to what was happening. I was blessed to be a part of it, loved everybody in the company and learned about life.
Roger: You also worked with Melvin Van Peebles. Wasn’t that your first Broadway play?
Arthur: Yes. “Ain’t Supposed To Die A Natural Death.” That’s when I decided to quit my Social Service job.
Roger: You’ve also been in a number of films and directed many plays but how did teaching at Herbert Berghof Studio happen?
Arthur: I was an understudy in “Driving Miss Daisy” and Michelle Oliver was the other understudy. She was teaching at Herbert Berghof Studio and she recommended me. I spoke to Herbert and told him I had never taught acting before and he said (accent), ”Tell them what you know” (laughs). So I tell the students, “be honest to the character.”
Roger: Have you been able to work at all during this pandemic?
Arthur: Some Zoom readings, a podcast and some commercials. I also work with Sloan Kettering in their training program for medical professionals. I usually portray patients dealing with cancer. Sundays, I read poetry at Marge Eliot’s Parlor Entertainment weekly jazz concerts.
Roger: What have you learned about yourself during your fifty year career?
Arthur: I like the world of fantasy. And my father told me, “learn something so well that you won’t have to lift up anything heavier
than a pencil.”