OAKLAND -- Rockridge resident and veteran Bay Area actor Dan Hiatt said the most rewarding, surprising experience in his 39 years on stage came while uttering only 54 words and spending the majority of the Samuel Beckett play "Happy Days," buried underground, completely invisible to the audience.
"Staying engaged as 'Willie' was amazing, immensely satisfying," he said, a naive wonder transforming his placid face, his bubbly tone jutting up in marked contrast to the somber, pensive voice characterizing his more-typically measured responses. A native of Idaho, Hiatt came to the profession at the age of 18 when, scrambling to declare a college major, his father suggested drama because his son was funny and good at speeches.
"My family had a great sense of humor. They didn't have opportunities of college, but they were brilliant people and appreciated low and higher kinds of humor," he said. After moving to the Bay Area and tooling around as part of "The Distractions," an ensemble comedy-musical act, while working "day jobs" such as shoe salesman and welder, Hiatt began to stake his claim on A-list stages. Director Richard Seyd introduced Hiatt to California Shakespeare Theater, American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
"And we found farce together -- how to play everything for real," he said.
Praised by the media and audiences for his comedic sensitivities, Hiatt pays homage to W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and radio.
"I was born in the wrong time period. I would have been great in radio at the turn of the century. Black-and-white films -- and the actors in them -- have influenced me."
Hiatt says W.C. Fields got the laughs by investing in real problems, not clowning.
"It's cliché," he stated, "but joy and sadness are the core of truly beautiful music, drama, life. If I'm cast in the clown role, I try to pull jokes. Then I realize, this is a sad person, or one with a chip on his shoulder. That's where their comedy comes from."
Hiatt is intensely private, saying he preferred solitude from the age of 3 and regrets he's never lost the feeling he must be someone other than himself when in public life. He holds a particular fondness for acting's bookends: the first script read-through and the breakthrough period when "the most frustrating, angering, exposing part of the process" are over.
"Those two weeks -- you're in front of people, looking bad, feeling bad. Then there's a time when knowing it in your head allows you to find the bits that are opposite. There's incredulous joy, flashes of deep, kingly rage -- you think, 'Oh good, I don't have to quit after all!' "
In his role in "Old Wicked Songs," the Center Repertory production opening at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center on Friday, he is hovering on the cusp of the blissful period.
"This could be the role that teaches me the most," he speculated. "It has to do with a man who's blocked because he has something he hasn't dealt with."
Pressed to explain, Hiatt's eyes redden. Suddenly, his malleable face is filled with pained surprise, as if he's just been stung by a bee. Twenty-four hours before sitting down to discuss his life and work, Hiatt's 96-year old mother, with whom he watched his beloved W.C. Fields, said to Hiatt and his siblings, "I'll be fine," before closing her eyes and never again reawakening.
"I don't want this to be about that," Hiatt said. "But major life events change your whole perspective. This character (I am playing) has imprisoned himself because of things he experienced that forced him to build walls around himself. I'm interested in letting out more, finding more input and output."
As a 57-year old actor, Hiatt finds his thoughts turning to the future.
"I love what I'm doing, but there are less roles for someone my age and, to be honest, it's a lot to learn; five plays in one year."
Writing a play would be "a dream gig," he suggested, before ducking into his hiding hole and doubting he has the skill to "catch a play like other playwrights."
Then, revived by the engine of his innate humor, he announced, "I love to write crossword puzzles. I'll do that. It's the only thing that pays less and takes more time than acting."