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Chris Sarandon: Woodrow grad, veteran actor excited about returning homeThis article appeared in the Register-Herald on March 30, 2003.
By AUDREY SCHWITZERLETTE
When he's working, Chris Sarandon can be anything from a vampire to a prince.
But when he's not working, the actor says, his life is just like anyone else's.
"At the moment, I'm doing laundry," the Beckley native said from his home in Los Angeles.
"Just like anyone else, our lives revolve around work and family," he said. "... I still buy groceries and pick up the dry cleaning, fix leaks in the roof."
And these days - like anyone else - his mind is somewhat preoccupied with concern about the war in Iraq.
"It's difficult to see through the fog with what's going on in the world right now," he added.
Many longtime Beckley residents can recall Sarandon's days as a popular student at Woodrow Wilson High School, on stage at Grandview singing and dancing in Theatre West Virginia's production of "Honey in the Rock" or drumming around town with a local band called The Teen Tones.
But younger generations of southern West Virginians know him best from big-screen appearances in popular films such as "Protocol," "The Princess Bride," "Fright Night" and "Child's Play."
Regardless of how you know Chris Sarandon, one thing's certain: "He's quite a guy," said Beckley resident Mike Massinople, one of Sarandon's closest friends since boyhood.
Growing up in Beckley
Massinople and many others are looking forward to April 11 when the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce welcomes Sarandon and wife Joanna Gleason to its annual dinner, "An Evening with Beckley's Best."
"It's going to be a fun evening," chamber chairman Pete Torrico said. "I know that Chris isn't just coming here to give a speech. ... He's actually excited about coming here and seeing old friends."
Sarandon said it has been awhile since he's visited his hometown. But before his mother, Cliffie Cardullias Sarandon, relocated from Beckley to Florida, it wasn't uncommon to see Chris back in his old stomping grounds. An active member of the Beckley community and the town's Greek Orthodox church, Cliffie often made local headlines serving as a baby-sitter and companion to such stars as Natalie Wood and Herb Alpert. These days she resides in Florida.
"I'm very proud of her," Chris said.
Sarandon said he's not only looking forward to spending time with old friends, but also seeing sites such as his former home at 317 Woodlawn Ave. and the spot where his father's restaurant, the Eatwell Café, used to be uptown.
Sarandon's father, also named Chris, came to the United States from Greece. His name originally was Sarondonethes. During the 1920s, he washed dishes at a restaurant in New York. Later, he worked for a friend in Virginia. In 1925, he started his own restaurant in Beckley. He died in Florida in 1988.
Chris often worked with his father, and to this day, Massinople says, he is an outstanding chef.
When young Chris wasn't working in his father's restaurant, he was attending Institute Elementary School, where he became best friends with Massinople, whose parents were from Italy.
"There weren't enough Greeks or other ethnic groups in town, so we all banded together," Sarandon said.
Massinople recalled playing basketball after school with Sarandon. Both men graduated from Woodrow Wilson in 1960.
"Chris has a deadly 20-foot jump shot with a high arch to it," he said.
Massinople says he knew from a very early age that his childhood friend had talent. Together, in a grade school talent show, the boys sang "O' Bury Me Not on the Old Prairie" - with harmony.
Sarandon says growing up in a small town with close, caring friends helped him develop as an actor and a person.
"In fact, I think it has been a really tremendous advantage," he said in a 1985 article. "As an actor, we are, in a way, a mirror of other people. ... I told a group of students in Charleston once that they should draw from the cultural legacy in the state. West Virginia has a rich cultural history with its folk music and crafts, and that cultural history was a tremendous inspiration for me as well. It's such an old and rich legacy, I likened it to my own personal legacy of being Greek."
High school and beyond
At Woodrow Wilson, Sarandon was very popular, Massinople said. At the time, however, Sarandon put much of his talent for communication to work in student government.
His gift for music, however, flourished when he joined a young, local band called The Teen Tones.
"We were famous or infamous, depending on who you ask," he said. "I was a drummer and back-up vocalist."
The rock 'n' roll band took one of its first gigs at the American Legion hall in Beckley. The crowd was not used to Chuck Berry and other Motown songs covered by The Teen Tones.
"I remember what it was like to look out into the audience at the stunned faces," Sarandon recalled.
The band was good. They toured, and whenever a rock artist came to the area, they were invited to back him up. So at a young age, Sarandon found himself on stage with music legends such as Bobby Darin, Gene Vincent and Danny and the Juniors.
It was a thrill Sarandon would never give up.
"Being on stage is a seductive lifestyle," he said.
"We were young kids from a small town thrust out into the big world," Sarandon continued, adding his musical interest wasn't limited to rock 'n' roll. A friend's cousin introduced him to jazz, and Sarandon began viewing music as "a way into a world outside Beckley."
In 1961 - between semesters at West Virginia University - Sarandon took to the stage at Grandview in "Honey in the Rock" - his theater debut. He spent three seasons with the historical drama, playing a variety of roles, including a New River settler, a news reader, a sentry and Stonewall Jackson. He also doubled as a dancer.
After the shows, Sarandon, actor Dave Selby - a fellow WVU student who went on to star in the gothic TV soap opera "Dark Shadows" and, later, "Falcon Crest" - and other cast members would hang out at the old Beckley Supper Club and perform impromptu skits, recalled Massinople, who continues to keep up the friendship.
"I remember thinking, these guys are pretty talented," Massinople said.
At WVU, Sarandon studied speech and performed in several productions.
"I think he probably would have been student body president if he hadn't totally immersed himself in acting," added Massinople.
Sarandon starred in the leading role of Harold Hill in WVU's production of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man." For it, the university awarded Sarandon its "Best Actor" award.
"That's when I thought, Chris is going to go places," Massinople said.
And he did.
Making it big
After he graduated magna cum laude from WVU in 1964, Sarandon toured with a regional theater group and performed with the Onley Theatre, where he made his professional debut in "The Rose Tattoo." He went on to attend the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he received his master's degree in theater. That's where he met his first wife, fellow student Susan Sarandon. The two were married 10 years.
After graduating from Catholic, Sarandon joined Long Wharf Theatre Co. for a season. Credits there include "The Lion in Winter" and "The Indian Wants the Bronz." He then moved to New York.
Two weeks after arriving in The Big Apple, Sarandon landed a role in the soap opera "The Guiding Light," where he played intern Dr. Tom Halverson. Shortly thereafter, he was cast as Jacob Rothschild in the original Broadway production of "The Rothschilds." He also replaced Raul Julia in the New York Shakespeare Festival's hit Broadway musical "The Two Gentlemen of Verona."
Sarandon appeared at the New York Shakespeare Festival in the New York premiere of "The Woods" by David Mamet and in John Guare's "Marco Polo Sings a Solo" with Sigorney Weaver, Joel Grey and Madeline Kahn. He co-starred with Rex Harrison in "The Devil's Disciple" with BAM Theatre Co., played Marchbanks in "Candida" at Canada's acclaimed Shaw Festival and co-starred in the Broadway musical "Nick and Nora."
Then, his agent, Stark Heseltine, called with news of a film script called "Dog Day Afternoon."
In the movie, Sarandon made his film debut as Al Pacino's confused lover. The role landed him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.
"Right out of the chute, he gets an Academy Award nomination," Massinople noted.
"Lipstick" followed. In that film, Margaux Hemingway played a top fashion model who pressed charges against the psychotic young man who raped her.
At the time, some critics worried the demented movie roles might leave Sarandon type-cast in evil roles. But Sarandon saw the characters as opportunities to expand his abilities.
"I think it's important not to get yourself in a rut where you feel you can only do one sort of thing - or should attempt to do only one sort of thing," he said in a 1976 Beckley Post-Herald article. "For me, what makes acting so valuable is you get to express so many personality traits others keep repressed."
In the years to follow, Sarandon proved he could express just about any personality - on film, on television and on stage.
He played Jesus in the critically acclaimed "The Day Christ Died," a demon in "The Sentinel" and the roles of both Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay in the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie "A Tale of Two Cities."
Other screen appearances included roles in "Cuba" with Sean Connery, "The Osterman Weekend," the Herbert Ross-directed "Protocol," starring Goldie Hawn, and Rob Reiner's "The Princess Bride" as the evil Prince Humperdink. He also starred as the suave, sophisticated vampire in the cult classic "Fright Night" and as the anguished police officer chasing the demented doll, Chucky, in "Child's Play."
Other TV appearances include a starring role in "You Can't Go Home Again," as well as guest appearances on "Picket Fences," "The Practice," "Law and Order" and recurring roles on "Felicity," "E.R." and "Judging Amy." Last year he co-starred in producer John Wells' Supreme Court drama on ABC, "The Court," starring Sally Field.
Sarandon's voice lends itself to the lead character, Jack Skellington, in Tim Burton's stop-animation classic "The Nightmare Before Christmas," and can be heard in a new animated feature, "The Chosen One."
Massinople said he believes his friend's roles on stage in Shakespeare plays and on television in "A Tale of Two Cities" really gave Sarandon the opportunity to let his abilities shine.
"Chris has been very successful in his endeavor to be a complete actor," Massinople said. "That includes music, dancing, acting, live, TV and movies."
Now he's added to that list producing, writing and directing.
Recently, he developed, produced and starred in "Road Ends," a feature film also starring Dennis Hopper, Peter Coyote and Mariel Hemingway. He also recently wrote, produced and directed the short film "Snowfall," and is developing two more feature film scripts to direct.
Advice to the next generation
"Everyone has the potential to live his or her fantasy," Sarandon said in a 1979 Raleigh Register article. "Our lives are under our own control to some extent. The most important thing is to do what makes you happy, and I like what I do."
But an acting career has its ups and downs.
Sarandon recalled a time when his daughter, then 5 or 6, was talking with her young friend about what their fathers did for a living.
"Her friend said that her dad was an electrician. My daughter said her dad looks for work," Sarandon said, laughing. "That's the basic framework of life as an actor. You're more often unemployed than employed."
But if it makes you happy, it's worth it, he said.
"My advice to aspiring actors is think twice," Sarandon told The Raleigh Register in 1979. "People sometimes go into acting for the wrong reasons - as a shortcut to fame and fortune. If these goals are not attained, they feel a bitter disappointment. Acting should be an end in itself. First of all, an actor should try to do a job well."
That's the kind of advice he may dispense when he tours area schools next month during his visit to Beckley. Sarandon said he looks forward to encouraging young Raleigh County residents.
"Staying in school is the best thing they can do," the actor said. "If you want something, just work at it. Don't let the time go by and look back on it and say, 'Oh, I wish I had.' "
He's also hopeful his wife, actress Joanna Gleason, can accompany him for the chamber dinner and school tour.
Between Sarandon and Gleason, they have four children, Aaron Gleason and Sarandon's children from his second marriage to model Lisa Ann Cooper, Stephanie, Alexis and Michael Sarandon.
The royal treatmentThis article appeared in the Register-Herald on April 13, 2002.
By Audrey Schwitzerlette
Drawing an analogy between the old Beckley Welcome Wagon and the continued kindness of city residents over the years, actor and Beckley native Chris Sarandon captivated an audience of more than 600 Friday night at the Raleigh County Armory Civic Center.
"Beckley's Welcome Wagon was always on the road," Sarandon, a 1960 Woodrow Wilson High School graduate, said during the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce's 83rd Annual Dinner.
The wagon wasn't there when his parents came to Beckley, but the townspeople - through their "acceptance, tolerance and warmth" - played a major role in welcoming his immigrant parents and shaping the successes they became.
The wagon was there when Sarandon was a boy - not just in the form of the old Ford Woody, but in the form of warm and friendly people who helped him become "100 percent American, full-blooded Greek and from Beckley, West Virginia."
"Tonight, everywhere I look, I see the Welcome Wagon - such a vivid meta-phor for the people here, this town's citizens," he said. "You are truly Beckley's best."
Sarandon returned to his hometown for the weekend with his wife, actress Joanna Gleason, to appear as the guest of honor at the dinner, titled "An Eve-ning with Beckley's Best."
The couple spent much of Friday speaking to students at area high schools before joining Sarandon's longtime friends and the Beckley business community for an evening of dinner, music and dancing.
At one point, Sarandon's words moved several to tears as he recalled memories of his Greek father, who ran the Eatwell Cafe in uptown Beckley. Chris Sarandon Sr., during the Great Depression, invited townspeople to dine at his res-taurant on credit.
"What better way to pay people back than to hold out a hand," he said, inspiring the audience to break out in applause.
Sarandon was popular in Beckley years before he was a popular star on stage, television and film.
He made his film debut in "Dog Day Afternoon," for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor. Other screen appearances include "Protocol," "The Princess Bride," "Fright Night" and "Childsplay."
He has a long list of theater credits and starring roles on several made-for-TV movies.
Sarandon's most recent projects involve writing, producing and directing short and feature films. He developed, produced and starred in "Road Ends," a feature film also starring Dennis Hopper, Peter Coyote, Mari-el Hemingway and Gleason.
Gleason's latest big screen appearance was in "The Wedding Planner." Other recent film credits include "Boogie Nights," "American Perfekt" and "Mr. Holland's Opus." On television, she has appeared on "Friends," "Love and War," "The West Wing" and others.
"You have one of the most physically beautiful places in this country that I have ever seen," she told the audience.
Sarandon noted the beauty of the region's people as well.
"I don't need Hollywood to give me a sense of place, of being rooted somewhere," Sarandon said. "I'll always have Beckley."
Each year, the chamber of commerce invites the area's business community and public to purchase tickets to its fund-raising dinner. But there's more to an evening with the chamber than dinner and a guest speaker. Over the years, the event has become one of the area's largest social celebrations - attracting the community's most active business leaders, politicians and volunteers.
Organizers dubbed Friday's gala "An Evening with Beckley's Best," focusing not only on guest speaker Sarandon, but on the recipient of the Community Service Award - the Thomas Walker Memorial Health Foundation.
The foundation was responsible not only for attracting doctors to the region at a time when there were few, but for establishing Beckley's largest charitable fund management organization - the Beckley Area Foundation.
"The Walker Foundation has helped to make this a better place to live ... a better place to go to school, work, play and retire," BAF executive director Susan Landis said.
Chartered in 1964, the Walker Foundation was established with grants from Appalachian Regional Hospital and the United Mine Workers. Its purpose was to work with BARH in attracting doctors to the area and also provide a facility for their private practice. To this end, the foundation built Southern West Virginia Clinic.
In 1985, the foundation helped establish the Beckley Area Foundation with a $1.1 million gift. BAF now has assets of about $13 million and has distributed more than $3 million in grants.
Then, there was the third element of "Beckley's Best," The Fabulous Red Barons.
The 12-piece band - including Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh - originated in Beckley in the 1960s. Since then, most members have left the area, but the gang reunites on occasions such as Friday's to entertain crowds with classic hits from the 1960s.
Following dinner, Sarandon's speech and an award ceremony, the group got guests moving with songs like "It's Not Unusual," "Tell It Like It Is," "Stand by Me," "My Girl" and other popular songs from the days when high school students performed at proms and events throughout the region.
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