Does Anybody Believe an Actor?

Lionel Barrymore - Hollywood, California
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, December 18, 2009
Lionel Barrymore

From the 1950s, Oscar winner Lionel Barrymore believes the secret to living a full and happy life is much like preparing for an acting role: It requires borrowing from the past, adapting to the present, being creative about the future, and setting attainable goals.

Age Group: 65+
Themes: work

First off, I think the world has come a mighty long way toward believing that what a man does to make a living can’t rob him of his integrity as a human being, when it will listen to an actor talk about what he believes. I can remember when nobody believed an actor and didn’t care what he believed. Why, the very fact that he was an actor made almost everything he said open to question, because acting was thought to be a vocation embraced exclusively by scatterbrains, show-offs, wastrels, and scamps. I don’t believe that’s true today and I don’t think it ever was. I don’t think there were ever any more ne’er-do-wells, rogues, poseurs, and villains in the acting profession than in any other line of work. At least I hope that’s the case. If it isn’t, it’s too late to change my mind and much too late to change my profession.

The fact is, I think, every successful man today has prepared for his success by planning and living his life in much the same way that an actor plans and creates a part.

We don’t make anything up out of whole cloth when we decide the way we want to play a role, anymore than the author, who wrote it, made it up out of thin air. The author has one or two or perhaps a great many more models in mind from which he takes a little here and a little there until he’s built up a new character out of substantial material. Now the actor who must play this part has to dig back into his life and recall one or two or more people who are, in some way, similar to the person the author put on paper. What I’m saying is, everybody connected with the actors work had a model and copied this model, more or less exactly, adding to it here and there, until something new emerged.

I think this is the way a person must plan his life. Adopting, borrowing, and adapting a little here and a little there from his predecessors and his contemporaries, then adding a few touches until he’s created himself.

I believe the difference between an eminently successful person and one whose life is just mediocre is the difference between a person who had an aim, a focus, a model upon which he superimposed his own life and one who didn’t. To put it bluntly, you can’t get anywhere unless you know where to start from and where to go.

The thing to be careful of in choosing a model is: don’t aim too high for your capacity. It’s necessary, it’s true, to believe in the Almighty, but don’t make Him your model. Have faith in Him but try for something you’re more apt to make. Shoot a little closer to home. If you keep aiming at an attainable target, you can always raise your sights on another and more difficult one. But if you start off for the impossible, you’re foredoomed to eternal failure.

I believe if a man remembers that, sets an attainable goal for himself, and works to attain it, conscious that when he does so he will then set another goal for himself, he will have a full, busy and, for this reason, a happy life.

Stage, film, and radio actor Lionel Barrymore won an Academy Award for best actor for “A Free Soul" (1931). He appeared in more than 200 movies, including starring as Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life" and Disko in “Captains Courageous." Barrymore was also an accomplished author, composer, artist, and director.