As Controversial Kunstler, Jeff McCarthy Holds Court

Jeff McCarthy as William Kunstler. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

The Drama Desk-nominated actor Jeff McCarthy recently confided that, years ago, his child eyes would “flash wide open on Saturday mornings, hellbent on getting all the kids in the neighborhood to watch him pretend to be Bob Barker.” This pretend-Barker wasn’t the one who hosted The Price Is Right for 50 years, but the earlier one who emceed the freewheeling Truth or Consequences, which mixed wacky trivia questions with insane contestant stunts. You have to love a memory so kitschy, vivid and also so introspective, for McCarthy notes that he’s still “trying to reckon” how Truth or Consequences could be a “thing of such enormous beauty” to his “eight or nine-year-old self.” Plinko or no Plinko, surely this was the spring from which grew the actor’s creative impulse, now manifesting in Jeffrey Sweet’s play Kunstler.

Kunstler — that is, as in William — showcases McCarthy as the infuriating, irascible and inescapably self-righteous lawyer who many loved to loathe. Press materials call Kunstler an “American civil rights pioneer and attorney so famous he played himself on Law & Order” — which is funny, yes, but accurate. What is accurate as well is McCarthy’s arresting resemblance to the man, who died in 1995.

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Kunstler specialized in defending the politically unpopular and even, at times, the morally reprobate. His service as director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) from 1964 to 1972 coincided or overlapped with defending the Freedom Riders, the Chicago Seven, the Black Panthers, the Attica prison rioters, various members of the American Indian movement and the Weather Underground. His firm took up the causes of Jack Ruby, who assassinated Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and serial killer Wayne Williams. In 1993, who’d jump to defend Omar Abdel-Rahman, who orchestrated the first bombing of the World Trade Center? One guess.

Whereas Kunstler, as a character, was remarkably consistent in his approach to justice, McCarthy has long specialized in wide-ranging character work. He debuted on Broadway in the 1983 revival of the Kander and Ebb musical Zorba, starring the great Anthony Quinn. Roles of increasing prominence in shows like Beauty and the Beast and Chicago followed, along with scores of roles on TV and film. He is perhaps best known for originating the role of Officer Lockstock in the musical Urinetown, back in 2001. But of all the actor’s credits, my favorite might be voicing Michigan J. Frog for the old WB.

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“Seven years ago,” McCarthy says, Sweet called him up and asked if he’d seen the film Disturbing the Universe. It was a documentary by Sarah and Emily Kunstler, the attorney’s daughters, who were trying to come to terms with the experience of being the children of a radical, famous, civil rights attorney. “I don’t know if it was because I look and sound a bit like him — but Mr. Sweet was calling to ask if I’d be interested in playing this guy, should he write a play based on Kunstler’s work. I watched the film that night and rang him back, saying ‘Sure. You betcha!’ Civil rights for all people — Black, Muslim, LGBT, all of us — is of great importance to me. So here we are, seven years later — working intensely.”

Kunstler, directed by Meagan Fay, runs through March 12 at Off-Broadway’s 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., 212-279-4200).

And now, 5 questions Jeff McCarthy has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

My daughter, Juliet, is just finishing a BFA acting program at Emerson. Back when Juliet was in high school rehearsing to play Polonius (she was great!), she asked if I ever pretended to be a different actor when playing a role. Her question brought me back to my early years in New York, studying with Uta Hagen. After finishing a scene I had been working on in Ms. Hagen’s class, I mentioned an actor that we all knew. I told her that I found this particular actor and his “style” to be just right for the character I had just finished portraying. To which she replied, “Well, maybe we should just hire him, instead of you, to play the role?” Her question really got me thinking at that young age.

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

Idiotic? Well, funny, anyway. I got to play Stone in the first national tour of City of Angels years ago. I came out of the stage door one night and a group of people were waiting for autographs. I signed their programs as one person asked, with a very earnest face, “Have you got to work yet with Frank Lloyd Webber?”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

One time in St. Louis, two Trekkies, with their eyes going three directions, intensely approached me on the street. “Roga Danar, Fearless Warrior”? “Uh, yes?,” I responded. “Can we explain about the havoc the gravitational pull of the Andromeda Nebula might have on the rear tail thrusters of the Enterprise?,” they asked…or words to that effect. I told Trekkie #1 and his silent friend, who stared deeply into my soul, “You know, I haven’t a clue. I was on that show for a week or so a few years ago and didn’t pay much attention to that kind of detail.” Trekkie #1 glared at me with his left eye as I nodded to his silent friend, then I quickly made my way down the street.

As an actor, how do approach playing a character like Kunstler — whose legacy, some might say, was his ability and willingness to defend those who some consider indefensible?

Like any good lawyer, and especially one with such a deep curiosity and compassion for the whole human condition, Kunstler worked tirelessly, believing we all deserve the right to a proper and lawful self-defense. And to quote him, from our play: “I have been accused of being a showman. To which I plead guilty — with an explanation: If I have the ability to attract attention, it means I can draw attention to my client’s causes. Sometimes I purposefully leverage my — notoriety? — to give these people the public consideration they deserve.” It is truly an honor to play this brilliant and wild guy. He has emboldened me to activism in my own life in ways I had previously never known.

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Based on your knowledge of Kunstler’s life, career, attitude toward the law and our system of justice, did he ever take a position as a defense attorney that you find personally beyond the pale?

For personal reasons, I have to pass on this.

“Bonus” question:

Osama bin Laden. Bernie Madoff. Adolf Hitler. Charles Manson. J. Robert Oppenheimer. Jeffrey Dahmer. Pol Pot. Donald Trump. Pick the person over whom Kunstler would have thrown up his hands and said “I can’t defend him!” From this list, who would he have had the best time defending?

Juicy and aggressively Kunstleresque questions, I’ll answer both.

Question 1: That would be our shameless, self serving dumpster fire, the gold plated #45.

Question 2: Kunstler was classmates with Roy Cohn, wrote a will for Joseph McCarthy, and once hugged John Gotti. He spent his life welcoming a challenge. For all the advances he made for science, and for all his remorse, I think defending J. Robert Oppenheimer would have been a fascination, and probably an honor.