Playing Lombardi, comedian changes his game face

Rich Smith Lombardi
Rich Smith, the comic actor from the Over Our Head Players tackles a serious role as Vince Lombardi in the Racine Theatre Guild's production of "Lombardi." Photo Monday October 22, 2018. (c) Mark Hertzberg for www.racinecountyeye.com

Racine theatergoers may think of Rich Smith as anything but a serious actor. Think again. The one-time class cut-up, the irreverent actor from Over Our Head Players (OOHPS) with the rubber face and 1,001 comic personas, stars as Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi in the Racine Theatre Guild production of Lombardi, through November 4.

Smith, 52, says that seeing him in a serious role may push peoples’ comfort levels. It challenges him as well. Playing the legendary and beloved Lombardi is not a comic bit delivered to an audience that expects the unexpected from him. It took him longer than usual to learn the lines for Lombardi. He started memorizing them in mid-August.

“I hope I’m done learning them now,” he said in an interview the day after the play opened. “It is the first time I played a character that I could not define, I could not create from scratch. I had to be this very recognizable figure.”

Auditioning for Lombardi

Unlike some of his work at OOHPS, the dialogue couldn’t be improvised.

“It had to become second nature to me so I had to worry about how I’m standing, what’s going on with my face, what I’m doing with my hands,” he said.

To hone his portrayal of Lombardi, Smith spent hours watching a video and listening to audio tapes of the coach. James Fletcher, who is directing this play for the second time, picked Smith for the title role after he and more than a half dozen actors auditioned for the part. He had never seen Smith act and did not know of his reputation as a comic actor, but that would not have mattered, “If he can do the one, he can do the other.”

Each actor was given two scenes to read, one a monologue by Lombardi, the other a confrontation with the newspaper reporter in the play. Not only did Smith have the cadence and enough of a physical resemblance to Lombardi (in spite of his shaved head) to satisfy Fletcher, but something else may have helped tip the balance in his favor.

“Whether by accident or on purpose, he had a pair of glasses similar to Lombardi, and that didn’t hurt,” he said.

Fletcher “knew” at the end of three hours of auditions over two evenings that Smith would be his Lombardi. Smith has been a Packers fan since he was 12.

“It’s really easy for anyone in Wisconsin to be a fan of the character. He is a hero of mine, but anyone can say that kind of stuff. Inside of that, I felt I fit him physically.”

Smith had also seen the Milwaukee Repertory Theater production of the play and read it before.

“I was fascinated with the story, the way they put it together. When I heard that the Theatre Guild was going to do it, it all came together. It felt like something I could do and wanted to do.”

Day job, shmay job

Ironically, working in the theater as Managing Artistic Director for OOHPS at the Sixth Street Theater, gets in the way of Smith taking on more independent roles.

“I’m too busy doing theater to do theater. I would do more of that if I had time,” Smith said. “Sixth Street is a great thing. Every year it has gotten a little bigger for us. My little volunteer gig here for the past 27 years has turned into a paying gig, dozens of volunteers, thousands of audience members. There is never any downtime.”

The theater is Smith’s second full-time job. In addition to his work on stage and behind the scenes regaling audiences at the storefront theater in Downtown Racine, he works full-time as lead flight line operations technician at SC Johnson’s flight center at Batten International Airport.

He has yet to dream at night about playing such a famous figure, but he can’t shake it loose.

“He’s been part of every waking moment since I got the role because I’m excited about it,” Smith said. “I have this great desire to get it right because it’s Vince Lombardi. I can’t give it just 20%”

Smith’s humor… the early days

Smith grew up in Racine. Although his family was not theater-goers, they were “crazy supportive” of his acting ambitions. He developed his interest in acting in middle school. “It was like playing an instrument or having an athletic skill. I found out I liked it and might be okay at it. I clung to it.”

Smith’s comic side did not manifest itself until high school. He was “kind of quiet” until then and his personality “kind of exploded,” he said.

Two “great mentors,” the late John Burns and Tom Spraker, teachers at Park High School, recognized his potential.

“It was wonderful to meet grown men who looked me in the eye and said this is a cool thing to do. You don’t have to be a football player, you don’t have to rebuild an auto engine. Men can do this. They also provided a lot of freedom. Park High School had a class structure at the time where we could write our own things and direct our own things,” Smith recalled.

His parents knew about the naughty Rich because they sometimes received calls about his behavior from school.

“I was quite an instigator in high school,” he said. “I was usually pushing teachers’ buttons. I think I had a bit of a silver spoon so I could mess with my teachers to a point that other students couldn’t. I remember an altercation with Mr. Sager. We had an exchange. At the end of that class, we had a talk and he felt like a friend. He scolded me one minute, and after everyone left we kind of laughed about it.”

He did not always know when to stop his shenanigans. Sager would yell, “SMITH! Shut up, Smith! I’d say something back to him.” There were consequences to his behavior. Sometimes he was suspended from school.

“I had a point going into the senior year where I might not have graduated. I was goofing off a little too much. Theater and music were the only classes I showed up for. I had a few teachers in my corner,” he added.

Smith may not have been interested in his traditional classes, but his drama classes helped him find his way. After calls home from school, his mother would tell him: “You can’t behave this way. You have to listen. You have to apply yourself.”

He elaborates, “I’ve always known if it wasn’t for the theater end of that (school) building, I don’t know where I would have ended up. I got a lot more out of theater than self-confidence: the desire to stay in school., the desire to socialize and make friends and the desire to go on to college.”

Smith, the football junkie

Playing Lombardi allows Smith, who describes himself as “an NFL junkie,” combine his love of the theater and of the Packers. He had Packers tickets until the late 1990s when they became less affordable. His impetuous instincts got him thrown of Milwaukee County Stadium (where the Packers played occasionally) for underage drinking twice in the same season by the same Milwaukee County Sheriff’s deputy, an officer Lopez.

As Smith recounts the story, it reminds one of his relationship with Tom Sager at Park High School. “[The second time] I heard, ‘Richard, Richard, Richard,’ this voice behind me. It was the silver spoon. He never fined me. He just made me sit in the tank.”

He turns his attention back to the present.

“It is harder to do this role. Comedy comes easier to me as an actor. There were some moments in Lombardi that I wanted to go for the laugh, but he wouldn’t do that. Aside from the amount of study and pressure to pull off the imitation, in general, I find that dramatic or straight character much more difficult for me… I know the script works. I hope we’re doing it justice.”

Smith’s ties to Lombardi would be a fairy tale with his having scored the winning touchdown when Park High School won the state championship. But, alas, not. He went out for football his sophomore year.

“I made it a few weeks,” he said. “It wasn’t for me.”

Lombardi won multiple league championships and two Super Bowl titles. Smith says that

the cast of Lombardi got an opening night standing ovation from the audience. Touchdown!

The production runs through Sunday, November 4. Information about showtimes and tickets are at www.racinetheatre.org or call 262-633-4218.


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