Still a player in this town

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY NEL­SON PRESS­LEY style@wash­post.com

Richard Schiff is hav­ing a Toby Ziegler moment. “There are so many sto­ries,” mur­murs Schiff, who played angst-rid­dled White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor Ziegler on the game-chang­ing TV se­ries “The West Wing.” He’s stymied: Which one to tell?

He’s talk­ing about the time he up­braided cam­paign strate­gist Steve Sch­midt for help­ing bring Sarah Palin on board as then-pres­i­den­tial can­di­date John McCain’s 2008 run­ning mate. But he pauses.

Maybe first he should go into his Bill Clin­ton story. The one when Bubba con­fided to Schiff his view on pick­ing VPs.

And then there are the Joe Bi­den sto­ries, none of which has any­thing to do with why Schiff – 57, skin­nier than you’d guess from TV, and sport­ing frayed jeans and a hip­ster’s leather hat — is chat­ting in a Penn Quar­ter health food cafe in the first place. (Ex­plain­ing that leads to an Al Pa­cino story.) He’s in Washington to, well, of course, to hob­nob and pop up on CNN do­ing a quick take dur­ing the in­au­gu­ral events.

But for the next six weeks Schiff is really here to star in “Hughie” for the Shake­speare The­atre Com­pany. “Hughie” is a two-char­ac­ter, hour-long drama from Eu­gene O’Neill’s late pe­riod, writ­ten af­ter the in­tro­spec­tive mas­ter­pieces “Long Day’s Jour­ney Into Night” and “The Ice­man Cometh.” Schiff plays Erie Smith, a small-time hustler who does vir­tu­ally all the play’s talk­ing as he ram­bles to a night clerk.

“He’s one of those two-bit semi­hus­tlers hang­ing around the joints,” says Schiff, who had read the play in­for­mally with Pa­cino in an L.A. ho­tel room when Pa­cino was pre­par­ing his own ver­sion back in the 1990s. “When I was a kid he was one of the many guys you’d see at the OTB par­lor, or hang­ing out at Times Square.”

How it came about was sim­ple. Schiff was par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Will on the Hill ben­e­fit for the Shake­speare The­atre — “It was the cutest that elected of­fi­cials will ever look,” the ac­tor says of the politi­cos in cos­tume to act in a clas­si­cal play — and out­side he no­ticed a poster for O’Neill’s “Strange In­ter­lude.” When a staffer asked if he’d be in­ter­ested in work­ing with the troupe, Schiff men­tioned “Hughie.”

He also sug­gested di­rec­tor Doug Hughes; the two had talked about col­lab­o­rat­ing be­fore, but “Hughie” is the first time it’s work­ing out. Schiff calls O’Neill’s fo­cused bit of por­trai­ture “a Rem­brandt,” while Hughes says of Schiff, “he has a gift for the hard­scrab­ble lyri­cism of O’Neill.”

The di­rec­tor talks about the “mor­dant in­tel­lect” Schiff flashed on “West Wing,” and says, “I al­ways felt there was a tragic view of life there. But Toby Ziegler is a very, very dif­fer­ent be­ing from Erie Smith.”

“The West Wing” ended its seven-year run in 2006, and while Schiff has stayed busy on screens small and large (he’ll be in the new Su­per­man pic­ture “Man of Steel” this sum­mer), he’s also found his way back on­stage. In the past few years he’s done the­ater in New Jersey and in Lon­don, and he just fin­ished a three­month run on Broad­way with Pa­cino in the hot-ticket re­vival of “Glen­garry Glen Ross.”

The the­ater work, he says, has been his ef­fort to “cleanse” him­self from a string of un­sat­is­fy­ing guest spots on TV, but on some level the en­ter­tainer’s life may al­ways be an odd fit for Schiff. Even his start in act­ing was clouded with doubt. He tells a funny story of how a friend set him up for an au­di­tion with a three-year post-grad pro­gram at City Col­lege of New York. One of the au­di­tors asked why Schiff was so ner­vous, and he said it was be­cause he’d never been in that po­si­tion be­fore.

“Well, why do you want to be an ac­tor?” the au­di­tor asked.

Schiff replied, “I don’t want to be an ac­tor.”

Nat­u­rally, he was ac­cepted. And it was there in 2004, years later and well into his “West Wing” fame, that he met Clin­ton. They parleyed on who can­di­date John Kerry’s run­ning mate might be, and the former pres­i­dent waxed on the im­por­tance of the de­ci­sion, which led to Schiff ’s later “Are you kid­ding with this Sarah Palin stuff ?!” jab at Sch­midt.

This is how Schiff talks, con­nect­ing the dots of peo­ple and events. Hughes un­der­stands the con­tin­u­ous jazz riff on pol­i­tics and art; it turns out that they both came to Washington for protests back in 1969.

“He was en­vi­ous be­cause I had been locked up by the po­lice and he had not,” Hughes says. “So I had the bet­ter story.”

Schiff, who has two nearly grown chil­dren with his wife, ac­tress Sheila Kel­ley, was born in Bethesda. His par­ents were liv­ing in Falls Church then, but he has been a New Yorker since he was 3 months old. (He has lived in Los An­ge­les for 20 years but hates to ad­mit it.) He was steeped in the street pol­i­tics of the 1960s; one of the first things he says about him­self is that af­ter his par­ents’ di­vorce, his mother mar­ried lawyer Clarence B. Jones, whose bio in­cludes work­ing with Martin Luther King Jr. and try­ing to re­solve the 1971 riot at At­tica.

“In New York in those days, you couldn’t really avoid it,” Schiff says of the po­lit­i­cal ac­tion on the streets.

The tide swept him to places like New Haven, Conn., car­ry­ing equip­ment for a doc­u­men­tary film­maker fol­low­ing the Black Pan­ther tri­als there. He says things like, “In ’68 I found my­self on the podium at Columbia Univer­sity dur­ing the Columbia takeovers, lis­ten­ing to [ac­tivist] Flo [Flo­rynce] Kennedy speak. She took a big lik­ing to me, for some rea­son. So I learned a lot just from hang­ing around her.”

Schiff takes his time re­count­ing an in­ci­dent he wit­nessed in high school, one of those quick hot protest brush fires that in- volved stu­dents, out­siders, a po­lice­man Schiff knew as Joe the cop — an ev­ery­thing-but-the-kitchen-sink melee.

“I’m not even sure what the is­sue is,” Schiff says he was think­ing as the fra­cas grew de­spite a foggy agenda. “If it’s ‘Pigs Off Cam­pus!’ I’m vot­ing to keep Joe, ’cause Joe’s a good guy.”

When the New York Times re­ported the story, Schiff says, “They did not get one — not one — de­tail cor­rect.” The up­shot: He hasn’t read the Times in 41 years, and ut­terly dis­trusts the main­stream me­dia.

Was that sus­pi­cion in Toby Ziegler’s bones?

“Yeah, I was al­lowed to bring a lot of my­self to that char­ac­ter,” Schiff says, and this leads to a Dee Dee My­ers story. Con­sult­ing for “The West Wing,” the former Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion press sec­re­tary told him about shar­ing her views in the Oval Of­fice and be­ing stunned the next day when she saw her sug­ges­tion, which had been picked up by the pres­i­dent, as pol­icy head­lines.

“I took that on,” Schiff says. “If I had that job, I’d be walking around with the world on my shoul­ders. It would feel like a very, very heavy bur­den. That’s one rea­son Toby be­came darker and more com­plex. Had I known the show was go­ing to last seven years, I think I would have made him fun­nier.”

“I’m a lit­tle sur­prised that the next gen­er­a­tion, I’m still hear­ing, ‘You’re the rea­son why I’m do­ing this’, ” he says.

Po­lit­i­cal dra­mas and come­dies were rare when “The West Wing” launched in 1999; now they’re a genre. Schiff still con­trib­utes: He’s ex­ec­u­tive-pro­duc­ing and guest-star­ring in an on­line drama “Chas­ing the Hill” that features such real-life play­ers as former gov­er­nors Gray Davis of Cal­i­for­nia and Ed Ren­dell of Penn­syl­va­nia. As he cam­paigned for Joe Bi­den in 2008, he met young foot sol­diers work­ing for Bi­den, Hil­lary Clin­ton and Barack Obama who said that the show had turned them on. He talks like an ac­tivist, so its fit­ting that as he speaks a TV broad­casts the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee hear­ing a few blocks away as Hil­lary Clin­ton tes­ti­fies on Beng­hazi. Even­tu­ally, though, Richard Schiff pleads guilty to be­ing an ac­tor.

“I be­came very acutely aware of what hap­pens to the soul of peo­ple when do­ing ‘ The West Wing,’ ” he says. “C-SPAN be­came my chan­nel. I was study­ing th­ese peo­ple, be­cause that’s what I do. What I say about pol­i­tics is for the most part ir­rel­e­vant, be­cause I’m really not an ex­pert at it. But I study be­hav­ior.”

A few min­utes later he’s hav­ing a cig­a­rette out­side and de­scrib­ing the chal­lenge of re­hears­ing “Hughie” by day and per­form­ing “Glen­garry” at night — his New York rou­tine for sev­eral weeks.

“I couldn’t dream ‘ Hughie,’ be­cause the last thing I did at night was ‘Glen­garry,’ ” he ex­plains. “Dream­ing, I think, is a big part of the process. It gets it into your blood. So last night was the first night I dreamt about ‘Hughie.’ ”

MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASHINGTON POST

FROM ‘WEST WING’ TO PENN QUAR­TER: Richard Schiff, who got fa­mous play­ing a po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive on TV, is tack­ling O’Neill (Eu­gene, not Tip) in Shake­speare The­atre’s “Hughie.”

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