Checking In With… Tony Nominee Lee Wilkof, Star of Little Shop of Horrors, Kiss Me, Kate, More

Interview   Checking In With… Tony Nominee Lee Wilkof, Star of Little Shop of Horrors, Kiss Me, Kate, More
 
The stage and screen star opens up about his recent cancer diagnosis.
Lee Wilkof
Lee Wilkof

As the temporary shutdown of Broadway and theatres around the world continues, Playbill is reaching out to artists to see how they are physically and creatively responding to a changed world.

The series continues with Lee Wilkof, who created the role of Seymour in the original Off Broadway company of Little Shop of Horrors and received a 2000 Tony Award nomination for his work in the revival of Kiss Me, Kate. Wilkof has also starred on Broadway in Holiday Inn, Waitress, Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Odd Couple, Democracy, The Boys From Syracuse, She Loves Me, The Front Page, and Sweet Charity as well as the City Center Encores! productions of Little Me and Do Re Mi, while his Off-Broadway credits include Socrates, Grand Concourse, The Underpants, Chaucer in Rome, Mizlansky/Zilinsky, June Moon, Names, Golden Boy, Assassins, Born Guilty, and Angry Housewives. He received Drama Desk nominations for his work in Kiss Me, Kate, Assassins, and The Present Tense and nabbed an Obie Award for his work in the latter as well. Wilkof's screen credits include The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; No Pay, Nudity; Alpha House; High Maintenance; Dark Horse; Ally McBeal; Law & Order; Addicted to Love; Private Parts; This Boy's Life; and Everything's Jake.

READ: Checking In With… Jagged Little Pill Tony Nominee Lauren Patten

Lee Wilkof and Ellen Greene in <i>Little Shop of Horrors</i>
Lee Wilkof and Ellen Greene in Little Shop of Horrors Peter Cunningham

What is your typical day like now?
My typical day changed drastically mid-October. I was diagnosed with throat cancer and began a six-week regimen of radiation treatments at the James Cancer Center here in Columbus, Ohio, where I have been since February. Now that the treatments have ended, I had a period of two-to-three weeks in which the radiation still is in my system and various side affects persist. When I was first diagnosed, my wonderful doctor told me my main job was “to eat as much as you’d like, as often as possible.” I responded, “That’s been my job my whole life.” He also mentioned it was likely I might lose my sense of taste. The great irony being I could eat as much as I like for the first time in years, but couldn’t taste it. Before this diagnosis, my typical day consisted of early morning exercise on my recumbent bicycle, playing my daily word games to keep the brain working, working on some Zoom readings (AnySongProductions.com), watching some great TV and some dreck TV. And some pretty fine films.

What book/TV show/podcast/film should everyone take the time to consume during this period?
At the top of my list, whenever I am asked to recommend a book, there is a novel by John Williams called Stoner I mention. I read it at least twice a year, and each time it is like the first time I’ve read it. It is a book of gentle beauty and is filled with disappointments in a man’s life, along with tender moments of fleeting ecstasy. I would feel bereft if I had never found it. And, I believe I’m perhaps a better man/actor for having found it. There are a few films I have watched over and over during the pandemic…. Ida, Ex Machina, Drive, Border, Ronin. All very different. All, in my opinion, very powerful with strong performances, which is always foremost for me. There is a podcast I’ve listened to and also will be heard on called Backstage Babble, hosted by an amazing 13-year-old young man, Charles Kirsch. The kid knows his stuff and is a mensch. Also a podcast filled with wit and surprises called Go Fact Yourself. Worth a listen. I also always recommend to young actors I work with to read A Life by Elia Kazan. A long, great read in which one can decide for themselves his politics and decisions. Regardless how one feels, worth the time.

Lee Wilkof and Michael Mulheren in <i>Kiss Me, Kate</i>, 1999
Lee Wilkof and Michael Mulheren in Kiss Me, Kate, 1999 Joan Marcus

What advice would you give to someone who may be struggling with the isolation and/or the current unrest?
The advice I’d give to anyone struggling with isolation during this time is something an old friend of mine gave me when I told him about my cancer diagnosis (he was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer some years back and has recovered beautifully). He said there would be days when I might feel like I was dying (true), and to know that was not real. But, most importantly, he told me to “accept and adjust.” And, boy was he on the nose. Once I realized that embracing the circumstances I was in rather than denying them, and then figuring out how to navigate the moment without self-pity or shame, and realizing I was not alone, I have been able (most of the time) to get through this difficult time with gratitude for all that I have. Gratitude for my loving family and friends. Gratitude even for the cancer.

Are you working on any theatrical projects during this time?
My focus, frankly, has been on my health these last few months. Now that the healing is at hand, I am getting back to seeking out the few projects that offer employment, getting back to writing (I’m trying to direct another film), and letting the community know I’m looking forward to rejoining the real world. I love acting. I love being an actor. I miss it. I miss the community of actors who bring me so much joy. Hopefully in some months sanity will return, and we’ll slowly find our way back from the darkness.

What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
The organizations that stand for the members of the theatre and film community mean so much to so many of us. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, The Actors Fund, the Motion Picture & Television Fund. Check them out. They are there for those of us in need.

READ: Checking In With… Kyle Scatliffe, Star of To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamilton, Les Misérables, More

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