— Julius Caesar
(One month prior to “The Ides of March,” as quoted by Suetonius, 44 BC)
When a co-editor reminded me 24 hours earlier that last Thursday was “The Ides of March,” I’m sure the smirk on my face was as illuminating as a full moon on a chilly autumn eve.
Those four words revived laughable memories of a high school auditorium stage some 41 years ago. It was the day a run-of-the-mill, 16-year-old English major — who also dabbled in science, math and foreign language — ran afoul of all that is reasonably expected in sound acting.
As a junior at Collierville High School over on the state’s western end, probably in 1971, my short-lived career as thespian was exactly that — short and unappreciated, for inarguably humanitarian reasons.
Never a card-carrying member of the CHS Drama Club, I nonetheless found myself cast in promising roles in a pair of stage performances held under the guise of class projects. One production was “Twelve Angry Men,” performed by our Honors English class. The other was “Julius Caesar,” pulled together in an inaugural course called “American Studies” which combined one part literature with one part history and another part English.
Because the theatrical production took place more than four decades ago, some of my recollections could be errant — not by design but due mostly to age, time and personal remorse that I ever agreed to attempt such stage antics. But in school, one had to produce in order to make the grade. And that often meant stepping outside one’s comfort zone. Had Hollywood actor George Clooney attended either production as a child, he might today be a bricklayer instead.
In “Twelve Angry Men,” I played Juror No. 3. Yes, I was the bad guy. Originally, I was cast as Juror No. 8, the good guy. But our English teacher and class adviser, Mrs. Dorothy Hale, had difficulty finding a suitable actor for the Number 3 role. Because it was an all-male cast, she sought the assistance of the female students in selecting Juror No. 3.
They selected me.
“But I’m already Number 8,” I pleaded. “I’m the good guy. I’m not mean.”
“It’s not about what you are, Ricky,” Mrs. Hale interpreted on behalf of the classroom ladies. “It’s about what we need you to become.”
“You want me to be mean, a low-down varmint?” I asked.
“We want you to be Juror No. 3 ... because we know you have the talent to fill the role of being mean,” she clarified. “It doesn’t mean you’re really mean.”
“What about the low-down varmint part?” I quizzed.
“You may be a varmint as well,” she smiled. “And you may make it as low-down as you’d like. Besides, it’s just acting. We know in real life you’re a sweetheart.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed. “But I’ll be mean ... just this once. And just you for, Mrs. Hale.”
Because I sounded like Eddie Haskell, the girls in the class booed.
Little did Mrs. Hale know I had a boyhood crush on her like nobody’s business. If this lady had suggested I walk across hot embers in bare feet, I would have asked, “How many times?”
So I became Juror No. 3. And classmate James Hughes was finally tabbed Juror No. 8, the good guy. James really was a good guy, but a little too quiet for this kind of play acting. In our stage interactions, my outspoken ways as Number 3 overshadowed James’ renditions as Number 8. Mrs. Hale advised I needed to take it down a notch.
“But you told me I had to be mean ... and a varmint,” I pouted.
“You can be mean,” she corrected, “But not so loudly. You’re scaring poor James.”
I frowned. But it was Mrs. Hale. So I acquiesced.
The production went on. I was one bad dude and quite prone to varmint ways, but in keeping with the play’s theme, I lost my cause. James, the good guy, ruled the day.
My next big casting assignment was as Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor with skinny legs, and a fetish for big swords, fast chariots and pretty maidens.
Unlike Juror No. 3 who lost but lived, my newest gig meant I had to lose again but die. Yet I had a great line, the one destined to bring the house down ... if only I had remembered to say it.
It happened during rehearsal.
In the final scene, as the villainous conspirators closed around me with their daggers of wrong-doing, I assumed a defensive posture of arms up and folded to protect my face. Mrs. Hale had not gone into great detail in posturing my collapse. So I improvised. As the traitors stabbed at me in countless death swings (history later recorded I was punctured 23 times; you’d think responsible assassins would get it right on the first plunge), I screeched once, then twice, stooped forward and fell to my knees, finally coming to rest on my back spread eagle like a disgraced mannequin.
“Et tu, Brute!” came a harsh whisper from the wing.
Because I was dead, I pretended not to hear.
“Et tu, Brute!” Mrs. Hale’s voice sounded again. “Ricky, you forgot to say your line!”
“My line?” I quizzed, lifting my head. “Oh yeah!”
Springing to my feet, I invited the loathsome attackers to resume their assault. At just the appropriate moment, I roared, “Et tu, Brute!” It was a declaration of death like none other, one that left our small audience in tears; at least, those who hadn’t fallen from their seats in laughter.
In spite of the forgotten words in rehearsal, I aced that course.
Mrs. Hale obviously appreciated my demise.
Or perhaps it was just boyish charm.