Toy biz to show biz

After surviving a rigorous set of auditions, aspiring actor Charlie Robinson landed a role on a new television series. He spent 15 weeks on set filming the series, making more money than he had ever made before. Then Robinson went back to his job as a security guard for the Mattel toy company. His agent called him, found out he still was working as a security guard, and said, incredulously, "You're still at Mattel?! You don't need to be at Mattel. You just did a series."

Robinson returned to the toy company twice after spending weeks acting in television episodes for the short-lived but critically acclaimed series "Buffalo Bill."

He finally left his security guard job for good when he landed the role of court clerk Mac Robinson on the NBC comedy hit "Night Court" — a role he kept for eight years before the series ended in 1992.

During an interview in Ashland's downtown Starbucks, Robinson said that he kept working as a security guard for so long because of the inherent instability of show business.

The level-headedness and strong work ethic he displayed so early in his career still is with him today, even after decades of roles in film, television and on stage.

"You have to find a way to do as much work as you can," Robinson said. "I do it to learn and to grow."

He has appeared in everything from the television comedy "My Name is Earl" to the HBO drama "Big Love" to the film "Apocalypse Now."

He still gets recognized on the street for his role in "Night Court," although in Ashland, he's more likely to get stopped by people who have seen him this year in Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions of "Love's Labor's Lost" and "The African Company Presents Richard III."

Normally a Los Angeles resident, Robinson is staying in Ashland during the OSF season.

In "The African Company Presents Richard III," he plays Papa Shakespeare, a former slave who offers guidance to a troupe of free black actors in New York City in the early 1800s.

The actors must deal with the cutthroat tactics of Stephen Price — the powerful white manager of the rival Park Theatre — who will stop at nothing to destroy the fledgling acting company.

Based on a real story, the play ends on an inspiring note.

That uplifting ending is far different than the devastating finale of another play that starred Robinson.

In 2010 at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, Robinson co-starred as Simon, a newly emancipated slave in 1865 Virginia, for the searing play "The Whipping Man."

Raised in the Jewish faith by his Jewish masters, Simon tries to hold the black and white members of the household together as a single family, while waiting for the return of its missing members who have been scattered by the Civil War. He knows the secrets of the intermingled blood lines of the former slaves and the owner family.

When a white family member straggles home with a gangrenous foot after serving as a Confederate soldier, Simon helps him.

But Simon's faith in family and forgiveness is destroyed when he discovers his former master has sold his beloved wife and daughter into slavery in the Deep South, where word of the war's end has not yet penetrated.

Robinson said "The Whipping Man" was psychologically difficult for actors and audience members.

"You walk away, and you're in pain," he said.

Robinson's work in the play was so powerful that in August, the Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People named him as the best lead male actor in a 2010 play.

Robinson didn't attend the Los Angeles awards ceremony himself because of his commitment to his OSF roles, but his wife and young son attended, with the 11-year-old boy accepting the award on his father's behalf.

While the harrowing play itself offered little hope, Robinson said: "The feeling I got from it at the end was that if there was anything positive about it, the play at least showed where our country has come because of what happened in the past. We have grown. We have more room to grow."

Although Robinson has an attitude of gratefulness for the many roles he has had in his long career, his time spent playing Simon was an especially moving experience.

"I was fortunate to play that role," he said. "It was a great, great part."

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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