Honoring ‘the American Olivier:’ IU Alumnus Kevin Kline

IU Auditorium
Bloomington, Indiana
September 15, 2014

The American Olivier

Nearly 30 years ago, relatively early in Kevin Kline’s career, Frank Rich, who was at that time the principal theatre critic of The New York Times, called our guest of honor, Kevin Kline, “the pride of the American theater—a homegrown actor who might yet be our Olivier …a show business star who has never misplaced either his devotion to the stage or his integrity.”1

Decades later, Mr. Kline— still often referred to as “the American Olivier”— is widely considered to be one of the pre-eminent American stage and screen actors of his generation. By virtue of his extraordinary talent, versatility, and artistic integrity, he continues to be held in the highest esteem by audiences around the world, by film and theatre critics and scholars, by his fellow actors, and by leading film and stage directors.

Discovering One’s Passion: Kevin Kline At Indiana University

Not only did Mr. Kline’s illustrious acting career begin here at Indiana University, it quite literally began in this very building, in what was then the University Theatre, now the home of IU’s fabulous Cinema.

Mr. Kline came to IU Bloomington as an aspiring concert pianist, drawn here by the outstanding reputation of what is now the Jacobs School of Music, where he studied composing and conducting. He has said that, in the School of Music, he found himself surrounded by prodigious musical geniuses who had been playing since they were five. “I could see my future,” he said in an interview with the Indiana University Alumni Magazine, “and it was not terribly illustrious as a conductor or composer or pianist.”2

Mr. Kline had, however, always wanted to try acting. While still a music major, he enrolled in an acting class to further explore his interest. A little later, intending only to observe, he went to an audition for a production of what, in deference to the traditions of the theatre, I refer to only as Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play.” The director, Professor Bill Kinzer,3 spotted young Mr. Kline and told him it was his turn to read for a part. Mr. Kline demurred, saying he was only there to observe. Professor Kinzer asked his name, and after Mr. Kline replied, said: “and now, by special request, Kevin Kline will read the part of Duncan.”4 

He did indeed read, and was cast as the “bleeding sergeant,” who early in the play, recounts Macbeth’s valor in battle.

And the rest is history.

Mr. Kline’s passion for acting continued to grow. He changed his major from music to theatre and went on to perform in IU productions in the University Theatre and at the Brown County Playhouse, IU’s former summer stock theatre in Nashville, Indiana.

He was also one of the co-founders of the Vest Pocket Players, a student-managed and -directed theatre group that performed improvisational sketches at The Owl, which was then a Bloomington coffeehouse.5

The summer between his freshman and sophomore years, he performed on the Showboat Majestic, a riverboat, which, through much of the 1960s, took IU theatre productions to audiences along the Ohio River. Mr. Kline has called that summer “the most wonderful and magical summer of (his) life.”6

A Distinguished Stage Career

After graduating from IU, Mr. Kline enrolled in the then newly established drama division of The Julliard School, and was one of the members of its first graduating class.

After completing his studies at Julliard, he became a founding member of The Acting Company, co-founded by the legendary John Houseman. In his four years with the company, Mr. Kline and his colleagues travelled the country by bus, performing works by Chekov, Shakespeare, post-restoration plays, and contemporary classics of the theatre. 

A short time later, he was cast as the preposterously vain matinee idol, Bruce Granit, in the Broadway production of On the Twentieth Century—a role for which he earned a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. 

Shortly thereafter, he was cast by legendary producer Joseph Papp as the Pirate King in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance at New York’s Public Theatre. That production, captured in a wonderful film version, subsequently moved to Broadway, where Mr. Kline’s magnificent performance earned him another Tony Award, for Best Actor in a Musical. 

Actor and director Robby Benson, who is a professor of practice in IU’s new Media School, and his now-wife, Karla DeVito, both joined the Broadway cast of The Pirates of Penzance. The two of them have since been close friends of Mr. Kline’s and will introduce him after this ceremony as he engages in conversation with Professor Jonathan Michaelson, chair of the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance. And we extend our thanks to Professor Benson for helping to arrange Mr. Kline’s visit. 

The production of The Pirates of Penzance, was, of course, just the beginning of Mr, Kline’s longstanding affiliation with Joseph Papp and The Public Theatre. He would go on to play lead roles in outstanding productions of Richard III, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, two productions of Hamlet, and King Lear.

In 2006, he appeared in the Public Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children with Meryl Streep, who, of course, received an honorary IU degree earlier this year.

Kevin Kline on Film: An Actor’s Actor

The accomplishments I have already mentioned constitute a career of which most actors can only dream, and I have barely touched upon Mr. Kline’s thriving career in film.

Director Alan Pakula, who had seen Mr. Kline’s marvelous performance in The Pirates of Penzance, cast him as the troubled and volatile Nathan Landau in Sophie’s Choice, with Meryl Streep. His marvelous performance, in what was his first film, earned him Golden Globe and BAFTA award nominations. 

He has worked steadily since, appearing in nearly 50 films, including Life as a House, Silverado, Cry Freedom—my favorite of his films, Dave, In and Out, and the classic, The Big Chill, where Mr. Kline met his wife, actress Phoebe Cates, when she was auditioning for the film.

In De-Lovely, Mr. Kline made excellent use of his piano skills in his portrayal of Indiana native, Cole Porter. And, of course, he won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Otto in the acclaimed comedy, A Fish Called Wanda, a film considered by many to be among the greatest comedies of all time.

He has also brought his talents as a classical actor to the screen, appearing as Bottom and Jacques in screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It.  

As Mary Maher wrote in her book, Actors Talk About Shakespeare, “Kevin Kline has elements of the mystic about him. …In film roles remarkable for their range, (he) became known as an actor’s actor who defies type and established the guts of each role, refusing to repeat or stereotype himself.”7

Mr. Kline will, for many years to come, continue to be celebrated not only for his timeless cinematic performances and his unparalleled artistry, but also for a career that has defied conventions.

Conclusion: “A Charmed Actor’s Life”

As Lawrence Kasdan, who has directed Mr. Kline in no fewer than six films, once said: "Kevin has had a really charmed actor's life. He has gone back to the theatre repeatedly, [and] he works in the movies when he wants to. It's an old, civilized idea of an acting career, which is that you do a variety of parts. You are not famous for your personality,” Mr. Kasdan said, “you are famous for your portrayals.”8

Through the conferral of on honorary degree upon Mr. Kline today, we acknowledge and recognize that the extraordinary portrayals for which he is famous constitute major contributions to the craft of acting and, in a broader sense, advancements of American culture.

And we are extremely proud that it all began here at Indiana University.

Source Notes

  1. Frank Rich, “Stage View: A Heroic Hamlet That Might Have Been Outstanding,” The New York Times, March 30, 1986. 
  2. Kurt Anthony Krug, “The American Olivier,” Indiana Alumni Magazine, Fall 2011, 33.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ross Wetzsteon, “Kevin Can Wait,” New York Magazine, May 10, 1993, 42.
  5. David Lindquist, “Kevin Kline Returns to IU, Where His Acting Began,” Indianapolis Star, September 12, 2014.
  6. Wetzsteon, 42.
  7. Mary Z. Maher, Actors Talk about Shakespeare,  (Hal Leonard Corporation, 2009), xv, 3. 
  8. Sheila Johnston, “Kevin Kline: A Real Smoothie,” The Observer, November 2, 1995.