Acting the Part
Covington's Bob Elkins, a seasoned actor for nearly 50 years, plays his parts well, as a radio DJ, German admiral, mobster, mountain man, homeless man, George Washington's interpreter, and nosy neighbor
Bob Elkins. The name might not ring an immediate bell, but chances are, you’ve seen him. In a career that’s spanned nearly 50 years, the 72-year-old Covington-based actor has appeared in some 70 plays and nearly 20 films.
Remember DJ Bobby Day in Coal Miner’s Daughter, the one who brushes Sissy Spacek’s Loretta Lynn off with a fib—telling her with a twangy drawl, sandwich in hand, that he got her first record and played it, “and it just sort of laid right there”? That’s Bob.
Or how about Mr. Mayhew, one of the fathers of a trapped miner in the 2002 ABC docudrama Pennsylvania Miner’s Story? Or German Admiral Gunther Lutjens in James Cameron’s Expedition: Bismarck, a Discovery Channel documentary? They’re Bob, too. And if you’ve caught any repertory theater in northern Kentucky or the greater Cincinnati area in the past, there’s a good chance you may have seen Bob.
Earlier this spring, Elkins was in the midst of a 70-hour work week, shooting a Cincinnati film called The Greater Good, in which he plays a mobster, and squeezing in another play on the side. He was in his element, with no signs of slowing down.
“Retirement? I don’t know what that means,” Elkins laughs. “When you’re there, you give yourself over to the project, and you don’t think about sleeping. That comes later. For me, acting is just something I can’t stay away from. It’s my passion.”
To Covington & Back Again
Elkins didn’t always know acting was to be his calling, though. Born in West Virginia, Bob lived there and in Muncie, Indiana, with his parents and two sisters before the family settled in Covington when he was 12.
That year, his father walked out on them, and his mom and sisters took jobs to support the family. Left to his own diversions, Elkins found solace in the movie theater. “I always enjoyed going to the movies as a little kid. And I never stopped. I still see eight to 10 movies a month,” Elkins says.
But even as the images on the screen captivated him, the idea of becoming an actor never entered his mind then, he says. Hanging out with a rough crowd and dabbling in petty crime, he was struggling simply to keep from flunking out of Covington Holmes High School.
Elkins did graduate, and then joined the Navy—where he was diagnosed with dyslexia. The diagnosis helped turn things around. Friends from the Navy helped him improve his reading skills, and encouraged him to try out night school after his four years in the service. But it wasn’t until he saw an ad describing classes at Cincinnati’s former Eyer Acting Academy that Elkins felt he’d found his niche.
“Six or seven months later, I was doing summer stock,” he says. His first stage performance was in 1956, in the play Mister Roberts.
“As a dyslexic person, I had such a tough time in high school,” Elkins says. “But when I found acting—and it took me a while to realize this—one of the things I really liked about it is that five and two can be nine, it doesn’t have to be seven. Your interpretation is yours, and it’s true.”
Bitten by the acting bug, Elkins squeezed in performances when he could—“reading scripts on airplanes and rehearsing on weekends”—while raising a family of four kids and holding down day jobs in sales and management for a series of Cincinnati-area companies. He had worked his way up to assistant vice president at one, and then was lured away by another, smaller company, which worked around his acting schedule. “I had a really good job, making more money than I’d ever made in my life, and it was actor-friendly. Then, I just tossed it all over my shoulder and went to Orlando,” Elkins says.
Divorced and his kids grown, Elkins had decided it was time to give acting his full attention. He and an acting friend moved to Florida, thinking it was to be the “next Hollywood.” But Elkins found it “too commercial,” and quickly returned to Covington. He later gave Los Angeles a try, but good roles there were difficult to come by. He came back to Kentucky and now lives a block from the house where he grew up.
Ironically, Elkins says he’s finding more work as a northern Kentucky-based actor than he did in either Hollywood or Florida. A regular in Cincinnati-area independent films and stage productions, he also travels throughout the country to audition for national roles. To get the part in the James Cameron documentary, he dropped everything to drive 13 hours overnight to make the Wilmington, North Carolina, auditions the next morning.
“You have to work at it. You have to be willing to drive five hours for a five-minute audition,” Elkins says. “You get out of it what you put into it.”
And Elkins puts a lot into it. To prepare for a role, he reads a script at least five times. And then he deals with his fear. “People say, ‘You still get afraid?’ Yeah, I do,” he says. “Some folks are so relaxed and can get a beautiful performance. But that’s not me. I’m totally on the edge. So I have to accept the fear as a natural emotion, to take it in hand and say, ‘You’ve got to work for me.’” And then he “works the script inside out,” finding an emotional touchstone from which to base every aspect of his performance—right down to the character’s walk.
“Bob is the epitome of an actor. He can turn it off and on like water. When he’s ready to do a role, it’s ‘boom,’ he’s in character fully,” says Betty Schmalz, his fiancée. “He’s such a soulful actor, and that rubs off on everyone around him.”
“Bob has such genuine talent,” says his friend Duffy Hudson, a writer-actor-director in Cincinnati. “He’s honest and straightforward, the type of guy who feels like your friend as soon as you meet him.”
Hudson cast Elkins as Robert Dullard—a role he named for him—in his film Tattered Angel, which was shot in the Cincinnati area and will be shown publicly for the first time this month in Newport (see “Where to find Bob next”). As Dullard, Elkins plays a “nosy neighbor” in the vein of the Kravitzes from Bewitched in a film that is otherwise somewhat dark, Hudson says. “Bob understood that the character has limited intelligence, and he played it that way. He provides comic relief right at the moment the film needs it,” says Hudson.
Elkins stills dabbles in what he refers to as his “civilian” job, working part time in sales and marketing with Avenue Fabricating, in nearby Batavia, Ohio. And he regularly appears in commercials and corporate acting jobs for clients like Procter & Gamble.
Looking back, Elkins says he might have been further along in his career at this point if he hadn’t “blown a few opportunities.” Several movie offers came right after Coal Miner’s Daughter, but he didn’t pursue them in the midst of his divorce. Still, it’s clear in talking to him, the grandfather of nine feels like he’s already made it: he’s a working actor, with a supportive family, doing what he loves—and doing it well.
Finding a Destiny
Elkins’s portrayal of a homeless man in the Cincinnati independent film Homefree won him the Best Actor Award at the 2003 Dublin (Ireland) Film and Music Festival. Bob was so convincing, people kept coming up to writer-director Greg Newberry, asking him if he’d found the guy on the streets. Talk about becoming the part.
“Bob is an exceptional actor. He really puts the effort into understanding the character and what motivates the character, and how he can let that character live in him,” Newberry says.
Elkins, who began offering acting classes three years ago, tells his students something he was once taught: that “acting is about being very private in public.”
“It requires courage to reveal pieces of yourself,” he says. “The actor’s tool is who you are. You are unique, the sum total of all your experiences. If you allow the audience to see a bit of your inner sadness, that allows them to experience their own sadness, and blend it with yours. It’s a shared experience.”
In his acclaimed performance as the downtrodden homeless man, Alex, in Homefree, Bob declares, “I don’t have a destiny.” But in real life, it’s clear he does, and he’s living it.
CHATTING WITH BOB ELKINS
What is your favorite film?
“I like art-house movies, like Sideways, Million Dollar Baby, and Closer. My all-time favorite is La Strada (1954), with Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina, and Richard Basehart as the clown. I would have loved to play that role, I would have loved it with a passion.”
Who would you like to work with?
“I'd love to work with Michael Apted (director of Coal Miner's Daughter) again. He was just a gentleman. An artist and a professional. I'd also love to work for Francis Ford Coppola and Clint Eastwood. And I would have given anything to have worked with Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando.”
What was working with Sissy Spacek like?
“She never dropped out of character. When she improvised with me during breaks, I thought she was joking at first, and I did it (the DJ character) for a moment and kind of laughed, and then I realized she was serious, and it took me three or four minutes to catch up with her. I had never had that experience before. We were actually doing improv.“
What are your favorite roles you've done?
“One was in a play by Thom Atkinson called Clear Liquor and Coal Black Nights. I played one of three mountain men in a very dark mountain folk tale. And another was in a play called Hat Full of Rain, in which I played a minor character who has a beautiful speech about his dog that was run over by a car, and no one would pay any attention to it. And that sounds so simple, but I just saw a beauty in this guy. It's a very minor character, but I can never forget him.”
Do you prefer film or stage?
“My preference is film. But I do love the feel of an audience. Before a performance, I get to the theater early and go on stage and touch a prop or piece of furniture, just to feel the room that the audience will later share.”
WHERE TO FIND BOB NEXT
Bob Elkins will star in the play A Mime is a Terrible Thing to Waste by Cincinnati playwright Chuck Sambuchino as part of the Cincinnati Fringe Festival on June 1-12, www.cincyfringe.com.
In early 2006, he will appear as General Washington's interpreter in the opening scene of The War that Made America, a new PBS documentary miniseries about the French and Indian War, www.thewarthatmade america.org.
Tattered Angel is scheduled for a special public screening of the preliminary version on June 6 at the AMC Theatres at Newport-on-the-Levee. Elkins' publicist Fred Anderson says, “The June 6 screening will be a party, with several well-known actors in attendance. Tickets must be purchased in advance. Go to the Web to www.tatteredangel.com for ticket information.” The final cut of Tattered Angel will then be submitted later to film festivals, such as Sundance, explains Anderson.
Information about Elkins' acting classes for children and adults and his Reel Kids Summer Moviemaking Camp is available on his Web site at www.bobelkinsactor.com.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: HOW TO GET INTO ACTING
Want to know how you can become an actor, how to get training, find auditions, and much more? Click here: acting tips.