Victor Garber: The Greatest Actor You Don’t Know By Name
As I lean in to shake Victor Garber’s hand just prior to sitting down to lunch at the chic Manhattan outpost of celebrity magnet of a private club, Soho House, to discuss his starring role in NBC’s new soapy drama, Deception, it all comes back to me—the anxiety, the humiliation, the embarrassment—the moment that has replayed in my mind for a decade-and-a-half as a perpetual highlight reel and just won’t let go.
It all stems from the night I convinced myself that I unknowingly berated Garber, one of my all-time favorite actors, via hotel phone in Los Angeles. This singular moment in my life—a life filled with literally hundreds of amusing celebrity moments—has been fodder for many a cocktail party as “the” anecdote of choice and is so popular a retelling that this cautionary tale of hubris and humility has taken on near urban myth status among my friends. For years, this is what I heard within five minutes of entering a party: “Oh, Richard’s here—tell us that Victor Garber story again.” And now, with the man of the hour standing directly in front of me, I knew I had to come clean. But how?
In the mid-1990s, I was co-owner (with one of my closest friends, George) of a New York City-based magazine company that owned or managed more than a dozen titles. One of our biggest magazines had to be done from Los Angeles so, like clockwork, twice a month (every other Thursday until Sunday), George and I would book the same round trip flight (TWA), stay at the same boutique hotel in West Hollywood (Le Montrose) and always stay in the same rooms, mine being a floor directly below his. This routine became second nature to us after months then years of doing it.
Le Montrose was a curious spot because though it was no more than two short blocks from the center of the peripatetic activity that is Santa Monica boulevard, it remained largely unnoticed on a side residential street just far enough to make you believe that you were, in fact, “away from it all.” A winning combination to be sure and we weren’t the only ones who noticed. Le Montrose attracted a slew of superstar rappers and boy bands—several members of *NSync were my noisy neighbors several times—as well as about-to-be huge actors including the fabulous Christine Baranski in the midst of her Emmy Award-winning turn on Cybill, a pre-Sex in the City Chris “Mr. Big” Noth and, yes, one Victor Garber.
The weekend of my humiliation is unforgettable for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that before arriving in LA, I attended an advance screening of the movie everyone was talking about, Titanic, a full month before its national release. Garber was magnificent as the ill-fated ship’s chief architect, Thomas Andrews, and I was convinced that maybe now Garber would get his long-awaited big break.
OK, so on this particular weekend, George had to fly back to New York a day earlier than usual and I stayed for one more night. As I returned to the room on Saturday night prior to my departure early the next morning, I noticed that PBS was about to air a special concert by George’s favorite singer. Without thinking much about it, I dialed his hotel room and when he picked up the phone, I humorously (at least to me) faux screamed and scolded him about the looming televised event and that he “has to put it on right now because I don’t want to hear about how he missed it on the flight home” and on and on it went like that without so much a word out of him for three full minutes until I—thoroughly pleased with myself—hung up and went to take a shower. About four minutes later I was stricken as I realized that George had checked out 24 hours earlier and I had attacked some random hotel guest who had the misfortune of checking into George’s usual room. I called the front desk and they assured me that no one had complained and that there was no way for the room guest to figure out who had called. Crisis averted. Or so I thought.
At precisely 5 a.m. Sunday, I stepped into the elevator to see Victor Garber, who politely nodded, as we were the only two people apparently awake at that ungodly hour. As Garber checked out and I stepped up to do the same, I asked my friend behind the desk what Garber’s room number was, and—BAM!—just like that, he confirmed my worst fear: Garber was in George’s room and it was him I had berated the night before. I was mortified.
As Garber and I waited outside the hotel’s front door for our respective town cars in the not unpleasant November chill, I conjured up this entire apology in my head and as I turned to face my humiliation, something else entirely popped out of my mouth. I froze and, with another wry smile, Victor Garber was gone. My devastation was now complete. I sat in the back of the car and could feel my face turning red with embarrassment. As I called George and told him my tale of woe, he roared with laughter and said “it serves you right for trying to berate me in the first place.” Anyway, for the next 15 years, I couldn’t see Victor Garber or hear his name without automatically feeling flushed from this horrific memory.
Now, as we settled in to the plush booth, menus in hand, I confessed my sin to Garber. As I prattled on convinced I was doing a succinct job of explaining my epic fable, the actor looked at me and with the sweetest smile I had ever seen anyone give me said, “I don’t remember that at all, Richard.” What?!
At that moment I had to decipher if Garber was trying to brush away such a traumatic, if comical, event to spare me any more pain or if he, in fact, had no earthly idea what I was talking about. I think the latter is true and am now convinced that my friend behind the desk at Le Montrose was having a bit of fun at my expense. So in telling Victor Garber my humiliating Victor Garber story, Victor Garber has now provided me with yet another Victor Garber humiliating story. Irony doesn’t begin to cover it and I now believe in curses. Damn.
Garber is tall—standing well over six feet—and, at 63, undeniably movie star handsome. But what overwhelms the space you inhabit with the actor can only be described as kindness: His brown eyes envelop you with understanding. His firm handshake is welcoming. His body language is that of a close friend. Yes, he’s tall and good looking, but what comes across loud and clear is that this man is at peace with himself, with his surroundings, with his life. So few people—let alone celebrities—give off such incredible generosity of spirit because they simply don’t have it to give. Victor Garber does. And it suits him beautifully.
Victor Garber was one of three siblings born in London, Ontario (120 miles from Toronto), to parents of Russian-Jewish descent. Though he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 12, there was little doubt Garber was on the fast track to greatness and fame. He started acting professionally while still at Ryerson Elementary School and at 16 he was accepted at the prestigious summer theater program at the university of Toronto’s hart house taught by Robert Gill. Rut Garber’s career trajectory took a curious turn as he began performing as a folk singer and later became a founding member of The Sugar Shoppe, a folk group that had some success on the music charts and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. But it was acting—particularly on the stage—that would soon become Garber’s true love. After graduating from the university of Toronto, Garber wowed audiences and critics as “Jesus” in the legendary Canadian stage production of Godspell in 1972 that featured superstars-to-be Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy. Oh, yes, Mr. Garber was well on his way.
As one of the busiest working actors on stage, film and television, Garber is also one of the most beloved. I’ve never heard a negative syllable uttered about Garber in my decades of interviewing and socializing with actors and the bold-faced name crowd. Not one. Ever. It’s as if a talented, self-deprecating Gandhi had reincarnated as Garber. He’s that beloved by his peers.
His performances are as indelible as his choices: For every turn in Hollywood blockbusters The First Wives Club, Sleepless In Seattle or Legally Blonde there are his Tony award-nominated Broadway portrayals in Deathtrap, Little Me, Lend Me A Tenor and Damn Yankees. On television, his commanding interpretation of “Daddy Warbucks” in Annie, “Sidney Luft” in Judy Garland: Me And My Shadows and “Mayor Shinn” in The Music Man continued the irreverent streak of success. But it was his role in director James Cameron’s colossal life changing film, Titanic, that catapulted Garber to fame. Then, Alias.
In what arguably became the defining role of his professional life thus far, Garber played mysterious (is he a good guy guy?) “Jack Bristow” in the smash ABC series Alias for half a decade beginning in 2001. That series—created by JJ Abrams (Felicity, Lost, Revolution)—introduced the world to Jennifer Garner as kickass CIA undercover operative, “Sydney Bristow.” Not only did Garber grab a career-making role with Alias, he met his dear friend for life in Garner. Their father/daughter affection for each other was palpable on screen and evident off it. You won’t find a bigger fan of Victor Garber in Hollywood than Jennifer Garner.
As impressive as Garber’s body of work is—and even with the heavy armload of Tony and Emmy nominations, he’s unbelievably yet to win one—it’s his current acting choices that are perhaps the most interesting. His laugh-out-loud work as Lisa Kudrow’s politician husband on Showtime’s improvised hit Web Therapy is appointment television as much as there is such a thing any more. As Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor in Ben Affleck’s Golden Globe winning film, Argo, Garber brings a nervy gravitas to the role that is hard to shake even days after seeing the movie. And, now, as the patriarch in the addictive Dynasty-meets-Revenge hit, Deception, Garber is spellbinding and very clearly at the top of his game. The fact that he gets to occasionally play in the same tit-for-tat schoolyard as fellow thespian dynamo John Larroquette in the drama is just catnip for true acting fans, me very much among them.
Back at Soho House, as we peruse our menus, Garber and I are making amusing small talk (“kale is the new black”) and I suddenly realize that this affable man’s big three adjectives—adjectives that would define most people—don’t come into play at all. The fact that he’s Canadian, of Jewish descent and has a long-term life partner, the celebrated painter and model Rainer Andreesen, are completely beside the point. In very real ways, my own big adjectives are so much more front-and-center than Garber’s it makes me take immediate stock and ask why. Garber resists labels because he’s an actor who won’t be weighed down by them. The reason I think Garber is so damn good at his craft—and perhaps why he gets enough credit to be nominated, but not enough to win major awards—is the dreaded “is it really acting if it’s so believable?” mentality. The answer is, of course, yes it is and Victor Garber has the gift-cum-curse he shares with many Hollywood titans including Cary Grant, Paul Newman and Robert Redford: They make acting look too easy. And it’s not.
As we begin the interview in earnest—and an animated Mr. Garber is recounting yet another “truly wonderful” work experience—I become acutely aware that this is the same actor who so captivated me in Gus Van Sant’s Milk (among my favorite films ever), in ABC’s cult favorite Eli Stone and on Broadway in the gripping play Arcadia. As different as those roles were, Garber owned them with muscular gusto. As he was speaking all I kept thinking was: How is this attractive, ridiculously gifted, incredibly beloved man not among the most famous actors on the planet? If this cover story you’re reading can move the needle even an inch to help recognize the massive achievement that has defined Garber’s life, then I’m happy. After all, I’ve had 15 years to think about how I was going to make it up to him, even if he says it never actually happened.
To witness a typical Victor Garber performance is to be transported via scorching authenticity into the core of his character’s soul. You just have to let go and enjoy the ride. Oh, and tell your friends about this late bloomer you just discovered, this gift from the acting gods. For what it’s worth, I, too, am thrilled to have experienced a memorable Victor Garber performance during lunch just for me. It simply doesn’t get any better than that. Watch Deception. You’ll see what I mean.
What do you make of your unofficial title “nicest working actor in Hollywood?”
I’m doing everything I can to change it! [Laughs] I was just brought up well. At work, my priority is to treat everyone the same. I can’t work if there’s tension—it’s just who I am. My parents were advanced in the way that they treated absolutely everyone equally, something I’m quite happy I inherited.
When people recognize you on the street, what role do they say they know you from?
Titanic, hands down. Even this morning the refrigerator repairman recognized me from Titanic. It’s pretty constant.
Do you consider yourself a stage, film or television actor?
I come from the stage—that’s where I learned to do what I do—and it’s my first love. I didn’t have a career master plan; I just wanted to do interesting work. So I guess my master plan was to be as diversified as possible, something I’ve done my entire career.
What’s the one thing you know to be true today that you didn’t know when you were, say, all of 25?
Life is fast. During the AIDS pandemic I saw how short life can be. I lost so many friends to AIDS. That’s why I consider people who have a sense of entitlement offensive, frankly. There are many examples of that in life. For me, my work with charities for juvenile diabetes and Alzheimer’s is central to who I am.
As the billionaire patriarch in Deception, do you prefer being compared to Blake Carrington from Dynasty or the corrupt CEO guy from current hit Revenge?
I’ll take either one. [Laughs] The truth is, there’s nothing original—it’s a new show for me because I’ve never done a show like this. I think the rich family drama and the financial corruption make great television. I have to tell you, Richard, I’m having a lot of fun.
How do you prepare yourself to portray a ruthless billionaire?
I’m able to inhabit characters because I understand that I can’t control any of it. I work hard and I rely on the audience to have a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief. In Deception, being on the luxurious set and in rich man’s clothes helps as well.
Tell me about growing up in Ontario, Canada.
Growing up in London and visiting Toronto often, I knew I was going to be in music—that was what I was going to do. With the folk group The Sugar Shoppe we got on the music charts, but by the time I was 18 my dream became to be on Broadway. I knew that was where I belonged, but I had to figure out exactly how I was going to get there.
So what brought you to New York?
When I was cast in the movie version of the musical Godspell, it brought me to New York. It’s in that city I felt most like me. I still feel that way. What an incredible privilege it is to call New York City home.
Are you actually the busiest working actor in Hollywood?
Oh God, no! [Laughs] I’ve had a long, odd career. I’m not quite a star, but I’ve had the most interesting roles. I do work a lot, but not nearly as much as some other people.
Is this your moment right now?
It’s definitely one of my best moments, but I’ve had so many best moments I couldn’t even begin to count them. I’m lucky because I have a great relationship, I have a great house and I have my health.
Speaking of great relationships, you’ve been in one for nearly a decade- and-a-half. Tell me, what’s the secret?
It’s all about learning to love someone as they really are.
You’ve been nominated for a whopping six Emmy’s and four Tony’s yet have never won. Which would be sweeter to finally win?
It is lovely to be acknowledged but, sure, I’d like to win one someday.
Let’s talk about some of your most memorable roles. Titanic.
I was the very last person cast in the film. I was playing Macbeth in San Diego and after it closed, I drove to Tijuana (Mexico) to the set of the movie and met one of the most demanding directors, Jim Cameron. He’s a real director—know what I mean? Kate [Winslet] and Leo [DiCaprio] were a dream. I feel so privileged to be part of that movie; it literally changed my life.
I absolutely love Reese Witherspoon and I continue to be simply astonished by her professionalism.
I loved the script, and Jennifer [Garner] had something to do with this. Argo was undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life. The fun I had bonding with Ben [Affleck] on screen and watching him work on set every day as the director was incredible. I loved the entire experience.
Now one of my personal favorites: Eli Stone.
It was gone way too soon. I loved that show. Truly.
Web Therapy—is it as much fun to do as it looks?
Absolutely! It couldn’t be more fun.
Turning to Broadway, how was Present Laughter?
It’s easily one of the great experiences of my life. I had so much fun.
Is there a film role you didn’t get that you really wanted?
Yes, Les Mis.
Is there a role you passed on that you regretted later?
None. I’m so picky about what I do that I do only what I want to do.
Describe the perfect day.
This one so far is pretty good. [Laughs] My good friend Matthew Broderick and I often walk along Hudson River Park before grabbing lunch in Greenwich Village and maybe seeing a play later that night and having a late supper. I’m blessed to know some of the most wonderful people in the world. I try to live by the thought that humor is the antidote to pain.
What’s your biggest fear?
Health is my biggest concern by far. Since I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a child—and my parents both died from Alzheimer’s—I’m acutely aware of my health.
I like to be comfortable and, on that front, I’m very fortunate. I have my life, my health, my home upstate (New York)—I have enough. I don’t believe in having it all. I have enough.
Tell me a secret.
I won’t put on a bathing suit. I just don’t do it. It stems from this self-imposed body image issue I have, but I’m working hard to get through it.
Do you think that has to do with a fear of being judged?
Yes, I think so. The thing is, I’m absolutely judgmental about acting. That’s why I try to make other actors feel safe when I’m working with them.
Finish this sentence for me. Victor Garber is…
I’m moderately content. [Laughs] Oh, but it’s true, Richard, it’s true.