Spano to Graduates: ‘Acting’s More Than Ego’

By BETSY HUNTON Special to the Planet
Friday May 23, 2003

Some people are just easy to talk to.  

Joe Spano is one of them. He’s easy to listen to, too. Spano is the Emmy-winning actor who gave the commencement speech in UC’s Zellerbach Playhouse Wednesday afternoon at the graduation ceremony for the department of theater, dance and performance studies. When he was graduated from UC in 1967 it was known as the department of dramatic art, and, he said in a comforting tone to the barely hatched graduates, “I didn’t know what I was going to do.” 

What he did was help found Berkeley Repertory Theater and eventually go on to Hollywood where he established a significant career in television. Many will remember this slight, balding man with the easy grin from his seven-year role as Lt. Henry Goldblume in “Hill Street Blues.”  

More recently, he has played a recurring character on “NYPD Blue.” He has starred in 20 films made for television and guest-starred on 29 television programs. He won an Emmy in 1989 for his performance in “Midnight Caller.” His Broadway debut was with Eli Wallach in Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” nominated for a Tony Award for Best Revival. And he received an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for his performance in David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” 

Spano said to the graduates, “Don’t worry about not having a great dream. I didn’t have plans when I got out.” Even more surprisingly, he said of himself: “I am insecure.” It isn’t the kind of comment one usually gets from a well-known actor, but somehow it wasn’t surprising coming from Spano.  

Draped in his academic gown, Spano sat on stage with faculty members and watched as students marched to the traditional grandeur of “Pomp and Circumstance.” He immediately won his audience with the unexpected comment, “I’m pretty terrified. ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ had me tearing up, a little bit intimidated. I felt like I was 18 again. You know, that recurring dream where you’re facing a final exam and have forgotten to go to any classes all semester long.”  

Spano reflected on his experiences: “ ‘Why in the world did you choose this major?’ I’ve asked myself. An education has to be about something other than itself. I needed validation.” It’s a question that must have roiled his family: Spano, who entered UC as a pre-med major, was the son of a doctor who got his own education on the G.I. Bill at Berkeley. Spano didn’t act much in high school, but in his first year at Berkeley he took one acting course and immediately changed his major.  

Speculating after the ceremony about the role of acting in his life, Spano said, “Acting is the only art I have. It can lead you to be totally present. When I’m acting, I’m totally there. I hear what I’m saying, who I’m saying it to. I’m present. It’s very painful to not be present. I hope acting will continue to make me aware when I’m not present.  

“You have to start where you are. Acting can also be a source of external approbation. A lot of actors become slightly insane. Where I learned about it was in university. I realized that ego gratification, or ego validation, was a limited view of what this art form could accomplish. I got the idea that acting could open worlds to other people. I realized that it was much bigger than ego gratification. Yes, ‘ego gratification’ is a necessary part of what an actor does. It’s a challenge that we have to live with.” 

He continued: “We all got into theater and we got an education — like it or not. The result is that our work has to be about something other than ourselves. I think it’s because we went to school; it’s a result of living in a community that places value on learning about the world.” 

To the graduates, Spano quoted T.S. Eliot: “What you do not know is the only thing you know.”  

And, finally, he closed with Robert Frost: “Every poem begins with an ache in my heart.”