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Photo courtesy of Dakin Matthews.

Dakin Matthews Reflects on His Unique Career as an ‘Accidental Actor’

Dakin Matthews has a face that you have absolutely seen before. Even if you didn’t know his name, you know that face. The actor has appeared in roughly 170 movies and TV shows, to say nothing of the dozens and dozens of times he’s trod the boards in theatrical productions. Unlike most actors, he found his calling by accident, and yet, for more than three decades now, he’s worked more than just about anyone. A former English professor, Matthews has built a unique career, showcased most recently in the theatrical release of Waitress: The Musical last month, as well as the Max series The Gilded Age, which just completed its second season. He spoke to us from his home in Los Angeles.

You’re one of those actors who, I think, has had a career a lot of other actors aspire to have.

I’ve been very fortunate. But no matter how great your career is, you always wonder where your next job is coming from.

I’m a writer. I get it. So how did the journey start?

Well, I’m an accidental actor, really. I never intended to be an actor. It was not anywhere on my schedule. I studied originally to be a priest and left the seminary and decided I would become a university professor. Basically, that was my goal.

I went to graduate school in English and began teaching at the university level. When I started, one of my colleagues mentioned to me that there was a Shakespeare Festival in town that was holding auditions for a play in the summertime. I had actually done this play, Henry IV, Part 1, a couple of years earlier in graduate school, as an extracurricular drama club sort of thing. I played Falstaff. He said, “Why don’t you audition for it?” You said you played that role. I said, “Well, yeah, I did, but I’m not an actor.” Then I thought, “Well, why not?” So I went and auditioned for it and I got the job. I thought, “Well, this might be fun. I’ll do Shakespeare in the summertime, and then learn more about the play that way, and I’ll teach it better.” I did that for about four or five years.

So it started as sort of a hobby.

The fifth summer that I did the festival, which was in Santa Clara, it went professional. I got to join the union as a journeyman when they used to have journeyman actors. I kept doing this summer Shakespeare, and then people began to offer me roles during the school year. Meanwhile, my department was very supportive of my work. They considered all my professional theater work, acting, directing, writing or whatever I was doing as professional work, equivalent to publishing, so I continued to teach full-time.

How did that translate into a whole new career?

Some opportunities started to come up during the school year. I went to the chairman and suggested that, rather than teaching Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, which most college professors teach on those schedules, I would teach all the eight o’clock classes five days a week, which my colleagues thought was a great idea. (Laughs) So I taught from eight to 12 and rehearsed from one to five and performed from seven to 11.

I did that for about 20 years. I retired as a full professor in 1990, moved to Los Angeles permanently and began to do just acting after that.

That must have been an interesting change.

After about 15 years of doing regional theater, all the regional theaters had these alumni who had been in the theater for five or six years and gone to Hollywood, gotten a reputation, gotten a profile and then were coming back and taking all the roles I wanted to play! So I thought, “Well, I gotta go down to LA and get a little profile of my own so I can still be hired for lead roles in the regional theaters.”

(Laughs) That’s why I originally went to LA, but I have four kids, and I knew I was gonna have to pay for college and all that, so I thought, “Well, maybe I better start thinking seriously about doing film and television.”

In the 30 years since it seems like you’ve never really stopped working. What do you think is the secret to your success?

I always looked 40, even when I was 25. I think the advantage that I had was that my early theater work was in young companies, all actors in their 20s and early 30s playing repertory in the summertime, which meant that we all got to play major roles in classical plays when we really weren’t old enough to do so. We were playing Richard the Third, we were playing Macbeth, and we were playing King Lear in our 20s. So you got a really great education in acting before you had any right to play those great roles.

When I came to Hollywood when I was 50, I finally was the age that I looked, and I actually had done a lot of acting. Most of us who grew up in that repertory system were capable of playing a range of roles, rather than just being one sort of character, you know? While I never had big leads in anything in television and film, I had a lot of supporting work in wildly different things.

Wildly different is right.

I think there were certain casting directors who were convinced I was from London. There were certain casting directors who were convinced I was from Oklahoma. Some thought I was from New York because that’s how they saw me and cast me. I got to play a wide, wide range of small and supporting roles. I like to say, that my career is sort of, I’m in a minute of everything. (Laughs)

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