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Bill Irwin May Clown Around, but Now He's Won a Genius Award

updated 11/12/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Actor Bill Irwin was dining with friends at a small Manhattan restaurant after a rehearsal when he beeped his home telephone answering machine and got the message. "When he came back to the table he was white," recalls fellow actor Raymond Serra. "He couldn't even talk about it, he was so frightened that he had won."

What Irwin had won was semiofficial anointment as a "genius." Relatively unknown, though acknowledged within the theatrical world as a marvelous clown and mime, Irwin, 34, had become the first performing artist ever awarded one of the MacArthur Foundation fellowships designed to "free creative people from the necessity of seeking a conventional income." In Irwin's case that averages $36,000 annually for the next five years—no strings attached.

Serra describes the windfall as an actor's "go to hell money," but for the moment there's little chance that Bill will use it that way. He and Serra are among the cast rehearsing for the November 15 Broadway opening of Italian playwright Dario Fo's political farce, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and Irwin's filthy lucre is a cause for high jinks. "If Bill makes a gaffe during rehearsals," admits co-star Joe Grifasi, "we say, 'Well, maybe you've lost your incentive for this kind of work.' " Irwin himself worries "whether it's better not to need work and be relaxed, or to really need it—financially as well as emotionally—and be driven to work very hard. So, yeah, I think it can blunt one's competitive edge. Maybe after three months of checks," he jokes, "I'll be very blunted."

His white-faced response to winning, however, was a gut reaction to added pressure for a man about to face his Broadway dramatic debut. Already recognized as a thinking man's clown, and compared to Ray Bolger, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Irwin showcased, in 1982's acclaimed off-Broadway show The Regard of Flight, a protean talent that is sublimely metaphysical—and sublimely physical. Critics applauded his winsome face and cornflower-blue eyes that can become wily in seconds. They marveled at his ability suddenly to shrink his elongated Silly Putty body to the portly silhouette of a midget waddling across the stage. Now, in Anarchist, the virtuoso performer has his big chance to build a reputation as an actor.

In Fo's play, based on the true story of an accused bomb thrower who in 1969 leapt, fell or was pushed to his death from a window in a Milan police station, Irwin plays a "really dumb sergeant." For a while it was uncertain whether Fo would see him. The U.S. State Department had twice before invoked the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act to bar Fo from the country, claiming that the writer had supported terrorist groups. Last week, abruptly, the State Department granted him a visa.

Irwin says he'll be glad when the award "hubbub" is over. He welcomes the "seed money to initiate and produce my own things," but, more concretely, he plans to use the prize for groceries, rent on his modest studio apartment in Greenwich Village and to pay for videos to study the timing of old masters like "Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, Burns and Allen."

Born in Santa Monica, Calif., the son of an aerospace engineer and a schoolteacher, Irwin grew up in Oklahoma and Southern California, studying comedy on television. He liked Looney Tunes. "I could feel the difference between the really satisfying comic structures and the ones that didn't add up," he says. Later he studied at UCLA, the California Institute of the Arts and Oberlin College. In 1974 he left the college's "hermetically sealed theater" and sheltered life for the Ringling Bros, circus school in Florida, where he learned "ways to think as a clown: set something up and then give it a payoff."

Married to his college sweetheart, dancer Kimi Okada, in 1977, Bill has been separated from his wife since Christmas 1982. (He now dates actress Martha Roth.) Irwin puts part of the blame on his "obsession" with his craft. "I have some questions about whether there is room for family or any other life." He calls himself "blessedly lucky," but adds, "I'm a person with a fair amount of sadness. My craft is painful, and it's painful to people around me. It combines the worst of writer's neurosis and actor's neurosis. With actor's neurosis, your physicality is on the line. Reviewers say, 'This man is too fat,' or 'What made this blond think he could play an Italian?' "

Most likely Irwin is thinking about his own role in the Italian farce. When he looks ahead to the debut, he can only compare opening night to "going into combat for the first time. You're supposed to just remember your drills and your training. That's what will get you through." It worked with the MacArthur Foundation. Bring on the Broadway audience!

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