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Maury Chaykin,'72

He is one of those unsung heroes of filmdom, the character actor, a job that calls for making a mountain out of what is often written as a molehill of a role.

In 1995, he made a big impression as one of the Unstrung Heroes of Diane Keaton's critically acclaimed film, teaming with Michael Richards (Seinfeld's Kramer) as eccentric uncles to the drama's young central character. The restrained pathos that Maury Chaykin brought to the part was very affecting.

Chaykin typically makes the most of any acting opportunity, even when his part is small. In the upcoming Gone Fishin', starring Joe Pesci and Danny Glover, for instance, Chaykin delivers only three lines as a waiter. Pesci, who plays Joe in the picture directed by Christopher Cain, said he wanted Chaykin "to make the most of it." The result is quite funny, although Chaykin comments that he was paid "a large sum of money for only three days' work."

The UB theatre graduate brings new meaning to the shopworn showbiz phrase, "there are no small roles, only small actors." Chaykin is a big actor‹both literally and figuratively‹who is capable of creating lingering impressions in very little screen time. Witness his brief but memorable turn as the shaken army officer who commits suicide at the beginning of Dances With Wolves, directed by Kevin Costner.

Chaykin's performing roots go back to his native Brooklyn, where he remembers sitting around a tape recorder with his high school friends, improvising skits. This led to an appearance in a school play that his girlfriend wrote, a performance for which he received his first taste of acclaim. "The feeling of the applause and adulation was something that I never really forgot," he recalled during a recent interview from his Toronto home.

Inspired, Chaykin was determined to pursue an acting career. He considers his experience in Buffalo as a UB theatre major "one of the most vibrant, creative times in my acting life."

He relished the radical atmosphere at the school in the late '60s. "The English Department at the time was extremely left-wing. This particular professor from Italy started the idea of College A, College B‹open theories of education where the student educates himself or herself by getting professors to sponsor their self-designed course of study, which I took advantage of."

It was this self-expressive environment that helped set the stage for the development of Swamp Fox Theater Group Koshare, an avant-garde troupe that Chaykin and three fellow students formed toward the end of their freshman year in 1968. Adopting the sobriquet of Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, who led lightning attacks with a small group of very skilled soldiers, Swamp Fox's street-theater style‹and its philosophical satire‹was also quick and cutting. The Koshare part of the name came from a Pueblo Indian sect of revered tribal clowns to whom no subject was too sacred for lampooning.

Although never an official part of the university's performance groups, Swamp Fox's campus presence was applauded. "What we were trying to do was to diffuse a volatile political situation. And there were many during that period of time," the actor explains.

Swamp Fox became involved in several collaborations with the UB Theatre Department, one of which was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. UB professor of theatre Saul Elkin has said that Chaykin's performance was as powerful as Jack Nicholson's later classic film portrayal.

Elkin served as the faculty sponsor of Chaykin's ad hoc major in theater performance, which involved a year of study in Europe toward the end of his sophomore year.

"Maury was among the first group of students whom I taught at the university," Elkin recalls. "I thought that he was a very instinctive actor, bound for a successful career in the theater. He reminded me at the time of a young Charles Laughton."

During Chaykin's junior year at UB, Swamp Fox took a road trip in the former postal van that served as their touring bus and crashed the 1970 Festival of Underground Theatre in Toronto, becoming the surprise hit of the event.

"I met all the people involved in theater in the city of Toronto. They later facilitated my moving up there by offering me jobs to come and perform," Chaykin relates.

After graduation, and the dissolution of Swamp Fox, Chaykin spent a short period as a member of the American Contemporary Theatre, headquartered in the former Pierce Arrow car manufacturing plant in North Buffalo, then struggled as an actor in New York for a while before returning to Toronto in 1974, where he soon settled into the experimental theater scene.

He entered films in 1976 with small roles, and has since appeared in numerous productions in both Canada and the United States. Chaykin, who divides his time now between Toronto and Los Angeles, describes his movie career as hugely satisfying. He has played in a wide assortment of films, from those with a $200,000 budget to $100 million epics (such as the recent pirate film Cutthroat Island). In 1997, he will also be seen in A Life Less Ordinary, directed by Danny Boyle of Trainspotting; Pale Saints, in which Chaykin plays a gangster named Pirate; and The Sweet Hereafter, starring British actor Ian Holm.

Among those projects that have had personal meaning for Chaykin was his first starring role, in the 1994 Canadian film Whale Music, in which he portrayed a Brian Wilson-type of stoned-out ex-rock star holed up in a dilapidated mansion struggling to finish a symphony for whales. For his performance, Chaykin won the 1994 Genie award for best actor in the Canadian film industry recognition event.

He regards his involvement in Unstrung Heroes as an "extraordinary experience. Director Diane Keaton really knows her work. She hires the right people and makes it happen." As for his teaming with the man everyone knows as Kramer, Chaykin is very complimentary. "The nature of the character I was playing enabled me to be loving and tolerant of anyone who played that part," he offers. "Michael [Richards] is just as loving and sensitive a person as I am. He was very easy to work with."

Although Chaykin was among those favorably singled out in reviews of the film, that didn't exactly result in a flurry of offers. "Unfortunately, the way it works is this: What brings you critical acclaim doesn't necessarily bring you a job. What tends to bring you work is if a film is financially successful. That's what means something in Hollywood. If a film, like Unstrung, gets critical acclaim and no box office, it has a limited value."

Still, he has no regrets about his participation in such small but significant productions.

"I learned more outside the classroom at the time," he reflects. "We didn't think of acting as a career back then."

"Doing projects like that attracts the kind of people I want to work with. Projects of similar sensitivity and quality, that's what I'd love to continue doing," he explains.

Now Chaykin is bringing the same initiative he displayed in forming the theater troupe at UB to television, as he and fellow Canadian character actor Saul Rubinek of Ted Danson's Ink are independently developing a TV series called "American Insecurities."

"It's totally speculative. We're not being paid to do it. We're doing it on our own and have been pitching it to the networks."

It almost sounds like his blitzkrieg on theater during his days at UB‹an experience that Chaykin describes as being among the most stimulating in his life.

"I learned more outside the classroom at the time," he reflects. "We didn't think of acting as a career back then."

Whether or not he understood it at the time, Maury Chaykin's experiences at UB helped chart a course toward a very rewarding career for one of those actors who makes the most of whatever he is called upon to contribute to a film. And his reputation as an actor who is able to instantly convey the depths of his characterizations with quirky, edgy performances continues to grow.

 

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