Soap Opera Weekly, September 3, 1991
by John A. Penzotti
Article Provided By Wanda
Although I've been interviewing soap opera actors for years, I've never been as nervous about spending an afternoon with anyone as I was when I met Bernie Barrow, this year's Emmy winner for Outstanding Actor in a Supporting role for his portrayal of Louie Slavinsky on Loving. But on the way to meet him I came to this conclusion: Barrow is a veteran and a pro, and well-equipped to field whatever I might throw at him.
Still, I waited before I asked him about his toupee. Being a member of the Thinning Follicle Society myself, I wondered if it was necessary to his career or just a personal decision, especially since Johnny Ryan, Barrow's beloved Ryan's Hope character, wore one, and Louie does not. "I became balding (in my late 20's) and then bald by my early 30's," he explains, without a hint of annoyance. "I started wearing a piece for commercials in the 70's. It started as a small patch of hair and every three years or so, the hair pieces became fuller and fuller. In the 60's and 70's, commercials demanded hair. Fathers had hair."
To him it was a tool of the trade. But if he was going to wear a piece, he wanted a good one. "I went through four or five. Joe Paris, who makes Frank Sinatra's hairpiece, made mine." Now I know who to call.
"I had heard about the role of Johnny Ryan, but could not get a reading for the show," he continues, since, he says, it was felt he was too ethnic looking for the part. Through a personal friend who was connected with RH, he was able to get a reading, but it was for the part of Dr. Seneca Beaulac. Feeling that the toupee would work well with the characterization of this strong, gentle romantic doctor, he wore it to the screen test.
After he finished his test, Barrow says, he was asked to test for Johnny Ryan, so he removed the hairpiece and read for the part. Later, he would be offered his choice of the two roles. Taking the show's title into consideration, he chose Johnny Ryan (John Gabriel was cast as Seneca). "I showed up the first day, and after rehearsal they asked me, 'Where's the hairpiece that you had on during the screen test?'" he recalls. "They were referring to the test for Seneca. I said, "I wasn't wearing a hairpiece." They said, 'Yes you were.'" He phoned his wife, Joan Kaye, who brought him the piece, and Johnny Ryan was born - with a full head of hair.
When he joined Loving in the summer of 1990, Barrow and head writer Millee Taggart, who created the role of Louie, agreed that the hairpiece was not essential. "They wanted a strong, upfront, masculine kind of guy, which I equate with sexy," says Barrow. "They wanted to create middle-age romance between a guy who loved life, and somebody like Kate (Rescott, actress Nada Rowand), who needed a lift."
Louie, says Barrow, appreciates Kate for who she is. "I love the idea of playing blue-collar men," he continues. "My father and mother were both Russian immigrants. My father ran a laundry and my mother worked alongside him."
Blue collar or otherwise, Barrow has always taken on older characters. "At 19, I was playing Jonah Goodman in Irwin Shaw's Gentle People, off Broadway. (Jonah) was an older man - late 50's, early 60's," says Barrow. "So, I'm wearing a pair of my father's old pants, sticking my gut out, walking like him, and I was wonderful. I got a note from my agent; he said, 'how dare you play these roles - you're wonderful, but let the older guys play these roles. Come back in 40 years.'" A somewhat disheartening, if not insulting, comment, especially to a young actor.
Besides tackling roles beyond his years, Barrow had been a college student since age 16. On the heels of the agent's advice, the 19-year-old actor focused on his studies, earning a bachelor's degree in theater history that year, and a master's in business administration at 21. By 22, he was one of the youngest professors at Brooklyn College in New York. His mother even called him "my son the professor who acts." But the actor inside him always seemed to be in conflict with the professor.
The conflict came to a head about 20 years ago. "I was in a weekend encounter group," he explains, "Somebody asked me what I did for a living. I hesitated for a minute, then I said I was an actor. I burst into tears I couldn't control. All my life I had been telling people that I was a teacher who acts."
"Ultimately you are what you love to be, or what gives you the most pleasure," he adds. "I'm proud to be an actor. I enjoy being an actor."
He also enjoys being a husband and father. Barrow and his wife have four children between them (two each from previous marriages), now grown up and on their own. According to Barrow, one of the hardest things "is to tell your children what you really think. (Often) if you tell them what you really think and why, you will in some way wound them, or run the risk of losing some of their love or respect."
"To be critical of one's children is not always a good idea," he continues, "because love gets in the way. Given the opportunities - as Johnny Ryan and Louie Slavinsky - to deal in a one-on-one way with a kid who needs to be made aware of what they are doing, or who is maybe going down the wrong path, is somehow satisfying for me. I don't know why. Maybe because it always puts me in a position to be freer than I am as a father in my own life. As though I can do it vicariously as an actor, not as a father." Barrow himself prefers a hands-off approach to child rearing, only occasionally offering opinions or advice. "I think people should make their own mistakes. It's important for kids to know that they can make mistakes, but their parents will still love them."
Barrow has found the current storyline with on-screen son Paul (Joe Breen) a moving experience. (Paul is paralyzed following an injury from an explosion). "One of the hardest things so far is the emotional trauma that Louie has gone through with having his son so severely injured. Trying to find a way to get his son to forgive him for all those things that have happened between them over the years, and realizing that all the mistakes I have made with him may have caused this to happen."
In spite of his reluctance to give advice, Barrow does share these words for theater hopefuls. "I always tell young actors to find a good teacher so they can find out what they're doing right and wrong and have some ammunition or technique for (those days) when they don't feel particularly good or haven't had a lot of sleep, or their co-star has a cold and is complaining."
Winning the Daytime Emmy award helps validate Barrow's work on Loving. But was it Louie's Emmy or did Johnny Ryan have something to do with it? "I don't think the award was given to me for outstanding work in one's lifetime," Barrow says, "because if that were true, Susan Lucci (Erica, All My Children, who's been nominated 12 times) would have one."
Barrow speaks of how his late parents might have felt about their son's victory. Barrow feels that his mother "would have been joyous. She would have said that she was glad that I won for playing a good guy and not a bad guy. When I was doing The Secret Storm, playing Dan Kincaid, she was concerned that I was a bad guy. She didn't like her son doing bad things. I just kept telling her that bad guys have all the fun." But then again, good guys always win in the end.
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