By Joseph Yeomans
I recently met with the actor, poet and playwright Lewis Gardner at the College Diner in New Paltz. It would not be our first interaction. That happened around 2009 when, as a volunteer for the Arts Society of Kingston (ASK), it was suggested I speak with Gardner about a “Selected Shorts” – style program I hoped to initiate as part of the Halloween season. Lew was then directing the literary side of ASK.
Truth be told, I joined ASK in order to meet this man, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was an illustrator looking for someone to illustrate for. That someone was Lewis Gardner; more on that later.
Since we hadn’t seen each other for some time, I met with Gardner to catch up on things, and to discuss for this article some of the events, which have made his recent life so interesting. Since retiring from the administration of a local community college, Gardner has become an “actor-for-hire”, appearing on stage, in movies, on television programs and commercials, as well as in a number of music videos of various genres. Now, at 72 he reflects: “I hear people say, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do when I retire.’ Well, in the six years since I retired, I’ve had a lot more fun and satisfaction than in most of the years before.”
In commercials he has pitched Visiting Angels, Consumer Reports, Ally Bank and Western Union. In feature films Gardner has had scenes in such movies as “Mi America”, “Alien Connection” and “Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous”.
Recently, Gardner played the lead role in an episode of the new Investigation Discovery series, “Mansions and Murders,” playing a lonely millionaire ‘befriended’ by a woman who would eventually become his murderer. The take-away, says Gardner: “Don’t tell someone you’re planning on taking her out of your will.” A significant role, it amply displays Gardner’s increasingly sophisticated thespian skills.
So how does one make the jump from the work-a-day world to the lead role on a TV show in just six years? The process wasn’t entirely a matter of chance. Over the years, acting was one of the things Gardner did in his creative, after-work life. The roles tended to be small and varied, not especially lucrative. His gigs included a stint in the 1980s as half of a sketch comedy duo, “Gilbert and Gardner”. Playing in a number of New York City venues, it was an opportunity to act, as well as perform original works.
But a role in the Arthur Miller play “The Ride Down Mount Morgan”, may be said to have set Gardner on his current trajectory. Performed in Phoenicia, he was enlisted for the role of Tom Wilson by the play’s director, the late Gavin Owen. Gardner describes it with understatement as “an enjoyable experience”, which lent him the impetus to pursue other such opportunities.
He soon found a listing for a part in a music video. The actor would receive no pay. But the filming would be close by – in the city of Newburgh. And it might prove to be a good resume builder, so why not? He was hired to play a laid-off General Motors worker. The video was for The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ song, “Do You Know Who I Am?” Upon viewing the completed video, Gardner was surprised to find he played the central role. With this, other film and video jobs queued up. Gardner recalls with a grin, “I kept getting roles as factory workers.” Again, many for no pay.
But his music video cast of characters grew to include everything from a demonic monk to a roto-scoped (a process by which a live actor’s image is traced to resemble a cartoon) sea captain in the extraordinary Lumineers’ video, “Submarine”.
With a number of performances in other videos, as well as significant roles in several short films by Vassar and N.Y.U. students, Gardner soon had enough material to create a reel, or montage of his work, with which he would market himself to bigger film producers. This is how he landed his television work with The Discovery Channel and Lifetime Network.
While the “big breaks” with Discovery and Lifetime were significant (They provided his largest audiences, and revenue), it could be argued that some of Gardner’s best acting to date has been decidedly low budget and fairly obscure, in roles both touching and hilarious. An uproarious example of the latter is on view in the short film “Teeth”. Here Gardner plays an admonishing dentist to his patient, the gifted young comedian Josh Rabinowitz. This dentist doesn’t stop at emphasizing the importance of regular flossing. He chides his supine foil on, among other things, his failure to assist an elderly relative and for dropping his pursuit of becoming a lawyer “to fight for the underdog.” Gardner’s comic delivery is dead on and complements to perfection Rabinowitz’ own fabulous performance.
Conversely, his dramatic role in another short film, “Old Junk”, will have you falling head-over-heels for his protagonist, let alone for the story as a whole. In “Old Junk”, Gardner points out dryly, he plays “the lead role, not the title role.” He is an old man, living alone in a city apartment. His only companion is the walker he requires to ambulate forth on his routine daily outings to the park. On one such outing he comes upon a box labeled “Old Junk”. It is a metaphor for the character himself who, like the boxed items he takes home to re-invent, discovers that someone has noticed him, too. A beautiful performance, well worth seeing.
But certainly Gardner’s most novel role - at least in terms of venues - has him cast, giant-sized, on a 60-screen video wall for the piece “New York Minute” by the artist Gabe Barcia-Columbo. A non-speaking role, lasting literally a minute, Gardner was one of several of the monumental work’s volunteers of various ages, backgrounds and ethnicities filmed for the slow-motion video installation created for the inauguration of the recently opened Fulton Center and Day Street Concourse in New York. Gardner is shown blissfully showered in a rain of dollar bills.
All these, and other examples, may be viewed on Gardner’s web site, gardnerspeaks.com. Herein are collected his various film works (“My private film festival”, he calls it) as well as dozens of examples of his writings.
Upon my introduction to Lewis Gardner at ASK, he told me about some of the writing he had done. I would come to learn that his literary output has been extensive and on-going over the course of many decades into the present. What’s more, his writing is superb, and has been recognized as such. Over 60 examples of his poems and light verse have been published in the pages of the New York Times. Among works written for the theater, his “Pete and Joe at the Dew Drop Inn” was included in the anthology Best American Short Plays 2008-2009. These are only two of the many places Gardner’s work has been published.
Included in this body is the collaborative work this writer created with Gardner, “Lunch at the Live Bait Diner,” a collection of 30 poems ranging in theme from the comical to the poignant. Each is illustrated by myself. Besides being put together in book form, the poems and their images have been displayed as an art/literature show in several venues throughout the Hudson Valley. It represents but the smallest fraction of Gardner’s impressive output.
Currently, Gardner is working on producing a theatrical version of his “Not What You Think: Notes for a Memoir”, a reflection on how seemingly obvious situations may not always be as they appear. This is a series of comical remembrances from his life, including early recollections as a child with a speech impediment… “At the time, I spoke only in vowels. I think it was self-protection. If I left out the consonants, I wasn’t committing myself.” Sometimes biting, always funny and consistently intelligent, the works are to be performed as spoken monologues.
More film work is on the way, too. And in the meantime, Gardner continues to conduct a writing workshop in Woodstock. So this is retirement?
Gardner ends his “Notes for a Memoir” with the following lines:
“I just got a note from someone I’ve known since we were both 16. She says: You always seem to be happy and are doing such fun things. I could reply: Oh, hey, it’s not what you think- but…Maybe it is.”