Up with B.D. Wong

Actor who plays Linus gives character a blanket endorsement

Sunday, December 27, 1998

By Judith Newmark
Post-Dispatch Theater Critic

No one can say that B.D. Wong lacks range.

The actor made his reputation starring on Broadway in "M. Butterfly." He played the title role, an actor whose lover, a French diplomat, seems convinced that his partner is a woman. It was a bravura performance in a serious drama, the kind of work that wins awards -- and Wong has the Tony to prove it.

Then he found broad popularity, and much bigger audiences, in Steve Martin's "Father of the Bride" movies. He played the goofy but lovable assistant to Martin Short's extravagant but lovable party-planner. And now he's playing a thumb-sucking preschooler with a strong spiritual streak and a deepattachment to his security blanket.

B.D. Wong is Linus in the new production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," the musical based on Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" comic strip.

Michael Mayer, the Broadway director behind the revival, says he cast actors in whom he found a genuine resonance with the familiar comic-strip figures. Wong considers that a compliment. He admires Linus for going his own way, hanging on to that blanket because it makes him feel good, no matter what the other kids say.

Wong, however, tends to see in himself a bit more of Lucy -- "a belligerence" -- and, he hopes, something of the resilient Charlie Brown as well.

But he feels deep affection for Linus, who reminds him of his father. "My dad has a childlike, yet wise, philosophy, a simple wisdom," he said. "He can cut right to the truth of something, in an emotional way."In fact, he thanks his dad and his mom for a lot -- including the love of musical theater that led him to this show, and to his whole career.

Wong grew up in San Francisco, where his father worked for the post office and his mother for the phone company. His parents, both third-generation Chinese-Americans, grew up in the city's Chinatown during the Depression. "I know it was very difficult, so difficult I can't imagine it," Wong said. "My parents wanted me and my brothers to have a good life."

The brothers do have good lives, each with a career straight out of a little kid's daydreams: one actor, one doctor, one firefighter. Wong credits their successes to their parents, who never defined that "good life" in strictly material terms. "I was creative, but not athletic, and I was blessed with incredible parents who never tried to deny that," he said. "They sent me to art class. My mother taught me crafts. My dad took me to the ballet. They also gave me violin lessons, and I was good at it.

"But one day I looked in the mirror and thought, 'I don't like this. I don't like playing the violin.' It was the wrong thing in the right world."When Wong was 14, a friend told him that she was going to audition for the school musical, "Guys and Dolls." She said he should try out for a part, too, instead of playing in the orchestra.

He was already familiar with the music, because his father, a musical comedy fan, played those records all the time. "I grew up hearing show tunes -- Rodgers and Hammerstein, Meredith Willson, Lerner and Loewe," he said. "I didn't know what it was, just music my dad liked. But I heard it all.

"So I went to the audition. And as soon as I got on the stage, I knew: Not only do I love it, but it loves me. I knew then that I wanted to be an actor."

Despite their encouragement of the arts, the Wongs had the same reservations as other parents would about their son's ambitions -- which turned out not to be a passing phase. An acting life is uncertain at best, and probably worse if your son is Asian-American. "I knew how they felt," Wong said. "I grew up watching those roles, too. The Asian characters were either evil or funny, with thick glasses, an accent and no sexuality.

"But they understood that my passion for acting overrode all that. I told them, look, I don't know what I am doing. I don't know if it will work. If I fail, I will go to medical school, like my brother." He grinned. "Medical school was never a possibility, believe me."

"But they showed incredible support for me at times when I needed it most. I guess they had some kind of subliminal idea that if they did that, one day I would be happy. But I was happy then, and so were they. They were happy to be helping me.

"It's been very satisfying, for all of us. I don't think you could find a better example of parents who let their children find their own way."

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