Milford resident Will Young is a veteran actor who will now take on his most challenging role to date — portraying the late Hall of Fame broadcaster and Detroit Tigers icon, Ernie Harwell. Young will star in “Ernie,” a play written by Mitch Albom about the life of the legendary announcer, at the City Theatre in Detroit beginning on Friday, April 22 and running until June 26. It is a landmark moment for the veteran stage actor, originally from Cokato, Minn., who came to Michigan in 1963 and has appeared in venues ranging from the Cleveland Playhouse in Ohio to the Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea. A graduate of Wayne State, Young also taught high school and middle school English and middle school speech and drama in the Berkley School District from 1967 to 1995.
SCN: Tell us about how you learned there was going to be a play about Ernie Harwell and what the audition process was like for you. Are you a fan of Ernie Harwell and the Tigers? Did you ever meet Ernie and what kind of impact has he had on your life?
WY: I was doing a play that began at the Performance Network in Ann Arbor called “Sonia Flew” and I was working an actress by the name of Sarab Kamoo and then we moved into the Jewish Ensemble Theater in West Bloomfield and she happens to be a fairly close acquantaince of Mitch Albom and she came in very excited to the dressing room one day and said ‘Will! Will! Mitch is writing a play about Ernie Harwell and you should go audition.’
Well, I thought, “Okay, there are going to be tons of people and that’s probably not going to work out,” so I was real iffy about it and she had Mitch come to see “Sonia Flew” at the Jewish Ensemble Theater and he said “Please tell Will to come to the audition,” so I did.
And there were probably three different auditions with any number of young guys, because the only other character is a young man about 15-years-old and the audition process was over a 3.5-week period.
I listened (to Ernie call the Tigers games) ever since I got to Michigan, (and I) certainly tuned into Ernie Harwell. Unfortunately I never got to meet the man and that would have been a blessing. I’ve never heard one negative thing said about Ernie Harwell. He’s the kind of guy that makes the world a heck of a lot better place to be (in).
Whatever impact he would have had would have been just to enhance my love of baseball. I played a ton of baseball when I was a kid in Cokato, Minn., so you get here and here’s a guy who knew at the time he’d wind up in the Hall of Fame for Heaven’s sake. What I loved about him was just the warmth and his incredible knowledge of baseball and everything you heard about his genuineness and his ethics. his humility was such a big thing.
Just listening to him, he brought that game to life. I think one of the phrases that Mitch Albom uses in the play, one of the things that Ernie says one of things about radio broadcasting baseball is that it’s his paintbox because you get to paint the game with your words.
It’s not like watching it on television where the picture tells the story. With radio, you paint the game with your words. People don’t know what’s happening without you creating it for them.
SCN: Without giving everything away, give us a little insight into what this play will cover about Ernie’s life?
WY: The quickest way to say it would be that it covers the “9 innings” of Ernie’s life. It opens with Ernie in the tunnel under Comerica Park waiting to go out for his final farewell speech there and suddenly a big storm hits, all the power goes out.
A kid appears sort of mystically in the tunnel and through a series of different kinds of mechanisms, he manages to get Ernie to talk about his life from the time he heard his first baseball game, the seventh game of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Yankees in 1926 when he was 8 years old on a little crystal set. They couldn’t afford a radio. So it takes him from the time Ernie’s 8 all the way through him going out for his speech at Comerica Park.
SCN: How did you physically and mentally prepare to take on this role? What would you say is the biggest challenge in portraying an icon such as Ernie?
WY: I think I have to first mention vocally because Ernie has such a distinct style. So I listened to a four-disc set of interviews he did with Bob Harris. So you study his cadences and you study that twang that he had and kind of go from there.
And most of the time, I’m only really kind of concentrating on touch of Georgia and some of the rhythms. ?????? I go into much more of his voice and the cadence when he’s doing actual baseball calls.
Physcially, the man was 91 when he did that last speech at Comerica Park and he was getting pretty frail by that time and the bile cancer was really coming close to home with him at that time. So you don’t want to play that fraility very much because that will start dragging down the energy of the play.
So what we’ve got him doing is, yeah there’s age about him and his movements, but the big thing about this play is it’s Ernie’s celebration of his life and he gets very invigorated when he’s telling stories about Willie Mays or Jackie Robinson or interviews that he did with Ty Cobb, Jack Dempsey, all these people and when he first got hired at Ebbets Field and when he got fired and then went over to this club and that club and then coming to Detroit.
He gets very energized and brought back into his past, so we’re not really pushing the age thing so much. I myself am up in age — I won’t mention exactly — but there’s the white hair and my own little bit of gimpy movement that we’re working with.
It’s daunting. You say to yourself how can you win with this, everybody knew Ernie Harwell, there are very strong impressions of what Ernie looked like, what he sounded like, what Ernie was and for any actor to try to “become” Ernie Harwell I think the biggest mistake you can make.
So you do the best you can. I guess I call it more “representing” Ernie Harwell at this point and in a number of places I do go into trying to be as much of Ernie Harwell as I can during some of his calls, but to try to be Ernie Harwell I think is just setting oneself up to get bashed.
SCN: Prior to this role, what were some of the other roles you have played as an actor and where did you perform? How did you get your start in acting?
WY: From the time I left teaching at Berkley, I thought to myself, “Man, man, if I could ever work at the Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, Jeff Daniels’ place, that would have been the absolute pinnacle for me.”
And, so I first under-studied an actor by the name of Jim Porterfield there in a Lanford Wilson play called “Book of Days.” Then I got hired (for) a play by Dennis North called “Orphan Train.”
I’ve probably done eight shows there since I left teaching and the last couple were a new play called “Gravity” and then got to do the stage manager in “Odd Town” at the Purple Rose and I worked at Performance Network in any number of shows.
I then went to the Boar’s Head in Lansing to do a Jeff Daniels play called “Escanaba in Love,” which followed the play “Escanaba in the Moonlight.” I’ve probably done close to 20 productions since I left teaching in 1995.
I was majoring in theater at the University of Minnesota and I totally ran out of money and there was an actor that was from the university who was at the Cleveland Playhouse and he said, “Why don’t you come down and audition there?” So I did that and went on there as an apprentice and a fellowship, so I was there for a couple years before coming up to the Hillberry.
SCN: What do you hope that people who come and see this play come away with as they walk out the door?
WY: I hope that they come away with first of all, feeling that hey, those people did a really nice job with that production because it brought back some fabulous memories for us, taught us some things about this icon that we loved so much that we didn’t know before, a lot of personal things about Ernie’s life and his relationship with his wife, Lulu, and just some good memories.
And I’m frankly hoping, because I think that this is a show that an awful lot of sports fans are going to see and maybe folks who really haven’t had that much experience with live theater before will come in here and say “Hey, this is okay. Maybe we’ll just check out other live performances,” and help the live theater community in the Detroit area.
SCN: What are your future ambitions in acting?
WY: I don’t have any. I’m loving what I’m doing at the Purple Rose, Performance Network, Jewish Ensemble Theater and now with this pilot theater production in downtown Detroit.
I’m perfectly happy where I am. I would say this (play) is the most difficult challenge that I’ve had and the most high profile.
SCN: What is it that you enjoy the most about living in Milford and what does the village and township mean to you?
WY: There are several things that I love about living in Milford. When I went out there 47-some odd years ago, it was much less populated, but the zoning folks in the township of Milford have done a faboulous job of keeping it very, very open.
I think we’ve got the lowest density population of any township of Oakland County. It’s beautiful countryside. The Village of Milford, my first wife, who’s deceased, did an incredible amount of research. She probably dated over 455 structures in the village and some of the township and that led us to going for a national historic district application and granting from the national government. So we have a wonderful historic district there. It’s an extremely friendly town and that’s my love of Milford.