Not as dumb as they look

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Above: Dan Blocker who played Hoss Cartwright on “Bonanza” was no slack-jawed buffoon.

“I WANNA BE AN ACTOR; why should I have to study?”

Knowing nothing about theater arts, I do know that a little — and sometimes a lot — of education doesn’t impair one’s ability to play Hamlet, Hedda Gabler, or even Hoss Cartwright.

Dan Blocker, the giant of a man who played the gentle Hoss on “Bonanza” from 1959 to 1972, was no mental midget. He had a master’s degree in theater arts and had started a Ph.D. program at UCLA when his acting career took off. *

He was far from the first bright thespian to play dumb (actually, Hoss was simple, not stupid). Classic film fans know all about Judy Holliday, who won an Oscar for playing the ignorant but savvy Billie Dawn in 1950’s Born Yesterday. “You have to be smart to play a dumb blonde over and over again,” said Holliday, who reportedly scored a 172 on an IQ test.

Natalie Portman: very smart.

Natalie Portman: very smart.

Some smarty-pants actors look the part. Tommy Lee Jones, John Lithgow, Natalie Portman (Harvard grads), Jodie Foster (Yale grad), and Kevin Spacey (HS Valedictorian; Julliard) could play rocket scientists on film and no one would blink an eye.

But what if Rowan Atkinson, famed for playing dimwitted dolts like Mr. Bean, was cast as a prime minister? Or if Dolph Lundgren, the action star who gained his greatest fame as Ivan “I vill break you!” Drago in Rocky IV, portrayed a Nobel Prize-winning physicist? How insane would that be?

What might look weird on the screen would be less of a stretch in real life. Atkinson has a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Oxford, which is only one of the top learning institutions in all of the English-speaking world, and Lundgren has a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney in Australia.

But wait, there’s more. Cheech Marin, who has played a lot of simple-minded stoners in the movies, was a straight-A high school student who majored in English literature at Cal State, Northridge. And Jeff Foxworthy, who plays up the down-home twang in his “You know you’re a redneck if …” sketches, majored in computer technology at Georgia Tech.

Yeah, a few successful actors blew off high school and hitched a ride to Hollywood at eighteen. But that’s a risky gambit that rarely pays off. If you’ve got a drama-loving teen in your house or your classroom, suggest they stick to the books for awhile. A good education has enhanced many an actor, and a load of learning helps rather than hurts one land the most desirable dimwit-character roles.

* Lorne Greene played the sagacious Pa Cartwright; Pernell Roberts was the urbane, university educated Adam Cartwright; and Michael Landon portrayed the youthful Little Joe, who would morph into Pa Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie.” Yet Blocker was the only one in this bunch to get a college degree, not to mention a master’s degree and the first steps toward a Ph.D.

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