Actor Robert Wisdom ’76 Brings Depth to His Roles
By Amanda Erickson ’08
obert Wisdom ’76 got his big break in the form of a misdialed phone number.
He was trying to make it as an actor in Los Angeles when he received a call from a casting director, who had accidentally called Wisdom about an open part. “I didn’t have an agent or anything,” Wisdom says. “I didn’t know what kind of film it was. But I called her back and said, ‘Look, I’m an actor, I heard you’re looking for someone.’ ”
She brought him in, and he got the part in Clean Slate, a 1994 mystery that starred James Earl Jones and Kevin Pollak. It would be the first of many serendipitous breaks for Wisdom, who from 2003–08 played Bunny Colvin, a Baltimore cop who grows increasingly frustrated with his city’s war on drugs in the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire and who has appeared in the films Ray, Storytelling, Barbershop 2 and The Forgotten, among others.
Wisdom didn’t set out to be an actor. He discovered performing during his senior year at the College, when he signed up for a theater class on a whim. “My professor [Aaron Frankel] said, ‘You know, you could be good at this,’ ” Wisdom says. “But I didn’t take it seriously.”
Instead, he began a career in banking, although he kept up with acting classes as a hobby (and even starred as Nat Turner in a summer stock production). A few years later, Wisdom returned to his hometown of Washington, D.C., and took a job with National Public Radio as a producer for All Things Considered.
Wisdom then shifted gears again, producing music and theater festivals for art museums. That job took him to London, where a director friend encouraged him to pursue acting more seriously. He began auditioning for shows on the side, though he still didn’t consider performing a full-time profession. “How to break in was the farthest thing from my imagination,” he says. “It was just something that I loved to do.”
Wisdom landed his first gig in 1990 as the star of a new show at the Bush Theatre in London. The hitch was that rehearsals conflicted with his day job at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art. So he called his staff to tell him he was rethinking his hours — he would come to work at the end of the day and work until the middle of the night.
That show turned Wisdom into a full-time aspiring actor. During the next several years, he performed in regional theaters throughout England and Scotland. Family pressures eventually brought him back to the United States, and he settled in Los Angeles in 1993 to help a friend plan a music festival. It was there he received that fateful phone call for Clean Slate, which led to roles in The Heist, Mighty Joe Young and That Thing You Do!
One of Wisdom’s first film parts was as a waiter in the British television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Though he had only a few lines, Wisdom says he did serious preparation, hanging out at restaurants and developing a back story. He so successfully brought the character to life that a friend told him he thought Wisdom was a major character.
“It meant that human being I was playing came alive,” Wisdom says. “I’m always trying to figure out how to bring life to what’s on the page.”
When considering parts, Wisdom says, he looks for compelling characters and good stories. “With a lot of parts, you’re given a last name and that’s it. You can’t really make that part colorful,” he says. He attributes this passion in part to the focus on humanities at Columbia and St. Albans, his Washington, D.C., high school. “I learned how to read and how to take in narratives and stories,” he says of his education.
Wisdom turned down athletics scholarships for track at other colleges and chose Columbia because of the focus and depth of the education. He majored in history and sociology and feels lucky to have had his education shaped by deans Peter Pouncey ’69 GSAS and Harry Coleman ’46. But it was a course he took for the light workload his senior year, “Acting 101,” that most shaped his future; the professor encouraged him to reach beyond the easy grade and really work at becoming an actor.
To that end, one of his best-known roles was that of Colvin on The Wire. “Bunny was one of the most fulfilling characters of my career,” Wisdom says. “There was so much depth to him.”
Wisdom has continued to work steadily since that series ended in 2008, guest-starring in television shows such as Supernatural, How I Met Your Mother and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He was a regular last summer and fall on Burn Notice, a spy thriller in which he played Vaughn, a CIA handler.
“More than anything, I would say Bob knows how to be present as a man, with all the complexities and contradictions that come with that,” says Academy Award-nominated director Oren Mover, who is working on a movie with Wisdom. “To me, he is a very emotional actor, someone who can show you an interior life in surprising ways, mostly because he never seems to be trying too hard to do that. It just pours out of the depths of his experience and talent.”
Though Wisdom has chosen a notoriously challenging field, he says he tries not to obsess about career security. “An actor always worries whether they’ll work again,” he concedes. But Wisdom says he welcomes the challenge of finding new parts to inhabit. “I like to finish work and go into that empty space and begin again. I like looking at the world through different lenses.”
Amanda Erickson ’08 has reported for The Washington Post and The New York Times. She traveled to Azerbaijan in September on a Fulbright.