Joe Sirola ’51 Is an Actor for All Seasons
By Thomas Vinciguerra ’85, ’86J, ’90 GSAS
The lights come up. The gravelly voice rumbles from behind the curtain.
“All the world’s a stage,” intones Joe Sirola ’51, strolling into view, black pullover and dark slacks highlighting his rough-hewn, tanned face and silver hair. “And all the men and women merely players ... ”
It is, of course, Jaques’ soliloquy from As You Like It. Before the evening is out, Sirola will deliver 23 monologues from 11 of Shakespeare’s plays, assaying characters as diverse as Caliban, Petruchio, Hotspur, Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear and Prospero. For good measure, he will dispense three sonnets as well.
This is Ages of Man, a solo piece first performed by John Gielgud in 1957. Today, Sirola does it for free in school auditoriums, libraries, private clubs and other venues for students, scholars and anyone else who craves a dose of the Bard. (Those who can’t catch him live can always get the DVD.)
It is the culmination of some 50 years of acting, during which time Sirola has worked with Clint Eastwood, Rock Hudson, Eve Arden, Ed Begley Sr. and Gina Lollobrigida, and appeared in such familiar fare as NYPD Blue, Rhoda, the original Hawaii Five-O, The Untouchables and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Ages also is a sly evocation of Sirola’s undergraduate days. “At Columbia they said to me, ‘Go home on Wednesday, read Julius Caesar, and come back on Friday,’” he recalls, laughing. “If I’d had this DVD in class, I would have appreciated it more.”
Sirola was not a natural-born thespian. In fact, he says,
“I had no desire to act in my life.” The son of Croatian immigrants —
his father was a carpenter and his mother ran a 15-room boarding house at 363 W. 19th St. in Chelsea — Sirola graduated from Stuyvesant H.S. At the College he majored in business under what was then called the professional option; outside of class he was on the swimming and freshman baseball teams. He also played football; his position, he recalls, was “on the bench.”
After a 15-month stint in Korea, Sirola joined Kimberly-Clark as a sales promotion manager. But the work was boring and his girlfriend told him, “You’re much more than a salesman.” So at 28, he quit and took several arts courses at Hunter College, including one in acting and directing. “We worked eight hours a day and my instructor said, ‘Make your mistakes on stage.’”
And he did. In 1958, Sirola debuted Off-Broadway for $15 a week in Song for a Certain Midnight. “It was terrible. One reviewer called it Song for a Wrong Key. But Brooks Atkinson said, ‘Attention should be paid to Joe Sirola, who combined brutishness with tender remorse.’” Almost immediately Sirola’s career took off; within two years he was on Broadway in The Unsinkable Molly Brown while also starring in the CBS soap opera The Brighter Day. “Tallulah Bankhead said I was her favorite actor. She had it written into her contract that during her rehearsals, she had to stop working between 3:00 and 3:30 so she could watch the show.”
Since then, Sirola’s motion pictures have included The Greatest Story Ever Told and Hang ’Em High; among his small-screen roles have been two villains on Get Smart (notably the evil Bronzefinger, who paints his victims to death) and the voice of Dr. Doom on the animated The Fantastic Four. Sirola is proudest, though, of two appearances on Steve Allen’s talk show, Meeting of Minds, which depicted historical figures engaging in verbal sparring: He played both Tom Paine and Sir Thomas More.
One thing that has eluded him is a continuing TV series. Sirola had high hopes for his part as the patriarch of an Italian-American family in the 1975 series The Montefuscos, the brainchild of Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, who created That Girl. “I thought it was a sure thing. We did eight shows and got great reviews. But they put us opposite The Waltons. Then in 1989 I was in Wolf and they put us opposite Roseanne. So my luck hasn’t been too good.”
Actually, it has been very good in another area: The Wall Street Journal once dubbed Sirola “King of the Voiceovers” for his ubiquitous narration of radio and TV commercials. He has pitched for Mobil, Ford, GE, Hertz, Vicks, Boar’s Head, Wendy’s and many others. He is even the voice of the Empire State Building Tour. He broke through, he says, by eschewing the avuncular tone that other pitchmen had used. “Not knowing any better, I used the mic as a person. I spoke to the audience rather than at them. I went from $3,200 a year to a million a year for 20 years.”
“Joe, as far as I know, is the most successful voiceover artist ever,” says Morrow Wilson ’61. “I met him 30 or 40 years ago when we were both doing voiceovers for Prell. He had the 60-second spot and I was doing the 30-second one. Enter Joe with a box full of every kind of imaginable muffin and donut, plus coffee. In that effervescent way of his, he offered it to everyone in the room. I remember thinking, ‘My God, no wonder this guy works all the time. Apart from having this wonderful, sonorous voice, he gives everyone breakfast!’”
These days, when not declaiming as Richard III or serving as VW spokesperson “Sluggy Patterson,” Sirola can often be found holding forth with Wilson and other friends at the Players, a private theatrical club on Gramercy Park. When he is dressed up, he often sports a red rose in his lapel that he has clipped from one of the bushes in his penthouse garden on East 66th Street. “I wear one all the time,” he says. “Except when I do cowboys.”
Thomas Vinciguerra ’85, ’86J, ’90 GSAS is a regular contributor to The New York Times and editor of Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from The New Yorker.