Van Patten relishes chance to see America

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 10, 2002

When Dick Van Patten got the call to star in the Troupe America national tour of &uot;The Sunshine Boys,&uot; he initially turned it down.

&uot;My sister, Joyce Van Patten, heard I’d turned the role down and told me I should do it. She’s been in Neil Simon’s last four plays on Broadway, and said, ‘Do it. It’s perfect for you,’&uot; Van Patten said in an interview Saturday afternoon.

&uot;I’m glad I did,&uot; he said.

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He’s glad because while it was a long tour, taking the company to 88 cities, he got to see a lot of America. &uot;This country has everything,&uot; he said. &uot;I feel like I really know America now.&uot;

And now Van Patten is seeing Albert Lea. The play is entering its second week of a three-week run at the Albert Lea Civic Theatre for Minnesota Festival Theatre.

Terry Lynn Carlson, MFT’s artistic director, had been the stage manager for the play on the road and asked Van Patten, as well as his co-star Frank Gorshin, if they’d be willing to do the show in Albert Lea after the national tour ended. They agreed.

&uot;We wanted to help him out, and thought it would be fun,&uot; Van Patten said.

He’s enjoying his visit to Albert Lea, he said.

&uot;It’s a slice of Americana,&uot; Van Patten said. He’s been swimming in Fountain Lake, and since he has race horses, hopes to work in a visit to Canterbury Park in Shakopee as his schedule allows.

Van Patten’s son, James, and his daughter-in-law, Nancy Valen, also have roles in the show. James Van Patten auditioned and earned the role of Ben Silverman in the national tour; Valen had done the role of the registered nurse in Hollywood. Also coming in from the national tour is Lola Lesheim, who plays the sketch nurse.

Van Patten said he loves the opportunity to work with family members. He’s previously worked with son James in &uot;Eight is Enough: A Family Reunion&uot; and &uot;Robin Hood Men in Tights,&uot; although they didn’t have any scenes together in that movie. Van Patten has two other sons, Vince, who is also an actor, and Nels (Valen’s husband), a tennis instructor.

The longtime actor had worked with Gorshin only once before the tour, in a film shot in the Bahamas, &uot;The Joker Is Wild.&uot;

Gorshin accepted a movie deal just one week before the play opened in Albert Lea, and Carlson asked his friend, Twin Cities area actor Fred Wagner, to come down and do the part in his place. The two had worked together at Knott’s Camp Snoopy when the Mall of America opened. &uot;We got to help write shows, and that was the last performing we’d did together,&uot; Wagner said of his acquaintance with Carlson. &uot;We’ve kept in touch.

&uot;I was a little hesitant at first,&uot; Wagner admitted. &uot;I warned him ahead of time that learning a part at the last minute like this is not my forte.

&uot;I said, ‘You trust me to do this?’ I wasn’t sure myself I could do it,&uot; Wagner added of the role, which is large.

&uot;He’s in every scene,&uot; Van Patten said of Wagner’s character. &uot;Very few people could have done what he did. I couldn’t do what he’s done.&uot;

Wagner said the best part of the role is getting to play opposite Van Patten.

&uot;It’s an honor and a privilege,&uot; he said. &uot;That’s the easiest part of the show. He makes me go out there and relax.&uot;

Visiting Van Patten at the theatre Saturday was Barry ZeVan, longtime Twin Cities area weather man. ZeVan was the understudy for both Gorshin and Van Patten on the tour, and played the patient in the production.

ZeVan actually started acting on Broadway, and got his weather training in the military. &uot;The weather was a regular paycheck,&uot; he said.

MFT is currently having a fund-raiser involving the role of the patient. For a $100 donation, anyone can be on stage as the patient. There are seven lines, the first three of which are &uot;ahhh.&uot; For more information, call the box office at 377-4371.

&uot;The Sunshine Boys&uot; continues Tuesday through Saturday, June 11-15 and 18-22, at 7:30 p.m. There are also 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays, June 15 and 22.