Some of actor/comedian Bill Dawes' best work has been done late at night, patrolling the stages of comedy clubs and showcases around the world. However for sports fans, especially those loyal to either the Green Bay Packers and now the New York Yankees, the Virginia native’s most impressive work has come in prime time and center stage, just like the iconic sports figures he has, and will, portray on Broadway.
Dawes' work first drew the attention of Cheeseheads everywhere when he portrayed Packers' legendary bad boy and Hall of Famer Paul Hornung in the Tony-nominated play Lombardi. Now he will be linked to another bad boy athlete of the same generation, playing the role of Mickey Mantle (as well as also playing that of Thurman Munson) in the new upcoming play Bronx Bombers, which begins previews at the same New York theater, Circle in the Square, on January 10.
The show, which chronicles the history of the legendary franchise, is written by the same playwright (Eric Simonson) and is co-produced by the same team (Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser) who enthralled Packers fans with the stories of the legendary coach and his players and even has a few of the same cast members, Dawes included. So what is it like to portray two contemporary star athlete rogues?
“There are many similarities for sure between Paul and Mickey, but I think it is really their differences which people who see both plays will come to appreciate, even Packers fans,” Dawes said recently during a break in rehearsals. “Paul and Mickey probably crossed paths in some club or bar or special event along the way and I’m sure they could have shared a drink or two or three, but when you look back, playing in the spotlight of New York was so much different for Mickey than what Paul experienced in Green Bay, that’s where the two probably took different tracks.
In doing his research, Dawes pointed out that Hornung went to Green Bay having already been a success as a Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame, which was as big a stage as one could play on in the 1950’s in sports. He also was helping build a dynasty for Lombardi’s Packers, a franchise which was struggling when the two arrived in Wisconsin.
Mantle’s timing was almost the exact opposite. At 18 he arrived in New York to patrol center field for one of the world’s greatest brands, and had to follow in the very prominent footsteps of players like Babe Ruth and then Joe DiMaggio, with no safety net or filter from the eye of the public.
“Paul’s experience going to Green Bay gave him a lot of maturity—he was much more savvy about the ways of the world than Mickey was when he arrived in New York from Commerce, Oklahoma, and that was reflective of the demons that haunted him his whole life, no matter what success he had on the field,” said Dawes.
While Hornung ran into his own bouts of trouble off the field while in Green Bay, it was less detrimental than what Mantle experienced in New York. “Paul had his issues and raised a lot of hell for sure during his time, and coach Lombardi gave him his space,” Dawes added. “But Mickey, he was thrown into the mix with older guys and big expectations that he never felt he could truly live up to, and it was that dark side that really plagued him throughout his life, especially while he was playing with the Yankees.”
The pair also had their own share of untimely injuries, Dawes pointed out, each missing a vital championship game appearance because of their inability to play. “They were pros who always wanted to be on the field in key moments, and that’s what made them special to millions of fans to this day,” he said.
The experience of playing Hornung, Dawes said, is a help in portraying Mantle, because he goes into the character study with a solid understanding of what the times were like when both were at their best. The difference, Dawes said, is really in the time frame in which the shows take place. “Lombardi,” was a slice of life from one weekend during a season in the 1960’s, when Hornung was still playing. “Bronx Bombers” is a retrospective on the history of the Yankees, with Mantle one of the greats who comes back to life, and he gets to reflect back on his life and legacy as opposed to still being in his prime.
The other difference is that Dawes actually got to meet and talk to the Packers’ “Golden Boy” during the “Lombardi” run, while he is relying on archival footage and other materials to portray the late Yankees slugger.
“It was a little strange to have Paul sitting in the audience watching me play him, but he said he loved it and that I had gotten it down really well,” Dawes said. “For Mickey there is lots of footage to study and to read about, and I’m hoping if his family does come to see the show they feel like I am doing him justice as well.”
As far as the Packers of today go, Dawes continues to follow the squad as they ready for their Sunday showdown with the Bears for a berth in the NFC Playoffs.
“My guess is that Paul really understands what Aaron Rodgers is going through to come back from injury so quickly, and I know Mickey would relate as well given how many times he came back and was still hurting,” he added. “I bet Coach Lombardi would also be proud of this group that continued to compete and strive for excellence despite all the adversity they have gone through with injuries this year. That’s one of the things we all learned from doing ‘Lombardi,’ is that Coach was so much more about giving maximum effort than always about winning, and it seems like this year’s team has been just about that, maximum effort, so we will be rooting for them on Sunday for sure.”
Even for a professional comedian, playing the roles of two iconic athletes has proven to be no joke.
“The legacies of Hornung and Mantle and what they meant to so many people still today is very special, and as an actor, I have learned a lot and take the portrayals very seriously,” he concluded. “Sure I love comedy, and these guys certainly loved their carousing, but having brought Paul’s story to the stage, and now Mickey’s, is something which I hope will resonate with theater and sports fans for years to come, whether they love the Packers or the Yankees or any team. It’s a great opportunity and I hope people learn a little from it.”
Jerry Milani is a featured columnist. All quotes were obtained first-hand unless noted.