When the Firesign Theatre’s first comedy album, “Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him,” was released in 1968, Rolling Stone rated the Los Angeles-based sketch comedy foursome as “the funniest team in America today.” With two of the team’s principals, Peter Bergman and Phil Austin, deceased, the creative mantle of the Grammy-nominated group’s freewheeling legacy is carried on by David Ossman, who writes novels, poetry and produces groundbreaking audio theater for young people, while Phil Proctor has never drifted too far from his theater roots.
When Proctor’s not providing colorful voices for video games, animation projects and films, he’s hitting the boards. Currently performing with the L.A.-based Antaeus Theatre Company’s upcoming “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” Proctor’s first mention in Variety was 56 years ago, when the young aspiring thespian, fresh from Yale Drama School, performed in Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard” on a New York stage.
You came out of Yale and worked a lot in New York stage productions, but in only a few years you were in L.A. making comedy records. Was there a plan?
I always saw myself as happiest when I was on stage singing. I was an understudy on “The Sound of Music” on Broadway, which is an example of why I always took understudy roles. Richard Rodgers personally coached every actor in the show and he knew who I was and so I wound up in the touring company of “Sound of Music” because of my work as an understudy. I worked in touring companies for years.
But you were lured away from the New York and away from the stage.
Here’s why I love show business: Around this time in the early ’60s I was in Grand Central Station and a voice boomed over the loudspeaker, “Philip Proctor, you have a telephone call. Come to the station master’s office immediately. You need to call your agent.” I’m stunned. It’s like a scene from a movie.
So I go to the station master’s office and I call my agent Lucy Kroll and she’s yelling at me with excitement, “YOU GOT THE JOB.” It was playing a delinquent named Julie Kurtz on “The Edge of Night.” Now try to imagine THAT happening today!
A lot was happening between graduating from Yale and joining the Firesign Theatre.
I was still doing a lot of theater in L.A. My belief in accepting understudy parts worked again. When people were casting other shows, they could see me and see I had the chops. So I stayed busy at the Mark Taper Forum, working in shows for “Monday Night at the Taper.” I worked on things by Jules Feiffer, John Guare and Sam Shepard and with wonderful actors like Karen Black.
And you discovered your fellow Yalie Peter Bergman was in L.A.
I knew Peter Bergman at Yale where he was in the Eugene O’Neill writing program and I was in the drama department. Then he popped up again in New York when I was dating an aspiring actress named Susan Anspach. Susan and I had an 11th Street walk-up and I remember Peter sitting on our couch in an army uniform playing guitar and then he disappeared again. Then I was in L.A. the night of the Sunset Strip riots. I was with Brandon De Wilde and Peter Fonda and Peter called and said “Come on down” to the KPFK newsroom where Peter was doing Radio Free Oz. That night is really when the Firesign Theatre began.
David Ossman, Peter Bergman, Phil Austin, Phil Proctor from Firesign Theatre