When actor Graham Smith died unexpectedly of a heart attack on November 1, the Charlotte theatre community lost one of its giants. Graham lived his life on a stage that extended far beyond Charlotte, but he got his start as a professional actor in Charlotte. He performed regularly with the Charlotte Repertory Theatre (Charlotte Rep) from 1980 to 2002 and the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival from 1996 to 2012. In more recent years, he was a regular actor with the People’s Light and Theatre in Philadelphia and the Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers, Florida. However, throughout his adult life, Graham and his wife, stage manager Audrey Brown, saw Charlotte as their home base.
My wife, Nancy Northcott, is the person who introduced me to Graham back in the 1980s. Graham and Nancy grew up together in Davidson, and they both graduated from Davidson College. I heard lots of stories about Graham and his mischief-loving ways before I ever met him. Nancy told me about how Graham performed with his family’s touring magic show throughout his childhood, and that intrigued me.
After my very first conversation with him, I came away with an appreciation of Graham’s quick wit. Nancy and I were not yet married, and he pretended (I think) to grill me about my intentions regarding her. He cracked me up with his overly protective, big brother routine even though he was only two months older than Nancy. He toasted us at the rehearsal dinner on the day before our wedding, and he had the entire party laughing uproariously by the time he concluded his remarks. He was a very funny man, but he took his acting seriously.
The start of Graham’s career as a professional actor overlapped with the founding of the Charlotte Rep in 1980. Steve Umberger, founder and artistic director of Charlotte Rep, worked closely with Graham for decades. I recently contacted Steve, who is currently working as director of The Playworks Group, and asked him about how he and Graham started working together.
He wrote, “I met Graham when we were both doing summer theatre at CPCC in 1978. I had just started the company that became Charlotte Rep, so I was always interested in new actors. We first actually worked together at Children’s Theatre in 1979, and then he became a regular company member at Charlotte Rep starting in 1980. I stopped counting after 30, but over 41 years I directed him in 30+ plays in Charlotte, at NC Shakespeare Festival, and at People’s Light in Philadelphia. I love finding colleagues that become longtime collaborators, but there is no one else I have that kind of longevity with. We hit it off from the start, and we had the great fortune to be able to grow with each other as artists and friends from our mid-20s to our mid-60s. We shared a lot of values — about plays, about working from the text, and about the element of risk necessary to make a play sing. He cared a lot about the world and the people in it with him, and I think it translated into true empathy for his fellow humans — and the ability to play them, to reveal them. Audiences felt that empathy.”
Throughout Graham’s acting career, he took special pleasure in performing in Shakespeare’s plays. During his 15 seasons with the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival in High Point, he played many of the roles in the Bard’s plays, but Graham especially enjoyed playing the role of King Lear. Cynthia Lewis, the current chair of the English Department at Davidson College, specializes in Shakespeare’s plays, and she commented on Graham’s portrayal of King Lear in a recent email to me.
She wrote, “Graham could play any character in any genre, but I came to know about him through his performances of Shakespeare. He played Shylock in a Davidson College production of The Merchant of Venice in the late ’80s. His Lear was legendary. He played the role more than once, the last time when he was closer in age to the character. Hearing him talk about how he did it was almost as enchanting as watching him do it. Then again, listening to him talk about anything was always great fun.”
For Graham and Audrey, theatre was their profession, so when Charlotte Rep started to collapse around 2002, they took their talents elsewhere. However, Graham still occasionally performed in Charlotte. The last time he graced a Charlotte stage was in 2017 when he performed in a production of The Christians (a play about the inner-workings of a megachurch) at the Booth Playhouse. Steve Umberger directed the play, and the experience provided Steve and Graham with an opportunity to work together again in Charlotte, just as they had during their years with Charlotte Rep.
As I reflect on Graham’s life and career, I recall with pleasure the many times that Nancy and I saw him perform in Charlotte Rep productions. We had season tickets, and we made sure to go to every play in which Graham performed. The performance that I remember most vividly was his portrayal of the redneck Owen Musser in The Foreigner. Graham brought an edginess to his portrayal of Owen that really brought the character to life for me. That is the power of live theatre. Through his superb acting, Graham brought a vast number of characters to life, and all of us who had the pleasure of watching him perform are richer for it.
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