I don’t always need an assignment to talk with a celebrity. I did ultimately place this interview but with or without assignment, if a performer interests me, I write about that person—provided I’m granted the interview.
So it was with Harry Groener. Initially the name may mean little to TV viewers; yet the show he’s on, and his characterization of nerdy Ralph on Dear John, bring many a dawning recognition. I decided I had to do an interview with him after seeing an episode where usually-bumbling Ralph did a dance routine which would’ve made Fred Astaire proud. I just knew the actor behind Ralph couldn’t possibly be as dimwitted as the characterization.
We met in Los Angeles. Already late, I walked into the restaurant and searched each man’s face; none looked a bit like Ralph. When the waitress pointed him out, he didn’t look like Ralph, either. He had red hair, was extremely thin, and well over six feet tall. Ralph has brown hair, looks of medium build and height. After introductions, my first thought was, “Animated.” Ralph has the exaggerated facial expressions, overzealous hand movements and verbalizations cartoons thrive on. Harry Groener could compare only in that he easily might have been a male cheerleader—all positive energy.
Truth is—Ralph, the character, is a strange guy. He’s a typical nerd, but the kind of nerd ladies want to take in and care for. Harry had that innocence, yet also a look of just enough experience to know how to play both sides, and he reaffirmed this when our cute waitress arrived. She either knew Harry well, or sensed his edge because, wordlessly, she squeezed in next to him on the bench. He sat in the middle so there wasn’t much room, and he didn’t seem a bit perturbed. A big difference between Harry’s happy self-confidence and Ralph’s shy comic nature.
Ralph would’ve had a coronary . . . and such exhibits the clarity of an excellent actor.
When the waitress had left, Harry and I began talking, and I zeroed right in on his dancing. As much as it shocked me, I was sure the entirety of the Dear John audience must’ve been taken aback during that one fantastic dance scene. At the end of his time on the floor, what was Ralph’s explanation for his ability to dance? “My mother taught me.”
In a way, Harry also learned from his mother. His parents were talented performers and, as a child in San Francisco, he started with ballet and jazz, wanting to be a jazz dancer. He took ballet only because his mother insisted. Harry related, “I didn’t want to because I’d be the only boy in a class of girls.”
His mother told him not to worry, but in a way, she was wrong. He didn’t like it until the ballet school director cast him as the Prince in the Nutcracker and it went on tour. Eventually he left ballet for jazz, drama and theatre. His performing career had begun.
Harry talked so fast. His voice had a rough-edged New York sound, right alongside the cultured tones of someone raised in “the theatah.” When I asked how he got the part of Ralph, he looked at me as if he thought I was daft.
“I auditioned,” he answered patiently.
Our food arrived and, as thin as he was, he ate as fast as he talked and did both at the same time, putting aside a snip of parsley as he worked around his meal.
Dear John is his first series, Harry told me. He did guest spots on prime time, including a different-from-Ralph role as an anguished, over-the-edge dad of a molested young girl. He read for a few of the leads in that series but, after losing out there, got the part on Dear John. His show has survived; the other was cancelled.
Harry wanted Ralph to have a history and be seen as a person, not a caricature. “The producers always asked me to dance. It was great to put into the show what we were good at as long as viewers saw a history. I didn’t want Ralph to just up and dance; that’d be a 1950s musical. There had to be an explanation."
Next I asked if he ever worried about being typecast as a nerd once Dear John left the air. “You know,” he responded without sarcasm, “many people don’t recognize me out of character.”
Then, “Some agents know my other work so Ralph is different. But typecasting hasn’t come up; if it does, no, I don’t want to keep doing Ralphs.” By this time, he’d finished lunch. He pushed his plate to the side, wiped his mouth with his napkin, and picked up the parsley. Talking again, he ate it, snippet-by-snippet, as matter-of-fact as if he were taking a drink of water.
Actors often start in the shadows. If talented—and lucky—they’re noticed and headline. Harry Groener has been noticed and, apparently, not only by me. His dance episode received great audience reaction and, though it lost, an Emmy nomination to boot.
During that one scene, dialogue between two cast members went along the lines of, “He’s not talking to her.” Response: “Honey, when you dance like that, who needs talk?”
Indeed. Harry Groener showed me he could not only act and expertly dance a personally-choreographed sequence at the same time . . . he was also very capable of eating, talking, and charming the folks around him--all at once. And after he finished by ensuring he had a clean palate and fresh breath . . . oh, the wonders of parsley!
Certainly proof for the cliché, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Ralph would probably love to be so versatile. He’d also love to have Harry’s ease with women. Maybe in seasons to come?