At a time when few black actors are finding steady work, Irving Allen Lee can count himself among a small, lucky circle of peers who have overcome immense racial barriers to obtain regular employment in the insecure world of show business.
For nearly three years now, Lee has played detective Calvin Stoner in the long-running soap opera The Edge of Night. At the same time, he has been raking in impressive credits from the Broadway musical stage, where he performed in A Broadway Musical, Ain’t Misbehavin, Pippin and Rockabye Hamlet.
All this sounds very impressive, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Irving. Earlier this year, Lee had a short-lived starring role in A Broadway Musical, when the show closed after one performance. Yet rather than becoming discouraged, Lee began directing a play by Woodie King while simultaneously appearing in The Edge of Night and standing by nightly for Ken Page and Andre DeShields in Ain’t Misbehavin’.
Once when Andre was on a week’s vacation and his replacement couldn’t cut it, Irving had to sing and dance his way through 32 songs each night — after a hard day’s work in front of the camera. “It was the most difficult thing I have ever done, but I enjoyed the hell out of it,” he reminisces.
Irving Lee was born in Harlem 31 years ago but doesn’t look a day over 19. “I have lost so many jobs because I was told that I was too young,” he laughs.
As a child, Lee often spoke publicly in church, preparing for what he thought would be a ministerial career. As a youngster, he wrote and directed his own plays, and after graduating from high school, he took up acting and directing at Boston University.
Soon after graduation, Lee toured for two years with Godspell. During the next two years, he portrayed the leading player in the Broadway musical Pippin’, replacing Ben Vereen. “After ten rehearsals, I made my debut on Broadway,” Lee recalls. “Ben had won the Tony. Then, during a matinée, the announcement was made. The role normally played by Ben Vereen will be played by Irving Lee. I was shaking and sweating bullets,” he recollects, as the entire theatre moaned, ohhhh, noooo! Lee went out on stage and did his best. At the end of the performance, the entire cast received a standing ovation. Lee’s inspiring baritone voice and exceptional dancing helped do the trick.
The role which has given him the greatest exposure, however, has been that of the 22-year-old television cop on The Edge of Night. “A soap opera part is ideal for actors,” he notes, “because it provides a consistent income. It allows them to pursue other projects which may add to their growth but don’t pay money.” Directing showcases is one such project of interest to Irving. “Ultimately, I want to direct,” he reveals. In the past, he directed the nightclub act of Formerly of the Harlettes, Bette Midler’s one-time backup group, as well as local showcases in New York City and Boston.
Lee is a man of unrelenting ambition who apparently never ceases to polish his craft. He plans to continue to study acting because an actor probably will not get consistently good roles until he’s about 36 years old. It takes a certain amount of life experience before an actor’s perception and his ability to express that perception can hit the same peak at the same time.
Lee speaks intelligently, choosing his words with care. He says he envisions acting as a means to influence society, rather than as simply entertainment. Portraying the character of Calvin Stoner has given the actor an acute sense of accomplishment: “I have been able to get him accepted on the same terms as the white characters. It became important to show that he was a human being on equal terms with the other characters.”
Initially, Lee was one of two black actors in the series. Since he became the only black actor on the program, some uncomfortable situations have arisen. These were undoubtedly aggravated by a statement from the head writer declaring that black actors don’t have soap opera technique — whatever that is supposed to mean. Lee’s self-confidence has helped him brush such backward innuendos aside. Because soap operas, with their preponderantly white middle class characters and values, don’t generally faithfully articulate black experience. Lee has consistently striven to maintain the freedom to make script changes. Furthermore, he has put pressure on the writers and producers to either “bring in black writers or to broaden their scope and learn.”
Lee’s expressed frustration with soap opera writers leads me to ask what he thinks of the possibility of an all-black soap opera. Immediately, enthusiasm lights a fire in his eyes. “I think it would be a wonderful idea. You could get into the enormous complexity of growing up in the ghetto, of being a minority in a society that historically has not thought very highly of you. There is such a wealth of emotion to be explored.”
His excitement, however, is quickly tempered by a sober assessment of reality. “I don’t think the powers that be are willing to accept such a series. They will tackle a black issue in a two-hour movie and show the film once or twice, but I don’t know if they can be convinced to serialize black life and present it every week or every day. America should be washed out and hung up to dry daily.”
Lee is also skeptical about the future of black entertainment because he believes that America’s curiosity with blacks has been sated. He feels that while the civil rights movement helped make black skin beautiful, Hollywood and Broadway cashed in on its market value. That, of course, has brought a great many blacks into what had formerly been a predominately white arena. But Lee points out that today the climate has changed radically for the worse. The market for black talent has shrunk and in some areas doesn’t even exist anymore,
Irving feels that ta new awareness has to be created by young artists who protested in the 1960s. “Today’s youth,” he worries, “hardly know the names of the civil rights heroes of only ten years ago. If you ask teenagers today who Stokely Carmichael is, they have no idea,” he snaps, while holding down an inner rage. “That is one of the reasons why I want to train artists. I want to heighten their sensitivities, their awareness and their desire to do something for the world.”