Most commonly known for his role as Mr. Dewey, the “boring math teacher” in the TV show “Saved by the Bell,” or “that guy” for his small roles in movies such as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Intolerable Cruelty” and “Pleasantville,” Eau Claire native Patrick O’Brien has more than 40 years of acting on stage and in films under his belt.
After graduating from UW-Eau Claire in 1975 with a degree in theater, he got his break in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the New York Shakespeare Festival in the early 1980s and has since worked in New York City and Minneapolis before moving to Los Angeles for 22 years. He knows what it’s like to audition for and film in Paramount Studios.
It’s a glamorous lifestyle, and it’s easy to get lost in it, O’Brien said.
And yet, he is humble about his success.
“It all was so thrilling just to go on the Paramount lot and audition even,” O’Brien said. “Yet, they were small parts, most of what I did was sitcoms and commercials. There were some good films but only a handful of worthwhile projects, I think.”
Seeking more roles he could “sink his teeth into,” O’Brien and his wife, Deanne Miller, moved their family back to the Twin Cities around a decade ago.
Since then he’s pursued stage work, including his current two-man show “Whisper Into My Good Ear,” which he will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 26, and Saturday, Jan. 27, at the State Theatre, 316 Eau Claire St. The show will also serve as a fundraiser for the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild.
O’Brien directs “Whisper Into My Good Ear” and stars as introverted Max with fellow actor and longtime friend Larry Ripp, who plays the extroverted Charlie.
The show, originally written by William Hanley and first produced Off Broadway in 1962, follows these two elderly gentlemen sitting on a bench and talking for the entire show.
Interest piqued? O’Brien understands if it isn’t.
“It’s hard to hype this play without giving too much away because it’s just two guys sitting on a park bench talking,” O’Brien said. “But they have plans for something big, and it involves a weapon. It’s funny, but then it gets dramatic.”
CVTG director Ann Sessions can confirm. She first saw the show when O’Brien and Ripp performed it at the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival and knew immediately she wanted to bring it to Eau Claire.
Even for Sessions, describing the show is difficult without giving it away.
“It’s a really interesting story of two older men and their views on life and mortality,” she said. “You don’t have to be old to like it.”
Over the past couple years, O’Brien and Ripp have performed the show at Fringe Festivals from Indianapolis to Washington D.C. Though O’Brien had his worries people would get bored before the drama happens, it has been well received each time.
“D.C. Theater Scene” reviewed the show when it was at the 2016 Capital Fringe Festival, saying “There’s virtually no action. (But) It’s one of the more riveting shows of this year’s Capital Fringe Festival.”
O’Brien thinks the show works because it has a strong script that builds nicely. Despite it being a quiet show, he has seen it resonate with audiences.
He enjoys his character, who he said mirrors himself.
“The role just kind of fits like a glove,” O’Brien said. “I like roles when I’m reacting instead of having to instigate things. Listening and reacting is as important, and sometimes more important, than actually delivering a line. The reaction can be the key to the scene.”
O’Brien’s acting bug started, he suspects, in the fifth grade, when he was finally able to be an altar boy at St. James the Greater Catholic Church.
“I remember when Sister Felix announced, ‘Who wants to be an altar boy?’ in the fifth grade,” O’Brien said. “I went home that night and memorized and memorized. I still remember sitting in a chair spending all night memorizing these Latin prayers.”
That bug never left him, though he didn’t consider following a career in acting. He dabbled in theater in college, but had planned on majoring in special education until his performance in “The Time of Your Life.” Afterward, his director told him he “might want to consider” acting.
His first professional theater company was with the Old Cremeary Theatre in Amana, Iowa, after he pursued careers in New York City (he “wasn’t a fan of the big city”) and Minneapolis.
Wil Denson, now a professor emeritus from UW-Eau Claires’ Music & Theatre Arts department, recalls O’Brien in his soon-to-be-released book “Life Upon the Wicked Stage: Director’s Cut,” which details the history of summer theater in Eau Claire.
O’Brien, Denson said, is a huge part of that history.
Following his father’s death, O’Brien returned to Eau Claire and started Fanny Hill Dinner Theatre, which was overtaken by Dennis Heyde until it closed its doors in 2014.
“(O’Brien) was a popular and enormously talented actor who, after leaving summer theater, founded Eau Claire’s Fanny Hill Dinner Theatre,” Denson writes in his book. “One of (O’Brien’s) skills was the ability to quickly learn to play musical instruments.”
Looking back on his career, O’Brien said he’s most proud of his role as Roy in “Pleasantville,” which won a Broadcast Film Critics Association Critics’ Choice Movie Award in 1999. Roy was the buddy of William H. Macy’s character.
“I had an OK part in it, but I think that was the best,” O’Brien said. “It’s a really good movie.”
In 2011, O’Brien delivered the fall commencement address at UW-Eau Claire and received the Alumni Association’s Lifetime Excellence Award.
Still, it is theater that tugs at O’Brien’s heartstrings. He thinks the scripts tend to be more fleshed out than film productions, and he enjoys bringing those characters to life.
“Whisper Into My Good Ear” isn’t the first show O’Brien has performed in Eau Claire since his return to Minneapolis. He’s looking forward to coming home and spending time catching up with old friends at Court’N’House across the street from the Grand Theatre after the show.
A seasoned actor he may be, but O’Brien said performing in his hometown still strikes a chord.
“I’m not nervous now, but of course right before going on you still, even at this age and having done it so many times, you still get that funny feeling,” he said. “The butterflies.”
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