An Actor's Long Road To Stardom

Posted: May 02, 1990

Edward Mooney, an English literature teacher at Father Judge High School, enjoys the theater.

A seasonal subscriber at the Walnut Street Theater, the Oxford Circle resident was in the audience recently to view The Hired Man, a British musical playing through Sunday.

"The first act was very slow, somewhat monotonous," Mooney, 53, recalled with a laugh last Wednesday.

In fact, Mooney said, he was busying himself looking through the playbill, waiting for intermission, when he spotted the name of the lead actor, James J. Mellon.

"I said to myself . . . 'Could it possibly be the same James Mellon I once had in class?' I know he always wanted to be an actor and has played off- Broadway," Mooney said. "But in the title role?"

During intermission, Mooney pointed out the name to his daughter, Loretta, 18, and when the curtain went up on Act II, Mooney looked a bit closer at the character John Tallentire, portrayed by Mellon.

"He was made up as a miner, so it was hard to really tell," Mooney said. But after a while, he realized, "It's his face, it's his build . . . my God, it's him!"

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The road to stardom for Mellon, a Mayfair native, has been a long one, and his role as actor has at times changed to singer, dancer and musician. Mellon, 35, also has had a lifelong battle with a congenital heart defect.

Since his Broadway debut in 1976 in Very Good Eddie, Mellon has appeared in dozens of roles on and off Broadway. His credits include starring roles in the national tours of 42d Street, Jesus Christ Superstar and A Chorus Line.

He is also author, composer and lyricist of his own show, An Unfinished Song, which earned him three Drama Logue Awards after its three-month run in San Francisco in 1986. The show is scheduled to open in New York this fall.

A four-minute video featuring Mellon singing "New Hampshire Nights," one of the songs from his show, is to be released by Arista Records after the show's off-Broadway opening, he said. Mellon's 14-year-old dog, Jeriamiah, makes a cameo appearance in the video.

The show isn't Mellon's first. He also wrote a spirited revue of Beatles music, With A Little Help From My Friends, which was performed at the Society Hill Playhouse in 1985, while Mellon was appearing in 42d Street at the Forrest Theater.

Besides The Hired Man and 42d Street, Mellon has also appeared locally in Careless Love, a two-character play presented in 1985 at the Society Hill Playhouse.

But the credits don't begin to tell Mellon's life story.

His philosophy in life is do what you like to do, what makes you feel good, and for years he has been doing just that.

Such was not always the case for the son of a police officer who was born with a heart defect. Doctors told his parents that the condition could kill him before he reached his teens.

He spent his childhood under the protective wing of his parents. While brothers Thomas Jr., Bob and Craig took part in sports, James spent most of his time playing the guitar and singing with a neighbor or playing with puppets.

But even as a child, Mellon offered his family a clue to his future.

"He would enlist all of his cousins and put on a play," his father, Thomas, recalled. "One year he did Oliver in his aunt's basement. I think he was 13 at the time.

"He's a natural-born actor . . . a showman," he said.

It was in the eighth grade at St. Bernard's Grade School that Mellon underwent a heart catheterization aimed at correcting what he described as "a sticking valve."

Because of his heart problems, he wasn't allowed to participate in sports, so he turned to the theater. His parents reluctantly agreed to let him try extracurricular, non-sporting activities, and as a freshman at Father Judge High School, he auditioned and won his first role, a part in The Music Man at the Nazareth Academy.

As a sophomore he landed a part in the chorus of Superman.

Mellon credits Katherine Bruhns, a former director of shows at Nazareth, and Mary Powell, former choral director at Father Judge, for encouraging his interest in theater.

"Until then (10th grade), I had just done it as a lark," he said.

Mellon said Bruhns was the first to tell him that he was talented, and ''she encouraged me to start singing."

It was during this junior year that he won his first paid role - at $50 a week - as the fiddler in Fiddler on the Roof at the former Abbey Stage Door, a professional theater on Rising Sun Avenue.

Mellon said Powell - who has her own list of credits for acting in local theater - gave him his first singing lessons and encouraged him to "keep on plugging away when things really looked black."

He said he nearly walked away from a career in theater when he lost the lead in the school play his senior year at Father Judge.

"I had been told I would have the lead in How To Succeed (In Business Without Really Trying) . . . when all of a sudden, a new director was brought in and the show was changed to Man of La Mancha."

Another student was cast in the lead.

"I really wasn't right for it," Mellon acknowledged. Still, he said, "I cried my eyes out."

Powell, now a retired city employee, said of Mellon and those disheartening days: "He had such a beautiful voice. I knew he was a natural, and I didn't want to see him give up."

After graduating from Father Judge in 1972, Mellon set his sights on

college. He wanted to attend Temple University because of its theater department, but at the urging of his mother, Dolores, who wanted him to become a psychologist, he enrolled at La Salle University.

Luck was with him, however, because he also quickly found himself on the Temple stage.

Temple "had an open-door policy, meaning anyone could audition" for its shows, he said.

So Mellon did just that, and in his freshman year he appeared in Temple's production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

For the next couple of years, he spent his summers performing in summer children's theater at the Valley Forge Music Fair, starred in Temple productions, and also did equity dinner theater at the Blair Mill Inn.

"I was 19 at the time and making $900 a week. There are times now that I wouldn't mind bringing home that kind of money," Mellon said.

Fatigued from working days and nights during the summer of 1974, Mellon said, he returned to college, only to be called from class and told that his mother had died.

Dolores Mellon's death from cancer hit the close-knit family, especially Thomas Mellon, hard, and James stepped in temporarily to lead the clan.

That fall, Mellon was offered a part in the children's operetta Young Ben Franklin at the Walnut Street Theater. If he took it, he would also go with the show to New York. It would mean leaving the family and putting his college degree on hold.

"I asked my father for his advice."

Mellon said that "in a very unselfish move," his father told him to " 'leave school and follow your dream.' He knew if I didn't make the move then, I probably would have regretted it for the rest of my life."

His only regret, Mellon said, was not deciding sooner.

"I didn't want to admit to the fact that I wanted to pursue a career in acting and was getting a degree because of my mother. I never really dealt with what I wanted," he said.

After Young Ben Franklin, Mellon landed a job in New York, in the chorus of Lady Be Good with Ken Murray, but almost immediately he was faced with a dilemma: He was offered a lead in a Denver production of Brigadoon while still under contract in Lady Be Good.

"I had to buy myself out of it," Mellon said, adding that he paid $1,000 for two weeks of his contract.

While in Denver he studied ballet, and when he returned to New York later in 1975, he became an understudy for Tommy Tune in Mack & Mable and tap-danced with Ann Miller in Panama Hattie.

In his Broadway debut the next year in Very Good Eddie, he switched to the role of musician, playing banjo.

After that, Mellon joined the national company of A Chorus Line, which traveled to San Francisco, Miami, Chicago and Detroit.

Tired of chorus work, he began studying acting with Sandy Meisner of New York's Neighborhood Playhouse. He eventually won the part of Riff in the Broadway revival of West Side Story, directed by Jerome Robbins.

Although he got to rub elbows with the likes of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein almost daily, that experience, Mellon said, "almost changed my entire career."

"After a year of doing that show, I almost wanted to quit acting," he said. "I hated the show. . . . I hated the creators. . . . Robbins was extremely difficult to work with."

And if things weren't bad enough, Mellon said, the show was about gangs, and "that's all you'd see going on in real life around the theater. It was rough. I hated it."

After the show closed in 1980, a disgruntled Mellon began to evaluate why he was in show business.

During that evaluation, Mellon moved to California to become a rock singer. He formed a group called Mellon and for four years, he sang and played guitar and piano for the band. He also auditioned for several movie roles, landing one as an Italian dancer from Philadelphia in Dancing Dreams, which was released in Europe in 1984.

That year, Mellon returned to New York and began studying acting with Lee Strasberg. His interest in the stage was renewed.

He was scheduled to have another heart catheterization in 1985, but after an examination doctors canceled the procedure and gave him a clean bill of health.

What had cured him, Mellon said, was "doing everything I wasn't supposed to do."

"I spent my whole childhood watching everybody else do everything. . . . Then I started dancing, and I was very active in the theater as a dancer. I think I cured myself."

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