Late-bloomer actor relishes TheatreExiles role

Philibosian (center) with fellow Exile actors Amanda Schoonover (left) and Joe Canuso.
Philibosian (center) with fellow Exile actors Amanda Schoonover (left) and Joe Canuso.
Posted: May 18, 2011

THE NOVELIST F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that there are no second acts in American lives. If that's true, then Harry Philibosian's first 57 years must qualify as an elaborate rehearsal.

A dry cleaner for 37 1/2 years, Philibosian, 73, didn't truly come alive until he started acting professionally at age 57 without any formal training.

Since then, he has worked steadily and won critical acclaim, taking home several Barrymores - Philly's version of a Tony Award - both as a member of ensembles and as best supporting actor for his performance as Shelley Levene in "Glengarry Glen Ross."

After a brief hiatus due to health problems, Philibosian is back onstage for the first time since 2008 in Theatre Exile's "Saturn Returns" by Noah Haidle.

In the show Philibosian plays Gustin, an 88-year-old looking back on his life (Joe Canuso and David Raphaely play Gustin at 58 and 28, respectively).

"He's a natural," said Canuso, the producing artistic director at Theatre Exile, who encouraged Philibosian to make the jump from community theater to professional work in the mid-'90s.

"There are certain actors that come along that are born storytellers and born people's people. They have a natural charm."

When "Saturn Returns" director Brenna Geffers read the play, she immediately thought of Philibosian and Canuso to portray Gustin.

"The main guy, which is Harry, has this honest and simple sense of humor and no one can you make laugh like Harry can," she said. "He's not going to make him [Gustin] cute and he's not going to make him ornery. He's going to find the right mix of honesty and humor."

Clad in a Phillies T-shirt before a recent performance, Philibosian has a booming voice, the thick accent of a lifelong local and an easy laugh that fills the room. A West Philly native, he has lived in Kensington and in Mayfair. He easily falls into the banter of a guy who engaged in quick conversations with customers most of his life.

He's grown a beard for his turn as Gustin, but his wife, Harriet, doesn't like it. Last time he had a beard, long ago, it was dark but it grew in gray this time, and she thinks he looks too much like Santa Claus. Philibosian also has trouble walking - Harriet will often drive him to the theater from their East Norriton home - and a lazy right eye.

Fortunately, his role in "Saturn Returns" doesn't require much movement. Philibosian considers himself lucky to have the opportunity, but he's not sure when another role he can physically do justice to will come along.

"Physically, I'm an 88-year-old man. Mentally, I'm about 10," the Philibosian said with a laugh.

Philibosian made his stage debut in West Philly as Prince Charming in a sixth-grade production of "Sleeping Beauty." Clad in corduroy pants, a cape and a beret, Philibosian refused to kiss his intended, opting instead to hold her hand.

He had no interest in theater. Instead, he married Harriet - they went to their school prom on a double date, but not with each other, and Philibosian swooped in to court her after his friend dumped her. The pair had two daughters and he opened his dry-cleaning business at Germantown and Ontario avenues in North Philly.

The business wasn't so bad until the final 10 or 15 years he owned it. "I was so burned out," Philibosian said. "I just wanted to get out, but I was never trained for anything else so I didn't know what to do."

Through the years, Harriet traveled regularly to New York to see Broadway shows, catching some of the greats such as Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand. But Philibosian always declined to accompany her.

But in 1980 St. Paul's Episcopal Church, at Kensington and Castor avenues - where Philibosian was married, where his children were baptized and where his youngest daughter planned to be married before it burned down in 1990 - decided to throw a fund-raising theater production. Charles Colemann, a church member in the theater-masters program at Villanova, mounted a production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

"He needed bodies," Philibosian said, so he signed up to play a protean, a simple part in the show's ensemble. "After that I was hooked."

Colemann kept staging shows and Philibosian kept getting bigger roles, leading him into community theater. While working at Allen's Lane in Mount Airy, Philibosian performed in a series of short plays with Canuso, who took a shine to the gregarious amateur and started to direct him, culminating in the role of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."

"You die for that!" Philibosian said about the role.

Canuso saw something in Philibosian and pushed him to seek professional work. Harriet encouraged her husband to make the leap into legit theater.

"I was for it because I knew he was so unhappy with what he was doing. The business wasn't doing great and he was getting calls in the middle of the night because people were breaking in and he'd run down there at 3 a.m. It was pressure on both of us," Harriet said.

"I'm a registered nurse and I was working,"she said. "The girls were out of school and working, so I thought we would manage."

Today, she runs lines to help him rehearse. "It's harder to remember lines like I used to," Philibosian said. "But she works with me every day. She's my biggest fan."

His first professional role was as Baptista in Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew."

After that, he was consistently cast in four to five shows a year, often without auditioning, and many at Theatre Exile with his pal Canuso.

"To have the ability to make people laugh or cry is so powerful. If I smoked pot or drank whiskey, I couldn't get a high like this," Philibosian said.

"It's not just you get a paycheck at the end of the week. To me that's like . . ." he paused, at a loss for words. "To be able to get paid to do this? Are you kidding me? I used to dream as a kid of being an athlete, but nothing's like this. This is so much more fulfilling than a home run in front of 60,000 people. I don't know, even if there're only 100 people out there, I think it's still wonderful."

His ardor is legend in the Philly theater community.

"Harry is as enthusiastic as

you'll find any actor coming out of college and doing their first professional show," Canuso said. "He is as passionate, he truly loves what he does and he's never lost that. It's probably grown over the years because as he's gotten older and the choice of parts are limited, I think he's even more passionate about the work that he can do. There's not a hint of cynicism. I'm jealous of him . . . I've had my bad days, but you never see that from Harry."

In 2008, his health forced Philibosian to take a break from the stage.

He'd had five spinal surgeries to treat spinal stenosis, the last one a year ago.

So he jumped at the chance to play Gustin in "Saturn Return." The play is based on the astrological concept of a 30-year cycle that marks a major change in a person's life, a cycle that roughly coincides with the time it takes for Saturn to revolve around the sun. Philibosian plays Gustin amid his third Saturn return.

Canuso plays the second return and Raphaely the first.

"There's a chemistry there and a history between us that resonates onstage," said Canuso, who plays the middle-aged Gustin. "We do feel very in sync with each other."

Philibosian is also in sync with his character. He noted that in the script Gustin attended Frankfort High School; he went to Philadelphia's Frankford High School.

Both Philibosian and the character he plays tried out for the baseball team and both were cut.

And just as Gustin looks back on this life, so does Philibosian.

"It's funny because I think Susan [his eldest daughter] was born when I was around 28," he said.

"29," Harriet corrected him.

" 'Saturn Returns' is from 28 to 30. Then from 58 to 60. I was 57 1/2 when I went into theater full time. Both things changed my life dramatically really. I never even gave it a thought until I did this play," Philibosian said.

"So I hope I'm around at 88 so I can see another change."

"Saturn Returns," Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., through May 22, $18-$40, 215-218-4022, theatreexile.org.

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