Prospero's Wheelie

Take a ride with The Tempest's wizard

William Metzo was lucky. He found his passions early. In 1953, at age sixteen, he saw Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Metzo has been riding motorcycles ever since. Two years later he played the title role in a college production of Macbeth. "As an actor I was certainly unskilled," he says of that assault on iambic pentameter. "I didn't yet know how to walk or talk on a stage. But at least I was bold. I felt that in some amorphous way I could be good at this."

Anyone who has seen Metzo making magic this month at Forest Park in The Tempest knows that somewhere along the way he figured out how to be very good indeed. This is his third Prospero, though his first in more than a decade, and it is the most assured performance to be seen on the Emerson stage in the five-year history of the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis.

"There's a lot of good stuff in this production," Metzo says. "They're catering here to people who haven't seen the play before. We're not talking down to the audience, but we're making the text absolutely clear to the uninitiated." At the same time, the actor is well aware that, but for his casting in a college play, he too might have remained one of the uninitiated.

He was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the third of four sons of a coal miner. "My father started working in the mines when he was twelve," Metzo says. "At age thirty-seven he contracted miner's asthma and died when I was nine. I was sent away to school for five years. Then I returned to Wilkes-Barre, where I attended Kings College, which was run by the Holy Cross fathers. That's where I realized I wanted to be an actor."

Because he was the first in his family to attend college, his mother and older brothers insisted that he major in economics ("a degree I've never used"). Then he was off to New York, where he took acting classes with the legendary Stella Adler.

"We walked into that room," Metzo says, "and she made us feel as if we were priests, above the herd. We couldn't cough in class. She'd say, 'You can't cough onstage, don't do it in here.' Five years ago I came across my class notes. Written on the top of one page is her dictum, 'If you cater to the wants of the public, you'll end up in the whorehouse.' When I saw that again, I realized that it had been lodged within my brain ever since I heard her say it."

Metzo has spent a lifetime acting in Shakespeare companies and regional theaters throughout America. Lear, Macbeth, Claudius, Polonius, Cyrano, Shaw, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller. Although he has lived in New York City for the past 50 years, he estimates that he's spent 25 of those years on the road. And almost always he travels on his Honda Gold Wing. When, for instance, he spent two and a half years portraying Franklin D. Roosevelt in a national company of Annie, he logged 85,000 miles on the bike.

"I like to test myself," he says. "Two years ago I jumped out of an airplane. I did a shark dive in the Bahamas. I think the bike is part of that. Sometimes on a rainy day the semis pass you and it's like getting hit with a tidal wave. To hold the bike on the road takes all my strength. But to ride through the Painted Desert on a sunny day with my shirt off and Willie Nelson on the tape deck, I wouldn't trade those moments for anything."

When The Tempest closes Sunday night, Metzo will mount his Honda and drive into the darkness toward Cortland, New York, where on Tuesday he commences to direct a summer-stock production of Dial M for Murder. Meanwhile, Monday is his 68th birthday. Metzo will spend it alone "on the road again" singing along with Willie, still savoring memories of Will, a working actor heading for his next gig. Not even the Bard could have scripted it better.