Another World, Indeed

Paul Michael Valley, who is finishing up his drama degree at American University, is performing in
Paul Michael Valley, who is finishing up his drama degree at American University, is performing in "Into the Woods" at the Greenberg Theatre. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 22, 2005

"What I find funny is that people will say things like, 'Oh, fame is awful,' you know? What are you talking about? It's awesome! People knowing you, and making people happy . . . being able to walk down the street and get a smile out of someone just by showing up in their life -- that's awesome."

Paul Michael Valley knows whereof he speaks. For 5 1/2 years in the '90s he was Detective Ryan Harrison on NBC's "Another World," one of the nobler characters to stride across a TV screen. And until the gig ended in 1997, he enjoyed -- hugely, from the sound of it -- the renown reserved for denizens of daytime drama. That same year he scored with a new audience, playing Thomas Jefferson in a very popular and well-regarded New York revival of the musical "1776."

So what's he doing here in a dressing room at American University's Greenberg Theatre, looking thoroughly collegiate in jeans, work boots, blue shirt and fashionably messy, albeit thinning, hair? Or, to raise a different question, what is a 40-year-old formerly famous actor supposed to do with himself?

There are as many answers to the latter question as there are formerly famous actors. Still, in Valley's case, the answer was an unusual one: He moved from New York to Washington and enrolled at AU to finish his undergraduate degree in theater. It's something he still loves -- "I really do believe that the world can be changed through theater" -- but in the future, he hopes, that love will take a different form.

(He's at the Greenberg because he's in rehearsal for the AU production of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods," which will run this weekend and next.)

He sounds committed to his endeavors. But didn't the face light up a little brighter, the voice rise a tiny bit, a moment ago when he was remembering his glory days?

Doesn't he miss the fame?

Deep breath. "Uhhhh, I had some, so I don't miss it as much as you would think," he says earnestly. "And every once in a while someone will say, 'Oh my God!' That's enough. That's nice. What gets old is, you know, 'What are you doing now? So what happened?' "

That said, he warms to his story. His early years were spent in the Midwest -- his father worked for IBM and was frequently transferred -- but when he was 8 his family settled in Greenwich, Conn. When the time came for college in 1984, he chose AU because "I knew I really wanted to be an actor, but at the same time I was aware that it was kind of a silly goal, a little bit of a pipe dream. And AU -- it offered everything that I wanted -- foreign policy, political science. It had a literature department, it had high-level classes.

"I had a ball here, but after two years I had sucked the marrow from the [theater] department, and I knew I wanted acting and nothing but."

The young performer landed a one-year apprenticeship under Michael Kahn, then beginning his tenure as the Shakespeare Theatre's artistic director ("Basically I just carried spears and understudied great actors") and then moved on to Juilliard in New York.

"I suggested he audition," Kahn says. "I thought he had talent, and he was very handsome."

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