The silver-haired, bearded man in the light blue leisure suit looks more like the Kansas farmer he once was than an award-winning actor. But Lionel (Pete) Holm, 78, has been an asset to community theater groups in the area since he helped start the Fairlington Players in the 1940s.
"I like to play cantankerous old bastards," said Holm, who twice won the Little Theatre of Alexandria's highest award, for the leading roles in "Harvey" and "I Never Sang for My Father."
Awards engraved on silver bowls and coasters lie around the house in Annandale where he lives with his youngest daughter's family, but the actor dismisses them, waving his cigarette and saying, "I don't remember what the hell they were for."
The roles he remembers most vividly are those he's done in the last few years, old codgers like Colonel Kincaid in "The Oldest Living Graduate" and Tom Garrison in "I Never Sang for My Father."
He first saw the latter play "with my wife in Des Moines, Iowa, where we were visiting friends, and we were just enthralled," he said. "My wife told me, 'You have to do that role,' " so he came back to LTA and "importuned them to put it on."
There, he recalls, he met with adamant resistance that took him some years to wear down. "They said it was too serious, it wouldn't draw." When the theater group finally produced the play in 1980, "I thought it was going to be my swan song."
It was his toughest role, he said, because Garrison is such "a curious blend of utter insensitivity to other people, but at the same time, in the final scene, he has to develop a feeling of camaraderie and respect for his son."
Holm developed both traits to such a degree that "I've had more opportunities and more good roles since then than at any other period of my life."
Most of his acting time in recent years has been spent with LTA, a group he calls "the best organized in the area. They've got the money and support to run 21 performances of a play," a circumstance that makes acting worthwhile, he said. "It takes just as much work to get ready for 21 performances as it does for six," he noted, "and frankly, a show has a chance to grow more, the more times you put it on."
His next favorite group is the Arlington Players ("Next to LTA, they're the best organized"), but he's done some of his finest work with the Springfield Community Theatre and Fairfax Community Theatre ("I think they're on the rise, except that they can't find a permanent home").
Having one place to perform, build sets, store costumes and advertise is a major key to a successful community theater group, Holm said. But having a "small group of dedicated people" is the real backbone of any such group, he said.
"These things go up and down," he explained. "You'll have a few people who work their tails off, and then they'll get burned out and things will start to go down hill."
Working with a number of different groups gives him wider opportunities. "There aren't may old codger roles around, you know" he said. An actor purely for the love of acting ("Doesn't everybody get tired of being themselves sometimes?"), Holm said he has considered "going down to Arena Stage and trying out for one of those very minor roles. But why should I do that?" he asks, when juicier roles await him in community theater.
He'd rather concentrate on his gardening, "like the old Kansas farmer I am," and wait for another chance to be a cantankerous old bastard.