Asked how he got his start in the theater business, veteran actor and director Rick Grossman will tell you he was born in a trunk. And things haven’t changed much. These days, Grossman, who was raised among three generations of theater people, is living not in, but out of a trunk, as he tours the country playing the role of Sancho Panza in “Man of La Mancha.”
“My grandparents were pioneers of the Yiddish theater in North America,” said Grossman, who is private about his age. “My grandmother had an acting background, and when she met my grandfather, a tailor by trade, she pushed him into theater too.”
Though the Yiddish theater in America was based in New York City, Grossman’s grandparents broke ground by taking it on the road.
“Everywhere in the country where there were Jews, there was a thirst for Yiddish theater, and they would go there,” he said.
Eventually, Grossman’s grandparents settled in Chicago, where they formed the Grossman-Reinhart Repertory Company. Grossman’s father and his three siblings got their starts there, as did Broadway star and Academy Award-winning actor Paul Muni.
Grossman’s parents, Irving Grossman and Dinah Goldberg, met in New York City, where they performed together in Yiddish theater companies on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The couple had two children, but only Grossman was involved in the theater.
“When I was 6 years old and my parents were in a show and needed a child for a role, there I was,” he said. “I’ve been in theater since then, with a few breaks when I’ve done other things.”
Although he recalled a time during his childhood when he resented the expectation that he would become an actor, Grossman said he always found his way back to the theater. He received acting training from Stella Adler, who was also from a Yiddish theater family, and he attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. After graduation, Grossman headed to California, where he acted at the Pasadena Playhouse Theater Academy. He later returned to New York, where he studied at Hofstra University.
Grossman’s favorite roles include Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” and Eddie Jacobson in “Harry and Eddie,” an off-Broadway play about Harry Truman and his Jewish friend, Eddie Jacobson, but he noted that the role of Sancho in “Man of La Mancha” holds a special place in his heart for several reasons.
For one thing, his uncle (by marriage) Irving Jacobson starred in the original Broadway production in 1965. When Grossman played Sancho Panzo in a revival 35 years ago —he’s played the role five times — he was honored to have Jacobson in the audience on opening night.
Beyond his family connections, Grossman also loves the show because of its messages of hope.
“When I first saw the show in 1965, I was taken with it from the get-go,” he explained. “I knew the story of Don Quixote, a man who is always trying to look for the good in people and the world and denying all the evil. It’s a transforming message. As an actor, you are trying to transform people’s lives, to touch them. If I do that each night, I have done my job.
“Many people who have seen other productions [of “Man of La Mancha”] want to come back again because they were touched by the show and want to re-experience it,” he continued. “You don’t find a lot of shows written like that today — shows that really challenge the audience. I’m very fortunate to be doing what I love and doing it for so many years.”
“Man of La Mancha” comes to the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric on March 14 and 15. For more information and tickets, visit lyricoperahouse.com.