“I still haven’t decided on becoming an actor and that’s the truth,” said Richard Schiff, the soft-spoken yet eloquent director and actor whose route to such a profession was, as he puts it “very long and circuitous.”
Schiff, a Maryland native, came to New York in 1973 to study at the City College of New York (CCNY) but did not graduate. After taking on other ventures, he returned to New York in 1975 and began to study acting at CCNY, gaining acceptance into their theater program.
“I didn’t start acting until I was 32. Before that, I was with a theater company in New York directing plays,” recalled Schiff, who was always interested in the field and followed a yearning to know more. “I was always enthralled by movies and plays when I was young that put me into a trance. I was curious as to how people could take me away and make me forget where I was, being involved in a story so deeply.”
At CCNY, Schiff fell into the school’s fantastic theater program, rich with talented students and professors. He acted in his first play out of college, portraying Lyle Britten in James Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie. Schiff recalls getting the lead role and finding acting “too difficult and painful” so he abandoned it for a while to direct plays for several years.
Of his extensive background in theater (Schiff directed a fresh-out-of-college Angela Bassett in Antigone and starred in Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino), he said he prefers the West End Theatre instead of the Great White Way.
“I love working in London and the London community, even though I’m from New York,” he said. “I just always want to go back there and do plays.”
Finding his way back into the acting trenches, this time portraying a character instead of directing one, Schiff earned the role of White House communications director Toby Ziegler on NBC’s The West Wing. During his tenure, which included an Emmy win for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 2000, he also directed the episode titled “Talking Points” in season five of the show.
“I went from director to actor back to director. On The West Wing, I was always the protector of actors on the set; they trusted me to protect the story and integrity of what we were trying to achieve,” said Schiff, adding that he was always very much into storytelling. “Tommy [director Thomas Schlamme] often asked me when I was going to direct and I finally did, but to me, it’s fulfilling someone else’s vision, it’s not really creating your own. I had a great time working with the cast and treated it like a play: I staged it then figured out how to shoot it.”
When asked about his time on the silver screen, Schiff shared a few of his favorite films, citing Meet John Doe (1941 starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck) and Ninotchka, (1939 starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas), as his most beloved to watch.
“I used to stay up late at night and watch all these old, great movies. Meet John Doe is such a socially relevant movie today,” said Schiff of the film about a public political campaign created unknowingly by a journalist with the involvement of a hired homeless man and pursued by the paper’s wealthy owner. “And Ninotchka was a propaganda film in the ’30s to get a better feeling between Russia and America.”
When preparing for the role of record executive Jerry Wexler in the biopic Ray (2004), Schiff said the movie almost didn’t happen.
“I was doing The West Wing and we continued to work at it on my end even though everyone thought it wasn’t going to happen,” he said of the film. “I had 24 hours to prepare for that role.”
In that time, Schiff got on the phone with Jerry Wexler, read his book on the plane to New Orleans where his scene was being filmed, and ended up getting a first-hand account of who Wexler was thanks to musician Graham Nash being his seatmate.
“I had met and become friends with Graham—he was on his way to the Jazz Festival to play—and he knew Jerry. He told me how great he was and how much he loved Jerry,” said Schiff, who arrived on set and filmed the biggest scene of the movie the first day. “Jerry was really a fascinating guy. Every musician I have ever talked to about him adores the man.”
These days, Schiff is serving up smarts as Dr. Aaron Glassman, the former president of the San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital on ABC’s hit drama series The Good Doctor. While noting that it is challenging to do a doctor show, Schiff said that he prepared for the role by watching House, which was also directed by David Shore.
“The show has created some challenges for me. For example, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a post-operative psychosis. We did a whole episode where I went psychotic and saw a vision of my daughter who had died,” said Schiff, noting that it turned out to be a very challenging episode. “The various things that people go through, you want to handle those subjects, like cancer, with honesty and delicacy.”
Glassman also serves as a friend and mentor to Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), an autistic surgical resident. On working with Highmore, Schiff said, “He is one of the sweetest and most talented actors I’ve ever worked with and that combination can be disturbing.”
“We were at the Critic’s Choice Awards and I wrote a speech down in the weird circumstance I would win, but they skipped our category so we were laughing about that and I showed Freddie my speech and he gave me a big hug,” said Schiff of his costar, who just directed an episode of The Good Doctor. “We work together so well and it’s fun to have such true collaboration on set. I really love how the relationship between Shaun and Dr. Glassman had to change to adjust to new circumstances: Shaun is now the caretaker and Glassman, the child.”
Schiff is keeping busy. His latest movie Clemency, with Alfre Woodard, is premiering at Sundance this month. It’s about the effects of the death penalty on the accused and their family and the people around the whole execution of it.
His other film Safe Spaces (post-production), which is a family dramedy of sorts, is going to be at Tribeca Film Festival.
As he continues to shift roles from television and film to the stage, keep an eye out for Schiff. You never know where you might see him next.