Accomplished Actor Calls Southern Maryland His Home

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Accomplished Actor Calls Southern Maryland His Home

PRINCE FREDERICK - 11/24/2007

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By Staff Writer Christopher Carey

 Clad in a police uniform and pushing a stretcher into the morgue, Michael Willis delivers the body while making a few sarcastic remarks to the mortician before leaving.

 The entire interaction lasts about one minute, and it doesn’t take long before Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith show up to protect Earth from intergalactic war.

 The year was 1997, and the movie was the summer blockbuster, “Men in Black.”

 Willis’s speaking role in the film, although small, would help to establish him as something of a local celebrity around his home in Prince Frederick.

 
 For Willis, it was simply another acting role in a profession he has been passionate about for his entire life.

 Willis, a 58-year-old married father of three, could quickly list all of the prime locations where actors should live if they ever hope to become successful. If they value their career above all else, Southern Maryland would not appear anywhere on that list.

 Willis believes differently.

 “Family is always first, keeping the kids steady and giving them a homebase without uprooting them,” Willis said. “It puts a damper on my career, but it’s worth it for my family.”

 Growing up in Lancaster, Pa., Willis dabbled in acting from elementary school to high school. Even while serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, he was able to participate in theater-related activities.

 After spending several years overseas, Willis returned home and began looking for ways to branch out his social life. Having spent so much time acting, and enjoying it, he began getting involved in local theater in Washington D.C.

 Although Willis had spent time as a freelance writer, the idea of becoming a professional actor had long been brewing in his mind.

 “[Acting for a living] came to me over a period of time, as I became more enamored of what I was doing and aware of the idea that people would pay me for what I did,” Willis said, laughing.

 If Willis had any reasons to doubt his aspirations, they took a backseat when he met Lori Alderton.

 Having found success at community theaters in Maryland, Willis began auditioning at dinner theaters. He was cast in a production of “1776” at the Burn Brae Dinner Theatre in Burtonsville, Md., while Alderton worked behind the scenes on the technical aspects of the show. Willis found himself immediately impressed by her.

 “She was very responsible at a young age,” he said.

 It did not take long for the two to have their friendship blossom into love, and before long, Willis found himself married and a proud father of three. Life had given him a greater passion than acting, and the Willis family eventually settled in Southern Maryland.

 According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, acting assignments are usually short-term and can often lead to long, irregular hours.

 Willis’s wife, Lori, would completely agree.

 “It’s a lot more unpredictable than someone who has a nine-to-five job,” she said. “Sometimes he’s gone for days at a time, and sometimes he’s home for weeks at a time.”

 Willis continued building upon his acting experience, becoming a company member of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in 1986. In an effort to spend more time at home with his family, he began to branch out and experiment in acting on television and film.

 “I think everything surrounding [his job] has been positive. I think having our kids growing up around him in his environment has helped to encourage and influence them in pursuing their interests and talents,” Lori Willis said.

 Taking his children to work with him became an exciting moment in their lives, ones that would create memories to last a lifetime.

 For Willis’s 18-year-old daughter, Amy, a commercial shoot in Washington D.C. that occurred almost a decade ago still stands fresh in her mind.

 “One of the actors hadn’t shown up yet, so the director asked me to read his part while he was gone,” Amy Willis said. “It was the coolest thing ever to be able to read through a commercial with my dad… it is still a memory that’s lasted with me for my whole life.” 

 Although he got started with industrial and educational films, along with political commercials, Willis eventually began to appear in television shows like “The Wire” and “Homocide: Life on the Streets.” He admitted that while he enjoyed working in episodic television, there was not much challenge to it and episodes can be filmed as quick as one day.

 Stage acting, however, is a much bigger commitment. Willis spoke about how he loved the opportunity to work with new plays and playwrights, and breathing life into new characters for the first time.

 “That’s the greatest thing I enjoy,” Willis said. “It’s different every night. By the end of the run, I can incorporate subtleties I’ve picked up along the way.”

 Not only does he keep these techniques and use them to improve his acting, but he works with his children to teach them similar lessons.

 Willis’s oldest child, 21-year-old Mike Jr., could never forget the acting lessons taught to him by his father.

 “I was preparing for the Maryland State Theatre Festival,” Mike Jr. said. “I remember sitting in my living room… practicing my monologue in front of my dad. Every time I did it, it needed more work.”

 Mike Jr. said it was some enlightening advice from his father that suddenly helped him to understand his problem and overcome it. He attributed that advice to his winning several awards and scholarships at the festival when he performed, a victory for father and son both.

 Willis has achieved much in his time as an actor. He was the recipient of the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Actor, is a member of both the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and has taught seminars on topics like cold reading auditions.

 In addition, he also takes time to visit local college campuses and high schools to talk to students and work with them. He has spoken at the University of Maryland, George Mason University and the George Washington University, and has worked extensively with theater students in the Calvert County public schools.

 “It’s a real privilege to help in high schools,” said Willis. 

 Teryn Samakow, a friend of the Willis family, was one of many local teenagers who worked with Willis while in high school.

 “We could always persuade Mr. Willis to help us,” Samakow said. “He never let us down, always came in to help.”

 Samakow, who performed theater in high school with Mike Jr. and Amy Willis, fondly recalled a time in 10th grade when she and three others were having trouble with a particular acting assignment and Willis came to the school to help.

 “Mr. Willis not only came in to drive us to the right direction, but to show support for his family,” Samakow said.

 So with the last of his children preparing to leave home for college, what does the future hold for Willis?

“I’m looking to the idea of expanding myself, maybe auditioning for some stage plays in New York,” Willis said. “I’d like to take the opportunity to do some things I might not have done before, now that the kids are gone.”

 But at the end of the day, Willis is more than content with the life he has led so far.

 “When I go to sleep at night, I’m very happy with the decisions I made,” he said.



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