A lot of the fan mail Philip Anglim receives for his performance as the malformed title figure in The Elephant Man comes from frustrated actors. A typical letter reads: “It is so great to hear that they didn’t want you either!” Indeed, Anglim, 26, was rejected by three drama schools and until 11 months ago supported himself walking dogs, doing office work and driving a buggy in New York’s Central Park. Then came a Tony nomination for best actor and the Drama Desk Award for Elephant Man—and a dozen movie scripts a month. Anglim declined the role of a murderer in Billy Friedkin’s gay-scene film Cruising, but accepted Woody Allen’s next property. In the meantime Anglim is touring with Elephant Man for eight months, beginning last week in Baltimore. All of which establishes him as a “successful actor,” which he defines as “one who works enough to qualify for unemployment.”
The Elephant Man might never have been staged in the U.S. if it were not for Anglim. In the fall of 1977, after hearing about the London opening of the play, Philip plunged his savings on a cheapie Freddie Laker ticket and flew over. He saw the drama twice, called playwright Bernard Pomerance’s agent and, posing as a theatrical scout, returned to New York with a script. There he “hounded” producer Richmond Crinkley into staging the play. Anglim’s persistence paid off. The more experienced Kevin Conway and Carole Shelley were cast as the doctor who saves the elephant man and the actress who befriends him, so, Anglim explains, “It was then possible to take a risk and go with me—an unknown—in the other major role.”
To play that monstrous part, he adopted a quavering voice and corkscrewed his body, holding torturous positions that still sorely test his muscles. “I should be going to a chiropractor,” he says, but instead he relies on gym workouts and nightly soaks in Epsom salts. A masseur will accompany him on tour.
Anglim was born and raised in San Francisco, where his Irish Catholic father is a patent attorney and his French-Jewish mother an art dealer. Except that his dad read him to sleep with Shakespeare, Philip had a normal boyhood, collecting baseball cards and snakes. At 13, when his parents divorced, he grew interested in acting. “My parents were skeptical about it,” he says. “They insisted I go to college.” He majored in English at Yale and as a senior wrote a book about the evolution of the English novel that he admits “was too arcane to be published.
“Then I was rejected by Juilliard, London’s Central and its Royal Academy of Dramatic Art,” Anglim continues, “which was humiliating. For my parents it was only a confirmation that I was foolish to have gone into acting in the first place.” Returning to San Francisco, Anglim auditioned unsuccessfully for a spot in the American Conservatory Theater. Finally, in 1974, he moved to New York, hustling odd jobs to pay for a fifth-floor walk-up and acting classes. Eventually he got the part of Charles Francis Adams in PBS’s The Adams Chronicles and later the lead in an unsuccessful off-Broadway production, You’re Gonna Be Alright, Jamie Boy.
His triumph in Elephant Man was not without cost. Playing the punishing part eight times a week shattered a two-year liaison with actress Christine Vadnais. “I would go to work, come home dead and just want to go to sleep,” Anglim notes. “It was not fair to Christine. I was a blob.”
Anglim moved on to a “bargain” Fifth Avenue apartment with his 150-pound wolfhound, Kelty, who makes minimal demands. It’s just as well, concedes Anglim—”Acting takes a tremendous amount of self-involvement, but that,” he adds, “doesn’t mean an actor is more selfish than a corporate executive who spends all his time in the office.”