On Saturday afternoon inside the University of Houston’s Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre, movie and television stars Dennis Quaid, Brett Cullen, Cindy Pickett and Robert Wuhl proved once and for all that a great teacher can have a life-lasting, profound influence on a student. The stars and UH alums were in town for “An Afternoon with the Artists,” a celebration of the life of their former professor, Cecil J. Pickett, which benefited the endowment fund bearing his name.
In a discussion that was moderated by Channel 8‘s Ernie Manouse, the four actors traded stories and reminiscences of Pickett while giving the audience of friends, supporters, aspiring actors and drama students a look into a very special time in the University of Houston’s history.
Dennis Quaid, was thinking of becoming a veterinarian before he began to watch brother Randy during play rehearsals at Bellaire High School where Pickett taught.
Pickett taught theatre arts at Bellaire High School for over a decade before joining the UH School of Theatre in 1970. He also directed plays at UH and one or both Shakespeare productions at the annual Houston Shakespeare Festival at Miller Outdoor Theatre, until he retired in 1988. He died nine years later in 1997 when he was 74.
Though Pickett never acted in or directed a big Hollywood movie or hit television series, to watch Dennis Quaid in The Right Stuff and Far from Heaven, Brett Cullen in Apollo 13 and Lost, Robert Wuhl in Good Morning, Vietnam and Arli$$, and Cindy Pickett in St. Elsewhere and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is to catch glimpses of Cecil Pickett’s work as a teacher and theatre director.
All four actors spent the two-hour event crediting Pickett for his guidance in helping them become the actors they are today. Quaid and Wuhl explored how Pickett’s teaching the craft of acting continues to influence their work.
Cullen called Pickett a genius. Cindy Pickett, Cecil’s daughter, gave a moving account of the man as both loving father and constructive-critic mentor. Even when Manouse would ask a question that had little to do with UH or Pickett, the stars seemed to find themselves needing to quote Pickett or tell a Pickett story to answer.
Cecil Pickett is one of, if not the, reason the four became actors. While Cindy was first put onstage at six years old, Cecil got to the rest when they were only a little older.
Dennis Quaid, was thinking of becoming a veterinarian before he began to watch brother Randy during play rehearsals at Bellaire High School where Pickett taught. Quaid decided to attend the University of Houston because Pickett was there and knew for certain at 18 he wanted to become an actor that first week in Pickett’s class.
Quaid described his friend Brett Cullen as “a surfer dude,” who wandered into UH School of Theatre and stayed. Wuhl was a “Jewish kid from New Jersey,” who attended UH mostly because “they accepted” him when no other university did. His four years extended into seven, and during the last three, he discovered the drama department and Cecil Pickett.
Wuhl's four years extended into seven, and during the last three, he discovered the drama department and Cecil Pickett.
Discussing his time at UH, Quaid noted: “That was one of the great things about being at the University of Houston is that you were in a place, in a safe place, where you could try things and fail and fall flat on your face and that was the only way that you learned, and Cecil was guiding you through.
"But you also got to do things like Shakespeare or Bertolt Brecht, Tennessee Williams and Pinter, all this material that never in your career, later on, are you ever going to get a chance to do.”
Along with many thoughts on Pickett, the afternoon brought acting advice for the students in the audience and insider show biz stories for everyone else. Wuhl discussed his duel career as both writer and actor. Cindy Pickett shared what it’s like to be known as Ferris Bueller’s mom for all eternity. Quaid and Cullen spoke on the joys and hazards of playing real life people, whether that role is the President of the United States or an astronaut who is also a technical adviser on the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.
Sometimes those hazards can be truly dangerous then and extremely hilarious now, like the time early in Quaid’s career when an armed Jerry Lee Lewis decided he wanted to be an acting critic on the set of Great Balls of Fire.
The program also gave Houston theater lovers some exciting news for the summer with the announcement that Cindy Pickett will be returning for the Shakespeare Festival at Miller Outdoor Theater. The 2012 season will consist of Hamlet and Comedy of Errors, and though Pickett didn’t reveal which roles she will be playing, one wonders if going from Bueller’s mom to Hamlet’s mom might be a natural progression.
Perhaps the most powerful moment of the afternoon came during the Q&A when an audience member asked why Cecil Pickett had never made a move to New York to try his talent as a Broadway director or producer. Cindy Pickett offered her father’s childhood, when his family struggled during the Great Depression, as the reason he stayed.
As an adult she said, “He wanted the stability of a practical job, which was teaching. He never believed he really made it. He never felt he really made a difference."
Then Cindy Pickett quieted somewhat and continued, “I think he never really understood the gift he gave to us. We kind of took that ability and that career that he could have had and went on . . .
"He stayed here and gave all his gifts to us.”