He was in the cast of two Pulitzer-Prize-winning plays, performed during the golden age of radio, and entertained the troops at USO shows during World War II. But Charles Wiley has never rested on his show business laurels.
This 87-year-old, who splits his time between New Jersey and California, also spent years as a journalist and photographer, covering 11 wars in 100 countries and getting arrested eight times in the process. There was a stint in the life insurance field, too. And he once ran for Congress.
But Mr. Wiley’s 13-year show business career figures prominently in his extraordinary memory, even though he was just a kid when he was cast as Wally Webb in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town 76 years ago. The play about an average American town in the early 20th century is currently being revived at George Street Playhouse through May 25. Its world premiere was at McCarter Theatre, and it went on to Broadway before winning the author a Pulitzer.
On May 3, Mr. Wiley traveled from his Sayreville home with his 13-year-old grandson to attend a performance of the drama at George Street Playhouse. After meeting the cast, he was moved enough to send a note of appreciation, writing, “It was a trip that brought tears to my eyes — from sheer emotion, not sadness. I was reminded: ‘There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.’ That’s easy to forget when you’re caught up in modern day-to-day living.”
This isn’t the first time Mr. Wiley has been asked to appear at a revival of Our Town. When McCarter Theatre marked the 50th anniversary of the play, he was invited to attend and was introduced after the show. “It looks like I’ll be doing this every 25 years,” he joked during an phone interview from his home in California.
“Ninety-nine percent of my friends don’t know I used to be an actor,” he said. “But I worked steadily for 13 years, from the time I first walked on stage at age seven until I joined the Navy. I was the only actor in the world in the original cast of two Pulitzer-Prize winners. The other was The Old Maid, in 1934. Very few people remember that play, which was made into a movie starring Bette Davis.”
It all started for Mr. Wiley in vaudeville, where as a youngster he was part of a standup comedy routine with his father. “Vaudeville was already dying by then,” he recalled. “This was a period when they would have four acts and a movie. By 1933, it was over.”
The father and son transitioned into radio, where they worked constantly. By the time Our Town came along, Mr. Wiley was a seasoned show business veteran of 11. His recollections are what one might expect of a child that age.
“My biggest memory at the Morosco Theater was being adopted by the guy who owned the Piccadilly ticket office, who by the way was one of the Damon Runyon characters based on real people,” he said. “He used to see me coming to work all the time with my baseball glove. One day he said, ‘Hey Butch, what are you doing with a baseball glove half a block from Times Square?’ After that he kind of adopted me, taking me to ball games, and introducing me to the players. It was a kid’s dream world.”
Mr. Wiley also remembers the pre-Broadway tryouts of Our Town at McCarter, where the notoriously difficult director Jed Harris worked the cast so late into the night during rehearsals that they ended up sleeping on the floor underneath the seats.
Mr. Wiley’s parents were personal friends of Thornton Wilder. “We used to visit him in Connecticut,” he said. “I was a kid, so I didn’t appreciate it at the time. But I think Our Town is one of the great plays. It reminds me of Seinfeld, because it’s about nothing. It’s just life.”
After the Broadway run of Our Town, Mr. Wiley was among those in the cast to join the road company. “In those days, usually the original cast would stay for the road company, except for the top stars. And you’d go all over the country,” he said.
His show business career was over by the time he returned from the Pacific after World War II. “I never looked back, never thought of going back,” he said. There was one major opportunity to get back on stage, when he was offered the part of Officer Krupke in a production of West Side Story. “I had too many other commitments,” he said. “But that was fine with me.”