In 1984, David Starzyk graduated from AIC with a degree and a dream.
Determined to follow his passion for the stage, he embarked on an adventure that led him from the East Coast to the West, building his career as a thespian one gig at a time.
Starzyk’s credits run the full range from musicals to comedies to dramas. He has worked in daytime television (The Young and the Restless, Days of Our Lives), on hit sitcoms (Home Improvement, Two and a Half Men, Hot in Cleveland), and in such shows as Blue Bloods, CSI: Miami, Criminal Minds, and Mad Men. He has worked with some of the biggest names in the business, including producers Steven Bochco, Jerry Bruckheimer, David E. Kelley, and Rob Thomas, to name just a few.
Given the length and scope of his career, one of the most remarkable things about Starzyk is his sweet, down-to-earth manner, and the absence of any Hollywood “horror stories.” In fact, this consummate professional has nothing but good things to say about his experiences in one of the toughest industries on the planet.
“I’ve done 117 parts,” said Starzyk, “and in all of those jobs, there’s only one person I’d not want to work with again. That’s it. The bigger the people are, the nicer they are. I have found that even people about whom I’ve been warned have treated me well, even warmly. When I did Love Boat: the Next Wave, people cautioned me about approaching Robert Urich. But when I told him my mother was a fan, he gave me a signed picture for her. He was the nicest guy. When I did Hot in Cleveland, Betty White had to say lines in Polish, so we called my mother to get the correct pronunciation, and afterwards they sent her more flowers than she could fit on her dining room table. People here are very generous, bright and talented. As long as you know how to do your job, they’re grateful and gracious.”
Now, from his Shakespeare in the Park days in Boston, to his years Off-Broadway, to his life as an actor in LA, Starzyk looks back on his time as an undergrad where the journey began and gives us a peek behind the scenes of how it’s all been playing out.
Q&A WITH A STAR
WHAT MADE YOU CHOOSE AIC?
I was born and raised in Springfield, and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Attending AIC allowed me to commute, which I did for two years before pledging my fraternity. I knew as a commuter I was missing out on the full college experience, but the chance to eat my mom’s cooking and sleep in my own bed, combined with my parents wanting me to still live at home, influenced my decision. My folks wanted me to go to law school, then, perhaps, into politics. I thought maybe I’d go into personnel management, but all of that changed when I decided to major in English and minor in philosophy. Believe it or not, I use what I learned studying those subjects in my work almost every day.
WERE THERE PROFESSORS/CLASSMATES YOU REMEMBER AS ESPECIALLY INFLUENTIAL?
Absolutely. Professors Habbermehl, Birnbaum, Cavanaugh, and Williams left an indelible mark on me. Habbermehl was the head of the Philosophy Department, and he taught me to question things I’d been taught since childhood, as well as to think critically, and that has been invaluable to me as an actor. Dr. Birnbaum was head of the English Department, and he taught a first-rate class in Shakespeare. He turned me on to ideas and plays that would influence my entire career. Dr. Barton was another English teacher who was very influential. Dr. Cavanaugh taught poetry in a way that made it accessible, and Mel Williams was just a warm, wonderful, smart man, who taught English in a way that made it interesting and engaging. As for classmates, my fraternity brothers at Alpha Sigma Delta were instrumental in bringing me out of my shell and helping me become more social than I ever thought possible.
WERE YOU ACTIVE IN CAMPUS ORGANIZATIONS, CLUBS, AND/OR TEAMS?
My fraternity, naturally, and also The Garrett Players at AIC, who, of course, set me on my career path. I was also allowed to do an internship at StageWest, the local resident professional theater company in Springfield, MA, where I saw that my dreams were doable, and I met actors and friends, some of whom I still maintain a friendship with today. At the Garrett Players, our director was George Dawson, an actor who had gone to New York City in his youth, got scared, and left. He was most encouraging when I stated I wanted to become a professional actor. In fact, one of the most profound things said to me by anyone in those days came from him. As I was mulling over the decision to become a thespian, (a decision which horrified my parents, by the way, particularly my mother,) he said, “You don’t want to be my age and wondering ‘What if?’ Follow your dreams.”
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON YOU LEARNED AT AIC?
I learned I could stand up on a stage and speak and sing and act. Having suffered with a stammer for years as a teenager, when I applied to AIC I told a white lie, that I had been in the plays and sung in the choir in high school. I thought it would make me more interesting and attractive. As a result, however, I kept getting invites to join both while I was in college, and finally I got up enough nerve to audition. I ended up getting the part of El Gallo in The Fantasticks, was able to do it well, and the rest, as they say, is history.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST BIG BREAK?
New York City is where I met people interested in the things I was interested in—actors, writers, directors. That’s also where I met my wife, Kimberly Ann Fitzgerald. She had a small theater company and I fell wildly in love with her. I took one look at her and thought, ‘I’m going to marry her!’ So I blossomed there personally and as an actor, but there was no television in New York at that time except for Law & Order. I didn’t have an agent or rep of any kind. After doing many Off and Off-Off-Broadway plays, we moved to Los Angeles where I first did television. I would say my big break was my first TV show, University Hospital. It was an Aaron Spelling production and it showed my agents and managers that I was hireable, plus it was the most money I’d ever made acting!
WHAT’S A TYPICAL DAY LIKE FOR YOU?
I get up, make breakfast and lunch for our younger son, Finn, who is a senior in high school, then, depending on the day’s schedule, (which can change even that day) I either go to the gym or get myself ready for auditions. On a typical day I might have a voice-over audition, a commercial callback, and a “legit” audition (TV or film). There are days when I am running all over town, in heavy traffic, trying to make my appointment times; others when there is nothing doing at all. Those days are the definition of my favorite actor joke: “Why didn’t the actor look outside in the morning?” “Why?” “So he’d have something to do in the afternoon.” Then I make dinner, (I cook about 80% of the meals in our house—a great creative outlet!), watch the news, and, if there are appointments the next day, I read scripts and go over my sides. If I am fortunate enough to be working, I go over the dialogue for the next day. On days when I work, I get up early, if that’s when my call is, get ready, drive in, sit in hair and makeup, then rehearse, wait until they call me on set, and do my job.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT YOUR WORK?
The actual working. It’s easy at this point. Finding the jobs is what’s hard. But my work is creative, interesting, fulfilling, and fun. My fellow artists are usually warm, professional, welcoming, and there is a camaraderie among those of us who are the “last men standing,” as opposed to when I was younger and we all eyed each other with disdain, mistrust—definitely as competitors. Now, since so many of our colleagues have gone by the wayside, we are much more welcoming when we see each other, and supportive as well.
WHAT DO YOU KNOW NOW THAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN IN COLLEGE?
That life goes by quickly, and not to waste time. And not to be fearful. When I was a kid, no one wanted me to become an actor. Not my parents, not the friends I grew up with. No one considered it a viable profession. I think I would tell my younger self to have strength and confidence, to go after my dreams in less of a roundabout way. I started in Boston, was in London for a while, went to New York, then to LA. I needed to get my sea legs, as it were, so I started small. I did enjoy living with some of my frat brothers in Boston, but I should have gone straight to NYC. If it hadn’t been for a few of my very encouraging fraternity brothers and George Dawson, director of the Garrett Players (who was so effusive in his praise of my abilities, talking to me about being brave, and being able to see the consequences of not pursuing your dreams), I don’t know that I would have done it. And acting has given me everything. My wife, my kids, my life here, my career. It’s amazing to stand back sometimes and see how it all came together.
WHAT’S NEXT ON THE HORIZON?
I’ve always written plays, little things that have been done. I have a literary agent and I’ve co-written a film script about the first guys—two Brits actually—to cross the Atlantic, and I’ve written a buddy comedy about two Shakespearean actors based on the real story of how Shakespeare’s plays were salvaged and passed down. I’ve written about factory life in Western Massachusetts, and I have George Clooney looking at something right now.
That’s a wrap. For now.
-By Ellen Dooley