How many people can say that the rock star Sting wrote a song for them? Fred Applegate can.
Fred, currently playing secretary Joe Tumulty in The Second Mrs. Wilson, running through May 31, can point towards the recent Broadway run of The Last Ship, Sting’s new musical, as one of the highlights of his career. One day he came home from rehearsal for the show to find out that Sting was giving his character, Father O’Brian, another song in the second act. “It was an extraordinarily heartfelt and difficult show with breathtaking music. Everyone put his heart and soul into that one,” he said.
The Second Mrs. Wilson marks Applegate’s return to straight drama. The last non-musical play he’d done was 16 years ago – a successful production of Uncle Vanya in Los Angeles. Earlier this year, he’d finished another musical at the Alliance Theatre when he decided that getting back into a play would be just the thing for him. His agent contacted Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein and the rest was history.
For all practical purposes, Applegate has had several different careers. He began his career working in regional theatre, spending several seasons in the Guthrie Theatre’s repertory company. “I was in my 20s and had boundless energy – who doesn’t have boundless energy in their 20’s? I was at the theatre every day from 11 am to 11 pm. When I left the theatre at night, I wanted to go back. When I got up in the morning, I wanted to go back. It’s was where I wanted to be,” he said. “It was a tremendously creative period.”
But, California sang its own siren song. Applegate and his wife drove from Minneapolis to Los Angeles to visit some friends. While he was there, Applegate booked a national television commercial and a guest appearance on a television show. He and his wife were about to begin a family, and the pay was certainly good. “I said to my wife, this is easy,” he recalled. He didn’t make another penny for the next seven months.
Applegate kept plugging away, taking theatre jobs at the Mark Taper Forum, among other theatres. Television casting directors saw him in a play there, and Applegate went on to do over 150 television appearances over the next decade, including in Newhart, Growing Pains, Seinfeld, and a host of others. “The harder you work and the quieter you are, the more likely they are to have you back,” he said.
About a decade ago, Applegate decided to return east and concentrate on the theatre. He missed being on stage, interacting with an audience, being part of an ensemble. “You show up in New York at age 54 and you are the new kid. They respond to you differently,” he said.
It’s been quite a run – he’s appeared in six Broadway shows in the past eight years, including The Producers, The Sound of Music, and Young Frankenstein. He’s got two more lined up for the next season. “During the performance of a play, no matter the technical events, you are responsible for everything you do. You are expected to make a contribution to that night’s performance,” Applegate said. “In television, you are responsible for bringing what the director wants you to bring to the taping. But you don’t know how they are going to use that.”
Television is fun and certainly pays the bills, but for Applegate there is nothing like being part of a theatre community, bringing a show to life, interacting with an audience. “I am very close to not having to work anymore, being able to retire. I only want to do what I love,” he said.