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Acting — Off Stage and Away From the Camera

Honorary Y’s Man Jim Naughton returned on Thursday to present Paying It Forward, a long running work he produces, directs and stars in, one right from his heart, and only occasionally performed on stage.

Naughton has spent more half a century “in the business,” acting on stage, in film and on TV, and producing, directing and doing voice. 

John Brandt introduced him, saying that, in the spotlight Naughton is a “consummate professional.” Away from it, he is one of the most generous members of the Connecticut arts community. 

Brandt continued, he will talk about using his well earned reputation to make the world a better place and its people aware of the needs of others.

Naughton opened with a confession. He’s still acting, but not anxious to get back on the stage and do the eight show a week deal. “It’s exhausting… (and) I show up for matinee day when my buddies are playing golf.”

He talked to a couple of things he’s spent a lot of effort on in the last couple of years.

He lost his wife Pam six and one-half years ago, after a four year battle with pancreatic cancer. One of her physicians was Dr. Richard Frank. “A wonderful guy.” They stayed in touch after Pam died.

Three years ago Dr. Frank asked Naughton if he could help raise funds for a research project he is heading up — seeking an early diagnosis for pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer will soon be the number two killer, after lung cancer, because it’s too often diagnosed late, when there’s nothing you can do about it.

Asked if he could put on a show, Naughton agreed, and first brought in Newman’s Own and Bill and Hillary Clinton from their family foundation as supporters.

Chris Coogan, a jazz pianist extraordinaire, put together a band. Chris and Naughton’s son had a garage band years ago at Weston High School.

The event raised $1.3 million for Dr. Frank and the Western Connecticut Health Network.

“I felt pretty good about what we had done.”

“If you’re interested in getting involved, there are ample opportunities in the community” Naughton added.

Coming home, he said he and Pam had been together since they were 17. Fifty years later, and after 46 years of marriage, she died after doctors ran out of things to throw at her cancer.

Close to the end, one day she surprised him, “I don’t want to wake up any more.” 

That night she woke up when he got into bed, “I thought I wasn’t going to have to wake up any more… she died within the next two days.”

He determined to do something for Pam, and began working with Right to Die With Dignity, on legislation that had been in the back of his mind since it was passed in Oregon in 1997. And he met with leaders of Compassion and Choice, a group working to move this legislation nationally.

Last January he met with Jonathan Steinberg, Chair of the General Assembly’s Public Health Committee. He testified in front of the committee. But the legislation failed by one vote to get out of committee. Had it gone to the floor it might have passed.

Senator Will Haskell, a “Wunderkind,” called on him because he knew of Naughton’s interest in this issue, and said he spoke at the Senior Center. The only thing they wanted was to get this legislation passed. We’re going to talk to more people.

He added that this is not for everyone. While nine other states have approved similar legislation, and a 2017 Gallup Poll found that 73 percent of us want this legislation there is resistance — from the Catholic church; from people with disabilities, because people who stand to gain an inheritance might push for them to die early; and from the state hospice organization. On the other side, the Connecticut Medical Society — the doctor’s organization — just went neutral. 

Talking to the disabilities issue, he said bringing pressure is a felony, and Oregon requires that if pressure is brought to bear on a person too frail to resist a report must be filed. Since 1997 not one case has been reported.

He told a couple of lighter stories, about coaching little league, stories with “a big payoff.”

One was about Curt, “not a very gifted athlete,” who said he hadn’t gotten a hit all season. Naughton pitched to him every day for a week after school.

Late in an important game Curt came up with two runners on. “He’s scared, he’s nervous. He kept the bat on his shoulder for two strikes.” “You gotta swing the bat.”

“Boom.” He hit a stand up double and drove in two runs. “Coach, Coach… “

During Q&A he was asked how he became an actor. 

He was recruited to Brown to play soccer and baseball, and wanted to be a doctor. Friends told him play soccer now and take his labs in a couple of years. He did. 

But during November of his junior year, walking past the theater, he thought of a girl who was part of the theater group. On a lark, he walked in and sat down next to her. 

They were auditioning for Guys and Dolls. “Who’s next.” She pointed at him. “Come up here.” He begged off. The professor coaxed out of him that he had acted in South Pacific, Carousel and Annie Get Your Gun in high school.

He got him to sing a song. “Go learn this scene. Come back in about ten minutes.” He did. “I’d like you to be in a show.”

“I can’t do it now, but I can come back after our soccer team is eliminated.”

As Spring semester was starting he was looking for an arts course to meet his graduation requirement. He stopped into the professor’s office. “You can do this… take my class. It’s a scene study class like the Actors Studio in New York… Do that for a year and a half, and you go to Yale Drama school.”

He auditioned and got in. “After two days I found where I belong.”

He went back two years ago for his 50th reunion. He said thank you to the professor, James O. Barnhill, then 95 years old. “He was wonderful.”

“The difference a teacher can make.”

Photo by Ted Horowitz

Roy Fuchs