James MacAaron in his last role, as Captain Cat in “Under Milk Wood.”

James MacAaron in his last role, as Captain Cat in “Under Milk Wood.”

When I was a little girl, I had the most handsome father in the world. Now, a lot of women probably remember their dad this way, but I was completely certain. After all, I had official, third-party, expert opinion on my side. My father, James MacAaron, was a Broadway actor, cast in plays like Mr. Roberts, The Visit, and The Great White Hope as much for his good looks and athletic build as for his acting abilities. He literally turned heads when we walked down the street together.

I grew up listening to wonderful stories of his early days in the theater. There was the time when he was on tour and he offered to cook a turkey for his castmates. He didn’t realize that you needed to thaw the bird prior to baking it; I think they ate at about 4 the following morning. There were backstage stories from all of his shows as well as the ones that got away: the lead in a remake of Tarzan, a promised stint in the West End with The Great White Hope before they decided to take only the black American actors and recast the white parts with English actors.

When I was quite small, my father starred in an attraction at the World’s Fair, based on the popular TV show Sea Hunt. He played a sea monster wearing an elaborate latex costume that he had sculpted at our apartment. As you can imagine, I was fascinated by it. At the show, I reassured the audience not to worry, that it was just Daddy in a costume. (I don’t think I was invited back.) A few years later, I got to wear the mask and finned gloves with a black turtleneck and tights for Halloween when I was the Beast to my sister’s Beauty.

Of course, having a thespian father had its downsides too. Growing up in midtown Manhattan, I would often accompany him to purchase our Christmas tree from one of the sidewalk vendors. Like everything in New York City, these trees were available for a premium, and an actor’s life was anything but financially stable. Some years, we had to wait until close to Christmas in order to negotiate a better price. Until I was old enough to object, my father used me as a melodramatic little accomplice. He would coach me en route. My lines were something like “Oh, Daddy, this one is so nice. I know it’s our tree. I just know it.” My father would then sheepishly admit to the seller that he didn’t have quite enough for the tree his small daughter had fallen in love with. Eventually I became too big (and too self-conscious) and my role was handed down to my sister, whose performance was even more Dickensian than mine.

MacAaron in his work as a swim-club instructor.

MacAaron in his “survival work” as a swimming instructor.

Like most actors, my father had survival jobs in between theatrical gigs. His were particularly fortunate ones, from the perspective of his kids. He worked as a scuba diver, then as a lifeguard and swim instructor at a health club. This meant years of after-hours pool parties. (For a while there, I was very popular.) Later, as his health began to wane, he got a job as a backstage doorman at one of the Broadway theaters.

For years, I expected to tread the boards in my father’s footsteps. I acted with an acclaimed children’s theater company while in high school and majored in drama at college. My father was always supportive, sending opening night telegrams and keeping any critical opinions, kindly, to himself. His main focus was always on speech and vocal projection. God forbid that any of his kids should develop a New York accent! To this day, I think of him every time someone says, “But you don’t sound like you’re from New York.”

My father was a self-taught Shakespearean actor and coach. Although he dropped out of high school to join the Air Force (believe me, there were stories from that period, too), he knew more about the Bard than any of my professors. Working backstage when the Royal Shakespeare Company brought Les Liaisons Dangereuses to Broadway in the eighties, he finally persuaded actor Alan Rickman to listen to and critique a monologue from Macbeth. The renowned Brit paused and then judiciously responded, “James, in your case, less might be more. But how do you do that with your voice?”

When my father developed lung cancer (despite some work in Pall Mall ads in the 60s, he was never a smoker), the first thing that left him was his magnificent voice.

There’s a famous American play called I Never Sang for My Father. I did sing for mine, although by that point, just a week before he left us, he couldn’t respond.  I chose “The Fisherman’s Song,” by Carly Simon. (And my brother, who was at my father’s bedside with me, assured me that my voice was way better than Madonna’s.)

The only thing I think my dad loved more than the theater was the ocean. The last part he played was Captain Cat in a production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.

I was pregnant when my father passed away in 1997, making it simultaneously the happiest and saddest year of my life. I wish my father could have known his granddaughter. He would have added so much drama to her life. And she, like her mother before her, would have been his biggest fan.

AlexDaddy_with_AlexJames MacAaron with his daughter Alexandra.

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  • Nina Haft December 26, 2013 at 10:17 am

    This is wonderful Alex, I had no idea your father was an accomplished actor. So happy to learn more about your world, and this special man in your life.

  • Susan Soriano June 14, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Wonderful, wonderful portrait.

  • D. Rice June 13, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    Loved reading about your dad. And what a wonderful daughter he has.

  • Fiona June 13, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Lovely piece. He was handsome, indeed.

  • Toni myers June 13, 2013 at 10:13 am

    Yes, your father was the most handsome. Your story is beautiful

  • b. elliott June 13, 2013 at 7:45 am

    What a pleasure to read! A lovely tribute . . .