The last time we heard from Cal Beck, the former Ute football star who was driven out of the game by migraines, he had found relief and happiness as a family man, coach and grade-school teacher. Well, Beck has surfaced again, this time as a pimp and a gangster — on stage in a theatrical production of “Sunset Baby.”
Beck has suddenly become an actor.
Richard Scharine, professor emeritus in the University of Utah theater department and director of the play, wrote an email describing Beck’s latest incarnation as an actor: “I won’t even pretend to be unbiased about his performance frankly, he’s a natural, exhibiting the same energy, preparation and interest in the process that he used to display on the (football) field.”
Beck will make his acting debut on March 13 at the Sugar Space Arts Warehouse (132 S. 800 West), with performances March 13-15, 20-22 and 27-29 at 7:30 p.m.
He has zero acting experience. Well, that’s not quite right. When he was 9, he auditioned for a TV commercial to play the role of basketball legend Julius Erving as a child. “There weren’t many ethnic kids with curly hair and an afro in Salt Lake, so my mother had me audition,” he says. And still he didn’t get the part, at least partly because he had never played basketball and kept bouncing the ball off parked cars (long story).
He actually made his acting debut in a sixth-grade production of "Caesar." Years later he was part of a Cottonwood High theatrical production — as a member of the stage crew. Some would say he performs in the classroom for his students at Parkside Elementary — he dresses and acts like Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Elvis on their birthdays, or the Cat in the Hat in honor of Dr. Seuss.
Beck was too busy with his athletic career to consider acting when he was young. He starred on the track and football field at Cottonwood High and is arguably the fastest high school athlete in state history. As a freshman, his long kick returns set up the winning touchdowns against BYU and Arizona (in the Freedom Bowl). As a sophomore he was a shut-down cornerback for the Utes with an NFL future ahead of him.
Then migraine headaches waylaid the rest of his career. After years of struggles, he returned to school, earned a degree, became a schoolteacher and started a family with his wife Deidre (they have two sons, Calbert V or “Flash,” and Flynn).
Beck, 38, never gave acting a thought until last fall, when he was asked to perform in a school musical, which is sponsored annually by the Murray City Arts Council. They were looking for an adult male lead and came to Beck, who is known for his animated personality, his gift of gab and his creative work with kids. He demurred, saying he couldn’t carry a tune; they said they’d work around it.
“Afterward, one of my sons asked me why I did that, and we had a good talk about trying new things and pushing your comfort zone,” says Beck. He remembered that conversation the next morning when he received an email from Sharine asking him to audition for “Sunset Baby.” Beck’s substitute teacher (and co-star in the play), Kerry Wood, had recommended him to Sharine.
“She had never seen me act, but I think she was thinking she knew a guy who’s energetic, ethnic, middle-aged, loud and well-spoken,” explains Beck. “They were looking for a guy who could read for a New York street hustler who is book smart but street smarter.”
Beck has prepared for the play the same way he prepared for a game. He has been memorizing the script since the second week in December, and he has reached out to actors to pick their brains on the acting art.
“I learned that you’ve gotta love the story,” says Beck. “I learned that you don’t memorize parts; it’s a conversation. It’s like football — I call tell you what coverage I’m in, but what everyone else is doing will determine if the ball comes my way. It makes it easier to commit to memory. Then you assign emotions to it.”
Rehearsals have been about the same as two-a-days, running three hours a night, Monday through Friday throughout February.
"Cal has enormous energy and spontaneity,” says Scharine. "He takes direction very well — when he does something, he wants to know the effect it has on others. Finally, he's used to appearing before crowds, playing off them but not being thrown by them.”
The People Productions website describes the play, written by Dominique Morisseau, this way: “A legendary Black Panther, who gave up his family in the name of ‘The Revolution,’ tries to come to terms with a daughter who grew up without him and has nothing but contempt for his ‘cause,’ forcing them both to re-evaluate concepts of personal, family and social values.”
Beck plays the daughter’s boyfriend who, says Beck, “is a street hustler who realizes he is getting older and he’s gotta change. At one point he says, ‘This doesn’t come with no 401k.’ He’s looking for a way to go legit. The issues it touches on are relevant today — the way we look at police, people at the bottom raising themselves up, who makes a difference It’s not for my kids’ ears, but I love the story.”
And so goes the next chapter in the Cal Beck story.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]