Richard Hunsaker has played many iconic characters on stage during his 78 years, but donning police detective Lt. Columbo’s trademark rumpled Mackintosh raincoat has been a particularly memorable experience.
Besides playing such a legendary role in “Prescription: Murder,” he is joined by two familiar faces in the cast. Hunsaker taught speech, drama and debate at Belleville West High School from 1960 to 1995, directing 60 plays and 26 musicals.
On the historic Capitol Theatre stage in downtown Waterloo, Hunsaker duels wits with Will Shaw (Belleville West Class of 1969), of St. Louis, who plays a psychiatrist who kills his wife in the inverted detective story. Another former student, Mark Feazel (Class of 1983) of Millstadt, is the district attorney.
“It has been lots of fun being in a show with two of my former students,” he said. “Both are from different eras, of course. I directed them both. Will played Elwood P. Dowd in ‘Harvey’ in the last Senior Play at Belleville West. Mark worked tech offstage during his high school days.”
Hunsaker has enjoyed working with West alumni before. After retirement, he began acting and directing in local community theater. He shared the stage with former students in “Harvey,” “12 Angry Men” and at Looking Glass Playhouse and in “Deathtrap” with Brass Rail Players.
For about 10 years, he has worked with Monroe Actors Stage Company (MASC). He was assistant director on “Mister Roberts,” and Feazel was the title role a few years ago.
Feazel, who works professionally in the technical side of theater, along with his wife Rachel and daughter Emily have worked with MASC for several years. It has been a thrill to work for his teacher.
“Over the past 30 years I have been his tech director, stage manager, designed and built his sets, acted in shows he directed, designed and run audio and lighting for his shows — but we have never shared the stage until now,” Feazel said.
Hunsaker reconnected with Shaw last fall, on another old student’s play, “1959 Saint Ascension” by Gary Paben, which had its world premiere in St. Louis.
“Will, Pat (his wife of 55 years) and I had so much fun together during the Kirkwood show last fall, I had mentioned to Will that he ought to come over to Illinois and try out at one of the area community theaters. When ‘Prescription: Murder’ tryouts got close, I emailed him the information, and the rest, as they say, is history,” Hunsaker said.
Shaw has enjoyed the experience — even though he’s the villain in the cat-and-mouse mystery.
“Dick Hunsaker, or ‘Dr. Hunsaker’ back in the day, was a favorite teacher and director. My special interest lay in theatre, speech and debate, which was his world. He was just a great teacher and mentor. Now, it’s been wonderful to know him as a peer and friend. ‘Fencing’ with him in the show is just great fun,” Shaw said.
Shaw said at West, he was able to take away much that has influenced his life. “I was given the opportunity to grow as a would-be actor. I was also given the kind of direction that helps move you forward from the beginning stage to the next step. By the time I graduated, I had decided that this performing thing was an actual possibility for me, and I was encouraged to keep working at it in college,” he said.
Shaw graduated from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville in 1974. He has worked in broadcast and film — you might have seen him during KETC (Channel 9) pledge drives. For 30 years, he has worked in communications for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
“I’ve produced a score of video programs about their missions in places like Haiti and Zambia, and I also create and manage the content for the U.S Province website, Facebook and Twitter pages,” he said.
“But I still love doing theatre and ‘need’ it once in a while. It’s been a great experience here and I hope to do more in the future,” he said. “The cast and crew are friendly and easy to work with. Also, everyone takes their work very seriously, which I appreciate. I am there to have fun but I am also there to deliver as good a performance as possible, which is facilitated when you’re surrounded by people who want to do the same.”
Veteran director Tammy Duensing has observed their special bond.
“The interesting part about the student-pupil dynamic has been the rehearsals leading up to their performance,” she said. “The banter, their ease at being on stage together, and their engaging wit have been fabulous! They feed off each other and push each other’s characters. As a director, it has been thrilling to watch. As Will said to Richard one night, ‘Hey, deal with it. I’m your legacy!”
The cast, including Julie Grosse as the doomed wife, Kristy Weber as the mistress and Christine Miller as a secretary, has worked well together in this murder-mystery that introduced Lt. Columbo to the pop culture.
“I have had the most enjoyable time working with this cast. They have worked very hard on developing their characters and back stories. In a drama, it is very important to create a back story for your character, even though the audience doesn’t know what that story is, it makes a more believable character with things you sense about them,” she said. “We had several snow days with canceled rehearsals, and the cast went way beyond my expectations by working on their characters on their own time. It is so gratifying as a director when the cast puts in that extra time.”
The play was adapted for the stage in 1962 from an episode of “The Chevy Mystery Show” in 1960 by William Link and Richard Levinson. They used the technique in which the audience knows who committed the crime, so how they will be caught and exposed is the structure. Thomas Mitchell, 70, played the shrewd detective on stage, and died during the show’s run.
The writers worked on turning the play into a TV movie, and had always envisioned Columbo as older, but Peter Falk seemed like the ideal fit at casting. Falk starred in the NBC TV show that ran from 1968 to 1978, then was revived on ABC from 1989 to 2003.
“I have been a Columbo TV fan for a long time. I think I have seen and enjoyed every episode with Peter Falk,” he said. “The character in the play is not quite the same as Falk’s Columbo of the TV series, which really makes me regret that I was not able to see Thomas Mitchell in the role. I am still of fan of Peter Falk but I certainly did not try to imitate him in building my version of the character in this play,” he said.
Duensing likes the character’s traits. “Columbo is a great character because he is so unassuming on the audience’s part. Suddenly, the audience sees his intellect and sees him as the wily fox that he is,” she said.
Hunsaker agreed. “I think the Doctor character says it all in the play with these words to Columbo: ‘You’re an intelligent man, Columbo. You take people by surprise. They underestimate you and that’s how you trip them up. Moreover, you’re likeable. The astonishing thing is that you are likeable’,” he said.
Shaw said it’s always enjoyable to see how Colombo figures it out. “Colombo always faced clever, determined murderers who were certain they’d gotten away with it — that’s me. I’m a well-to-do psychiatrist who has killed his wife, and cannot imagine being tripped up by someone like Colombo.”
“Playing an interesting villain like this one is just great fun. He’s not a thug, he’s quite successful and sophisticated, much about him to admire except that he’s also rather amoral and arrogant. Lots of “layers” to this character, I hope I can do him justice,” Shaw said.
Duensing said she has enjoyed putting together the retro aspects of the show. The set by John Campbell includes a psychiatrist’s office and his New York City apartment.
Duensing painstaking went for authentic details. “I think I could write a thesis right now about the 1968 culture with all the research I have done over the past two months. I have gone the extra mile. I researched interior design and the colors that were popular. The difference in table legs from 1961 to 1968,” she said.
In addition to using tangerine orange and avocado green, she commissioned period artwork.
“Lyndon B Johnson gave a 2-hour speech in his presidency that had a wallpaper mural in the background. It was by Thibeau, called Memory Lane, and became one of the most popular wallpapers in the 1960’s. I had my husband, Darrell, do a reproduction of it in paint for the living room of the set, which was done in monochromatic, which was popular in 1968,” she said.
She also costumed the show and found retro props. “I have vintage patterns that I used in making some of the women’s dresses. I researched Samsonite briefcases in 1968 and found several advertising posters, which described them and had pictures, so I got the correct-shaped briefcase that a doctor would have used in 1968, along with a vintage pair of Koss headphones for the secretary,” she said.
“I have had a great time outfitting this play! It has reminded me of many childhood memories of my family and growing up. It makes me feel young again.”