Barry Fuller is having a wonderful life.
Wait, that’s a different story ...
But it’s still true. The 85-year-old actor and bon vivant, who has made Scrooge a memorable presence at Theatre Memphis for years, is having the best time ever.
He’s opening the community theater’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol” with his 13th rendition of the grouchy miser who finds redemption in the Charles Dickens classic.
It’s a role he’s played off and on since 1978, but after the play’s run ends on Dec. 22, he’s hanging up the humbug and retiring from the role.
But he’s not retiring from anything else. “Two years ago, I said I’d quit at 85,” Fuller says. “I know physically it’s time to stop. I am still getting around very
well, but I don’t want to push it.” He quotes a line in “A Christmas Carol” that Scrooge says to the Ghost of Christmas Present: “I am too old and beyond hope. Go find a younger and more promising creature.”
Yet Fuller is the guy we all look at and think, “I hope I’m as energetic when I’m that age.” He’s not leaping tall buildings at a single bound, but he comes close.
And he says that while his Scrooge will soon be history, “I’ll do any other role of an old guy.”
Most recently he was in a scene in “Young Frankenstein” playing a memorable and hilarious patient of the unfortunate creature-creating doctor. It was another in a long list of characters he’s done over the decades since he first got on stage as a tap dancer at age 11.
Fuller was born in Wagga Wagga, Australia, and soon after moved to Sydney, where he grew up. He first appeared there in a production at the Prince Edward Theatre. He still has family in Australia, and some are coming to see him at Friday night’s $100-a-ticket gala benefit performance.
He first came to the United States in 1952 and attended the University of Iowa. He paid for college working as a composing room printer for The Columbus Dispatch, The San Antonio Light, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The New York Times.
Eventually, Fuller met George Touliatos and Barbara Cason, who co-founded and ran the Front Street Theatre. They helped get him back to the United States after his student visa ran out, and Fuller began his continuing association with Memphis theater at Front Street.
His favorite roles include Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Herr Schultz in “Cabaret.” He also was in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” with George Hearn, who would go on to become a Broadway luminary. (“A brilliant play, but nobody came to see it.”)
In 1997, Fuller was awarded the Eugart Yerian Lifetime Achievement Award in Memphis Theatre at the Ostranders ceremony, and in 2006 he won an Ossie for Best Cameo Performance in Theatre Memphis’ “Cats.”
He’s done Scrooge for Theatre Memphis 13 times since 1978, but he hasn’t been idle during other holiday seasons. For 11 years he was with Ballet Memphis as Herr Drosselmeyer in “Nutcracker.”
Fuller’s performance career has spanned theater, ballet and opera.
“I sang in a trio in ‘Die Fledermaus’ with Beverly Sills — I was the stuttering lawyer — and also sang with Dame Joan Sutherland in ‘La Traviata,’” he says.
When he first took on Scrooge, Fuller took a heavily comic tack. “But I’ve changed it,” he says. “Now I try to bring out the meanness and stupidity and show why people dislike him. I still keep elements of comedy so people can see why he is like he is and can even laugh at himself.”
There are some things that have never changed. “I’ve kept the same distinctive walk for all those years. It’s something tangible for the faithful who keep coming back.”
Theatre Memphis’ production has undergone some revisions over the years, but not much modernization. “It’s a classical production with old carols,” Fuller says, “the only contemporary one being ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ that is presented at the end.”
While he’s not going to be essaying the role of Scrooge anymore, Fuller has recently started taking on duties helping out backstage. In August, he worked in the costume shop ironing men’s shirts for “The Royal Family.”
“It was not my favorite job,” Fuller says, so he soon tried his hand in the lighting department. “It’s physically tough. I could get up in the catwalk, but then I couldn’t get down!”
But he’s found a few more agreeable duties. “I sorted through millions of gels (light filters) in ‘Young Frankenstein.’ That I can do with the greatest of ease. And a lot of painting.”
Fuller hadn’t done offstage work in the past because he only just retired from his business four years ago. He’s been in the travel business since the 1970s, with agencies most recently and before that as a passenger service manager with American Airlines. Among his duties with American was looking after VIPs including Gloria Swanson, Liza Minnelli and Steve McQueen.
After a lifetime of working at jobs he loves and performing onstage, he’s the first to admit that it is, indeed, a wonderful life. “I am a happy man,” Fuller says. “I have experienced and seen things and met people, and you can’t beat that.”
And Scrooge will always be close to his heart. “I love playing it. It’s an honor to do an iconic character.”
But who will take his place?
Fuller simply recites his line: “They’ll find some younger and more promising creature.”
‘A Christmas Carol’
Through Dec. 22 at Theatre Memphis, 630 Perkins Ext.
Show times: 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12-15 and 17-22; 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14-15 and 21-22.
Tickets: $30; $15 students with ID, $10 under age 12
Info: 901-682-8323; theatrememphis.org