25 May 2014

Matthew Cowles

As Billy Clyde.

The actor and playwright Matthew Cowles has died. Our paths crossed several times, and to this day he’s the only person ever paid to perform a script I wrote: a concert narration for Weill’s Happy End in Princeton, New Jersey. He’s best known for playing Billy Clyde Tuggle, on All My Children, a villain so outrageous that everybody else in soap operas seems dull by comparison — but in life, Matthew was unfailingly kind. Maybe he channeled all his demons into Billy Clyde.

A strutting, scheming pimp, Billy Clyde figured prominently in one of the most satisfying story arcs I saw on All My Children, tormenting Dixie Cooney (Cady McClain) and murdering Tad Martin (Michael E. Knight) in a diabolical explosion that also took Billy Clyde’s life — or so we thought, until Tad returned some time later, and until Billy Clyde showed up again in Pine Valley last year. McClain and Knight brought so much humor to their work and such an easy, appealing chemistry that this viewer somehow didn’t feel guilty for giving a damn about soap opera characters. Matthew stepped between them with a swagger and an irresistible pleasure in his own performance.

The show’s writers rose to the occasion, delivering up terrific material: silly plots, yes, but fun dialogue and abundant opportunities for Matthew to chew every scrap of scenery. Matthew loved the role, and he enjoyed the audience response to Billy Clyde’s endless, extravagant awfulness. I don’t know that anybody ever took seriously a character who, for example, once buried a woman alive, but the reactions were mostly good-natured, and Matthew could sort out gracefully the love that viewers felt for a villain they loved to hate.

With Cady McClain in All My Children.

He came to theater naturally: his father, Chandler Cowles, was a sometime actor and the producer who brought Gian Carlo Menotti’s operas to Broadway. Exuding patrician authority and a clubby bonhomie, Chandler was a frequent visitor to the Kurt Weill Foundation, and nothing at all like the scruffy characters his son played. Matthew was a bit scruffy offstage, too, eccentric and almost otherworldly. His eyes were always twinkling, illuminated by the spins and swirls of his constantly active imagination: he was watching, observing, but you could never quite tell what he saw.

We met again in the 1990s, through my foster mother, Madeline Lee Gilford; with her, I visited Matthew and his wife, Christine Baranski, at their home. My friend Bernard came along, and since he knew fewer people at the party than I did, Matthew did his utmost to make him feel welcome at once: speaking French with him and focusing his attention on him. Even at the time, I was struck by Matthew’s thoughtfulness, and of course anybody who cared about Madeline Gilford would rate highly with me: Matthew spoke at her memorial, the last time I saw him.

He found his match in Christine, whose peppery wit (so close to that of the characters she plays) helped to ground him: they amused each other, and they were generous in their affection. Together they brought up two beautiful daughters, whom frankly I envied — despite constant reminders that one must never take actors’ lives at face value — because the girls had two such cool, creative, fun parents.

Years ago, another fellow tried to impress people by telling them that he was the actor who played Billy Clyde: when he died, word spread that Matthew was dead. This news came as a surprise to Matthew. I hoped that something of the sort had happened again this week, that the rumors would prove untrue, and that Matthew, like Billy Clyde, would reemerge, unscathed.

Yet if there’s a lesson here, it’s not that life is a soap opera. It is rather that, if we enjoy what we do, we may excel. Matthew had fun with Billy Clyde, and no one who watched All My Children will ever forget him.

With Christine Baranski.

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