“So it went on—a profession older than writing, and one that will probably survive when the written word has disappeared. And all the sterile wonders of movies and television and radio will fail to wipe it out—a living man in communication with a living audience.”
—John Steinbeck, “Travels with Charley”
A living man in communication with a living audience. This is Steinbeck relating his encounter with an itinerant actor with whom he shares coffee and whisky—and an apt and fitting description of a local treasure, actor Taelen Thomas.
His friends know him as “Lefty,” a moniker earned in boyhood because, he explains, “I throw and bat left.” Audiences know him as John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Jack London, Daniel Boone, Teddy Roosevelt, Robert Burns, Jim Thorpe, O. Henry and Ogden Nash…among others.
It’s not overstating the case to say that Thomas has literally created a unique art form. Sure, others portray historical figures—most notably Hal Holbrook, known for his “Mark Twain Tonight!” one-man show—but few actors portray such a wide range of characters in quite the same way.
When you hire Lefty Thomas to come to your house as John Steinbeck, he both delivers a prepared show of Steinbeck’s witticisms in character and afterward, he’s likely to pull up a chair and carry on a conversation with you as Monterey County’s native son novelist.
John Kelly, owner of Monterey talent agency Kelly Productions, has booked Thomas for decades.
“Taelen celebrates words,” Kelly says. “Prose, poetry, literature…he does it all in a way that makes you want to listen to him. He’s a brilliant storyteller.”
A native of Lake Bellaire, Michigan, Thomas drove his Chevy to California to attend college at Stanford. He earned a degree in philosophy and followed up with a masters in Philosophical Anthropology from the University of Hawaii. Back on the mainland in the 1970s, he taught part time, did odd jobs and read poetry—Robert Burns, William Butler Yeats, Ogden Nash—in San Francisco and Santa Cruz coffee houses.
During that period,Thomas says, “I used to come down to Carmel on my motorcycle and admire the ocean. It’s so beautiful here.”
The event that led to his present calling was this: a friend saw one of his poetry readings and was mightily impressed by Thomas’ thunderous speaking voice. “A fantastic set of pipes,” marvels John Kelly. The friend suggested he try his hand at stage acting. Never one to do things the usual way, Thomas wrote an original one-man play called “Shades of Stanley Ketchel,” about a now mostly-forgotten Ragtime-era middleweight boxing champion known as the Michigan Assassin. “He was one of the most famous men of his day,” Thomas says, “and one of my father’s boyhood heroes.”
An attendee at that show invited him to portray Robert Burns at a dinner. Then someone else thought Steinbeck would be a good pull around here. Then Jack London…And so on. Thomas portrays all four of these characters to this day—and many more.
Perhaps the word “inhabits” would be more apt than “portrays” to describe Thomas’ approach. “I try to bring out personality and attitude in a historical context,” he explains. To do that, he chooses a particular moment in a character’s life. One can meet Teddy Roosevelt in 1913 at a Rough Riders reunion just before he left for South America. Or Jack London when he visited Carmel around 1910. Thomas paints a delightful picture of what life was like here then, using London’s voice and mannerisms as his palette.
Physicality is important in getting inside a character’s skin. “It feels good to be the same size as Steinbeck,” Thomas says. “Twain was a small man but a very big stage presence. As Roosevelt I can puff up and be larger than life.”
“One of the main features of this calling is that it is fun,” Thomas says. “I don’t mean that to sound pretentious. It’s a very personal art form.” He eschews a computer (“nothing against them, I just don’t like looking at a screen”) and in fact, rarely scripts anything, preferring to learn his lines by heart. And this is almost always done while walking around town or while swimming in Carmel Bay. He likes to quote Leonardo da Vinci on this subject: “A man of genius is doing most when he appears to be doing nothing.”
In many ways, Taelen Thomas is as rich a historical figure as the legendary people he portrays—or inhabits. It’s as if Twain, da Vinci, Steinbeck, Charles Darwin, Robert Louis Stevenson and the dozens of others he’s brought to life have left a little of themselves in his personality. “To me, he’s from the vein of bohemian Carmel or the guys who hung out at Ed Rickett’s lab on Cannery Row,” says John Kelly. To us, the living audience, he’s a joy to behold.