An unexpected role: Glenroe star on learning he was the eldest of seven... at 61
In his sixties, actor and director Alan Stanford was astonished to discover he was adopted. Having traced his biological family, he tells our reporter how he went from being an only child to the eldest of seven
Published 25/01/2016 | 02:30
Landmark birthdays tend to inspire moments of self-reflection, and as one enters the traditional "retirement" decade, there may be an assumption that life's biggest adventures are behind you. So when actor and director Alan Stanford turned 60 in 2009, he presumed that what lay ahead would be fairly predictable.
"I remember thinking that I had done an awful lot in life and not much more could happen now," he says. "Then, within two years, my relationship with my partner Maeve [Fitzgerald] came to an end, I moved to America and discovered that I was adopted. Which goes to prove that you should never think that life is over, as there are always surprises around the corner."
Having requested a long-form birth certificate for American green card purposes in 2010, Alan made the rather startling discovery that he had been adopted by the people he believed to be his biological parents, Annie and John Stanford. "I sat down and poured a very large Jameson because at 61, it was a very big surprise," he admits. "It wasn't a shock that upset me, to be honest, as I found the whole thing rather funny."
Reading the certificate, Alan discovered that his birth name was Edward Charles Huff - "a wonderful name for an actor." He was born to 17-year old Renee Huff in Kendal in England's Lake District, in a Church of England home for unmarried mothers. Reflecting upon it, curious things from the past began to make sense to Alan.
"My parents were very much older than me," he explains. "They were the loveliest people, deeply loving and caring, but they were well into their forties when I was born. That should have been the clue, because I remember thinking I must have been a miracle child. My mother told my ex-wife that she had miscarried three babies before I "came along." She also said she had a big operation, which clearly meant a hysterectomy, so they obviously decided to adopt. I had so little in common with them, and didn't think the way they did and they didn't really understand me, but they were my mum and dad and they were wonderful."
While Alan has lots of aunts, uncles and cousins in Liverpool, his parents moved to the Isle of Wight when he was very young. They told him it was because his mum had a sister living there that she wanted to be close to, but in retrospect, he believes they wanted to put a distance between themselves and the rest of the family. This was possibly because back in 1949, the family of very staunchly conservative Methodists may have disapproved of his parents adopting an illegitimate child.
"I remember watching a TV play, and my dad turned it off as he heard a word that he didn't like. I asked what was wrong and he replied that they said the word "bastard."
Alan had a very happy childhood, and says that his parents were remarkable, simple, working-class people, and very moral and decent. "What I found astounding was that they had very little, but they took me on with open arms and generosity," he says, of the couple who both passed away in the 1990s. "They had nothing but gave me everything."
While his parents weren't in the slightest bit theatrical, Alan was putting on "plays" in the back garden from the age of five, despite never having been to a theatre. He had plenty of friends on the idyllic island. He liked school but was "crap" at it, although his teacher, Colin Ramsey, spotted his acting talent and kept putting him in school plays. He ultimately convinced Alan's parents to let him pursue drama studies.
Alan successfully auditioned for RADA and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, but chose the latter as it was subsidised in part by the city. It still cost £55 per term, and he was grateful to his parents for covering the fees. "My dad was a labouring mechanic who worked in a factory, and it was a big sacrifice to pay for it. My mum even went to work as a cleaner. They were so proud, and they instilled a great sense of moral direction in me."
After graduation, Alan had a few small roles, and was then offered a theatre part in Killarney, which is what brought him to Ireland. He felt naturally at home here, and moved to Dublin during a very exciting time. The Project Arts Centre was launching, and there was an explosion of alternative theatre and projects, and Alan was involved in running the first official Fringe festival in Dublin. He acted all over the world in productions of Uncle Vanya, The Importance of Being Earnest and Salome, receiving a Harveys Theatre Award for best actor for his performance as Salieri in Amadeus. He also played the role of George Manning in Glenroe for many years, and is especially proud of playing Pozzo in the Gate production of Waiting for Godot all over the world.
With a stellar directing career that began at the Project, Alan directed numerous productions at the Gate theatre, including Romeo and Juliet, Tartuffe, Pride and Prejudice, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Great Expectations, Lady Windermere's Fan and The Old Curiosity Shop. "This body of work is what I am most proud of," he says. "Working with Michael Colgan was amazing as he's the most remarkable producer I have ever known."
Alan's parents were deeply proud of his success, and would regularly come over to see his theatre performances. "They weren't great play-goers to be honest, and this discovery of being adopted has made me love them even more," he says. "They let me follow nature, rather than forcing nurture, and they completely supported me."
While his career has been hugely successful, when it comes to matters of the heart, Alan's romantic life has been somewhat chequered. He married actress Patricia McMenamin, and that marriage ended in a UK divorce. Then he married Sharon Harris, and they have two sons, Daniel (34) and Matthew (29). Did he enjoy becoming a father?
"I did but I was living a very busy life, as you had to be busy because nothing paid well," he explains. "I was a good father but not a great dad. I didn't know what it was like to be a dad because my father was so much older than me and he worked a lot. He set me a wonderful example that as a father, you have responsibilities, and I took the financial and guiding responsibility side very seriously. I would look at kids playing with their dads, though, and I think I failed at that side of it, so that's a regret for me. I get on very well with both of my sons, and they have become remarkable young men. I credit their mother with it far more than I credit myself, but they are wonderful and I am deeply proud."
As has been well-documented, Alan's marriage to Sharon ended after 20 years when he met actress Maeve Fitzgerald. She was playing a witch in the Second Age theatre company's production of Macbeth, and he was the director. Eyebrows were raised initially as she was 19 and a UCD college student, while at 53, Alan was 34 years older and married. Nonetheless, the romance lasted for eight years and Maeve and Alan became engaged during that time, but sadly the relationship ended in 2011. Was the intense media interest in his love-life a nuisance? And now that he's currently single, what's it like being by himself?
"Well, Maeve was also in the business and there was an age gap so we were in the public eye," he shrugs, in response to the first question. "We were together for nearly nine years and that came to an end but we're still friends. Life tends to happen, and not always in the way you plan or expected. I don't like being by myself, and am not one of the world's natural bachelors. I miss that companionship as I like people and conversation."
Alan says that while his relationships with his three former partners are over, he still loves all of them. His philosophy is that just because a relationship has come to an end, it doesn't negate what that relationship meant to you in its time. "The reasons you loved someone don't change," he explains. "I'm sure Maeve and my ex-wives have many reasons not to like me, but I hope they remember the reasons they liked me. When you're in a relationship, there's an affinity there, and I still love all the things I used to love about them."
So would he be open to love again? "I think I'm too old for all that now," he says. "I'm open to love - I think everyone is - but I'm not seeking it. I think I've done enough damage already."
It was after his relationship ended with Maeve that Alan went to Pittsburgh in the US, where he now lives today. He is executive and artistic director with PICT Classic Theatre, and adores his life there. The city is small, but it has an enormous amount of artists working there, a vast amount of theatre, ballet, opera and art, and a superb symphony orchestra. At first, he travelled back and forth before applying for a green card and moving over full-time. "I had been going around in circles for a long time in Dublin, and I had a long-time love affair with America," he explains.
As discussed earlier, this was how Alan discovered he was adopted, and he mentioned it to Sharon Lawless, who was producer of his radio show on 4FM. As it happened, she was also making the first Adoption Stories series for TV3, and asked him if he wanted to be included. "I said 'Yes, why not?' and that was how it all came to pass," he says. "If it wasn't for Sharon, I don't know if I ever would have bothered looking for my family, but I was excited about what we might discover."
What they did discover was that Alan's birth mum, Renee, lived in Hampshire but her father was a "terrible man," so when she was 14, she ran away from home and went to live with her grandmother in a lodging house in Liverpool. She became pregnant when she had just turned 17, but couldn't afford to raise the baby. She had been accepted to study nursing, but had no hope of being permitted to train at that time with an illegitimate child.
She kept baby Edward for four months and then her grandmother heard of a woman who had a daughter who couldn't have children - his adoptive mum - and the baby was passed to her. Alan then made the heartbreaking discovery that Renee passed away in her 70s, 18 months before he discovered he was adopted.
"My mother kept my photograph and birth cert in the hope that one day, I would turn up and find her," he says, sadly. "I think she assumed that by the time I was 21, my adoptive parents would have told me about my past, but they never did."
After she had Alan, Renee went on to marry twice. She had one daughter, Eileen, from her first marriage, and five children, Christine, Mandy, Valmai, George and Dawn from the second marriage. He decided to write to Eileen, explaining that he completely understood if she didn't want to know him, but he would like to meet her and find out about his mother.
"The email I received back five days later was a complete shock to me," he says. "It said that she had been waiting for that letter for over 40 years as our mum had told her when she was 14 and had sworn her to secrecy. My mother's husband also knew, but Eileen was the only one of the siblings to know about me. I then met them all and they were as shocked as I was - we all have the same eyes. They invited me to a barbecue with 54 blood relations I never knew I had, including uncles and aunts, and it was amazing."
One funny thing was that Alan reacted every time someone said his brother George's name, having been known as George from Glenroe in Ireland for 40 years. "The wonderful thing is that once they got over the shock, they took me in," he says. "They never used the words 'half-brother,' as I'm just the eldest and their big brother and am one of them. My mum's second husband Jim has also totally accepted me. It's great to find these people after a lifetime and know they just think of me as family, and I love them all. Finding out they have an elder brother who is English, but fundamentally Irish, living in America and is an actor, must have been a phenomenal shock, but they took me on board."
While it was devastating to find that his biological mum had passed away, Alan has come to understand so much about her through his siblings. She was a very intelligent woman, who worked as a nursing sister. She read classical literature and listened to classical music, which he also does.
"I got my love of literature and music from my mum, but I don't know where the acting came from," he says. "The one thing she never told anybody was who my dad was, and now we will never know. The theatrical abnormality must have come from somewhere, so I suspect it could have been from him. The general consensus from my siblings and my mum's siblings is that she would have been thrilled seeing what I did."
Alan's family explained that as her family grew, his mum loved every child dearly and also took in a young man who had trouble with his own family. One of his aunts explained that it was as if she decided that because she lost a child, no other child would be let go. "From everything I am told about her, she seems to have been the most loving person, and I think having to give me up gave her that need to reach out and love as much as she could," says Alan. "It has been a very strange and extraordinary experience going from being an only child to having siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces and great nephews and nieces. but it's quite wonderful.".
Alan recently filmed an episode of Adoption Stories: What Happened Next with his siblings, which will air this Tuesday on TV3. Produced by Flawless Films, it follows on from the original programme, in which Alan was searching for his mum. This time, we meet up with the family, and discover that they are now a real family - "The Magnificent Seven," as his sister Eileen describes them. Producer Sharon Lawless describes the family as "lovely, warm, funny people," and was very touched when each one of them thanked her for finding them and bringing Alan into their lives. Alan, naturally, is also profoundly grateful to her.
One theory explored in the programme is that Alan's father was an actor - he certainly bears a resemblance to his mother's favourite actor, Peter Ustinov, which is a delicious, if purely speculative, theory. Or maybe it was a travelling Irish actor, which would explain his affinity with Ireland. During the programme, he undergoes DNA testing to see if his roots can be pinpointed.
"The last few years have taught me to never presume anything so I don't know what will happen for me in the future," Alan smiles. "I will have to see what serendipity has in store for me next."
'Adoption Stories - What Happened Next' with Alan Stanford airs on Tuesday at 8.30pm on TV3. The book 'Adoption Stories' by Sharon Lawless is available from www.adoptionstories.tv for €12.99
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