Quietly flows the Don
A charismatic and versatile actor, Don Wycherley says he had to go under a stone after his role in Bachelor's Walk. But a simple upbringing and a happy family life are a source of strength when work dries up, he tells Ciara Dwyer
When actor Don Wycherley was a young boy growing up in Skibbereen, his lunch-time ritual was a rather unusual affair. Every day his mother Marie would arrive at the school gates in her Morris Minor as he and his two brothers would charge out to meet her. Then the three boys would pile into her car.
"She would serve us hot soup and sandwiches," says Don. "We'd be looking out the car window as the [other] kids would be in under the bike shed with their packed lunches. Then she'd go home and come back to collect us later on. We were spoilt rotten."
He laughs as he recalls the eccentric image of three mollycoddled boys in the back of the Morris Minor.
At first this may sound like a simple tale of an ordinary, loving woman being a protective mother hen, but Marie Wycherley had good reason for looking after her brood so well.
Her husband Florence had died, so she had to fend for her family. (At the time of his passing, the eldest boy was three, Don was a year-and-a-half old and the youngest was three months.) Instead of crumbling, she survived with great strength and stoicism.
"She was left on her own with the three of us," says Don. My mother was on a widow's pension but she somehow survived. We became her project.
"My father died of a massive heart attack. He was at home when it happened, so it was awful. It's not something that my mother would talk about a lot."
Don was too young to remember his father, as was his younger brother, but the eldest has some vague memory, something about slippers.
"If you look at the photos of my father he was a big man. He was rotund enough with big hands. He was a bit like me in that he was a jack of all trades -- he was part farmer, part auctioneer and in the early Sixties he became an independent TD. (Don is soon to play a government minister in TG4's forthcoming comedy drama series about the shenanigans at the Galway Races -- Rasi na Gaillimhe.) He wasn't in power long enough to get a TD's pension. He missed it by about three months."
Don and his brothers became their mother's focus.
"She was strict. She had to be. She wouldn't mince her words. I have the greatest respect for her and the way she did it. Under the circumstances it would have been so easy to have gone many different ways. She did a great job. Money was tight but it was tight for everybody back then."
The boys would make bows and arrows from sticks. It was a happy childhood.
"Skibbereen wasn't a massive town but it was massive to us then," he says.
Don played Gaelic football and got involved in school plays, playing everything from Kermit the Frog to doing Cha and Miah sketches.
"I have nothing but good things to say about the De La Salle Brothers. I had a great time there and it was a great school. I always enjoyed doing drama with Brother John."
On one occasion his mother was concerned when she saw him on stage in school drinking what looked like a pint of Guinness, as part of his Cha and Miah sketch, but he assured her that it was just Coke with something on top. There'd be no alcohol with Brother John in charge.
Every summer the funfair would come to Fairfield. This would clash with exams such as the Inter Cert. Don was supposed to be studying hard instead of dreaming of swing-boats and waltzers. "I'd snaffle a few pence out of my mother's purse and I'd be gone -- out the window. One night she came up to my room with milk and biscuits because she thought I was studying so hard and of course I was missing."
He laughs as he remembers this. Don tends to see the lighter side of life. Laughter is never very far away when he is telling his tale.
Marie Wycherley was ahead of her time. From the start, she drummed into her boys that they had to get out of Skibbereen.
"She said: 'There's nothing here. Get out, go to college.' She said: 'What's here? You're going to end up working in the ball-bearing factory.' And apart from a fish factory in Baltimore, there wasn't much else. It was in our heads from an early age that we had to go to college. It was the Seventies and early Eighties. People weren't thinking like that, well not everybody."
And so, the Wycherley boys are living proof of their mother's sound advice. They left Skibbereen and went to college. Don headed up to Dublin and studied to become a primary teacher in St Patrick's. His mother was very proud that he had "got the call to training" but the reality was that at that age he didn't know what he wanted to do with his life.
He taught for a while in Finglas and was a dab hand at maintaining discipline in class. He would dramatise bank robberies in Irish to hold their attention.
Then he was lured to acting and trained in the Gaiety School of Acting. During that year, while working weekends as a doorman in Suesey Street, the Leeson Street nightclub, he met Deirdre who is now his wife. (They have three children -- Jack, 15, Katie, 12, and Evan, 7.)
Just back from New York, Deirdre was working in a bar. On their first date, Don took her to the Trocadero Restaurant. She had arranged for a friend to join her halfway through the date, just in case things weren't going well. However, they got on like a house on fire and so when the friend arrived, and stayed for an hour, Deirdre took her to the toilets and told her that she should go home. They lived together for years before getting married a decade ago.
"I still laugh when I hear Jack and Katie show their friends photos at home and say: 'Here we are at our parents' wedding.' We weren't conventional. Deirdre and I are the best of friends. Being married to an actor can be a nightmare. Sometimes I wish there was more security.
"She's a great support but I don't think she takes any notice of what I do. She doesn't pander to me. When I go home I can switch off totally because any 'searching for my character' [he puts on a hammy thespian voice] won't be tolerated. She's great. She's at home and looks after the kids while I'm out working, so she's the backbone of the household."
Don Wycherley is an extraordinarily talented actor. He has charisma and magnetism in abundance. The actor Jim Norton once told me that he was mesmerised by Wycherley on stage and how he has that rare gift of displacing air. Over the years, I have watched him on stage, and each performance has been compelling. Be it in Eugene O'Brien's Eden, in Tom Murphy's A Whistle in the Dark, in Dion Boucicault's The Shaughraun or Sam Shepard's Fool for Love. He can do comedy, tragedy, swashbuckling hero or Shakespeare. For one role he even learnt to lassoo. Yes, he is a great actor but he works his guts out to get it right.
He has been equally prolific in film and television. Many may know him as Raymond in Bachelor's Walk, and twice he has played a priest -- Fr Cyril McDuff in Father Ted and before that Fr Aidan O'Connell in Ballykissangel.
At present, he can be seen at the Mill Theatre, Dundrum, in Chazz Palminteri's black comedy, Faithful. He plays the part of Tony, a hitman who hasn't done all that many hits.
It's good to see Don back on stage. He has already done two other plays this year, film work is scarce. Wycherley has many strings to his bow. He does voice-overs, acts in Irish and stage and television work, but with the recession and inevitable cuts, a lot of work has dried up. Also, he tells me that being in a drama series in Ireland is not the "Promised Land" one would imagine.
"After you do a TV show you've got to go under a stone for at least five years. That's what I had to do after Bachelor's Walk."
Wycherley has a huge body of film and television work but the problem is that once they are repeated, he does not get paid any repeat fee -- which are known as residuals. This is something which galls him.
"Unlike England or America, in Ireland we sold actors down the Swanny a long time ago. It's this buy-out system they have here. But in other countries the way it works is that if your image is being shown all over the world, you get something for it. The people who made the movie get something for it and you're taxed on it, so the government is getting something back. It generates more funds. I've done a lot of movies over the years but there are no residuals."
When there is no acting work coming in Don doesn't sit on his laurels. "I have a mortgage, three kids and responsibilities." So he goes back to the classroom. He teaches in a primary school in Raheny. Although he says that he doesn't do it all that often, if he needs to, he will.
And then his phone buzzes. It is his wife Deirdre. She is doing a "junk food Friday" and wants to know if he wants anything.
It is this ordinary life which is the foundation to Don Wycherley's world. Coping with rejection and unemployment is an actor's lot. Some days when he is feeling sorry for himself, Deirdre will hand him a copy of The Secret (the bestselling self-help book) and he will snap out of it. But most of the time, they live a happy family life in their Clontarf home.
When he is learning his lines, Don walks the dog down the Bull Wall, with his youngest beside him on a scooter. For his latest role in Faithful, he has taken to going around the house talking in a Tony Soprano accent. "My dad's doing a play," Jack explains to his pals. When they tire of his accent, they return to their computer games. And in the garden, when Evan is with his buddies, Don gets out his lassoo rope and catches a kid or two.
Because he doesn't remember his father, was he clueless about to what to do when he became a dad?
"No. You just get on with it. I've been doing it for 15 years now. Dee keeps on about consistency. 'You want to go to the disco? What did your mom say?' Sometimes they catch me when I am just in. The other night Dee and I were watching some programme with a psychologist talking about problems rearing children. And then our problem walks in the room wanting to go to Wesley."
Faithful, by Chazz Palminteri, is at The Mill Theatre, Dundrum Town Centre, until Saturday, August 22. Time: 8pm. Tickets: €20/€18. Booking: (01) 296-9340 or www.milltheatre.com
Rasai na Gaillimhe starts on TG4 on September 23 at 9.30pm