By Brian M. Howle
Of all the professions that one might choose to pursue, it is arguable that a career in acting provides an arduous balance of unending performance and fleeting reward. And for most who have seriously sought that holy grail, it is more often than not a pursuit that ends in quiet obscurity. But for a very special few, as Aristotle observed, “Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting in a particular way.”
Bill Oberst, Jr. has, by anyone’s standards, acquired that quality – and then some.
A native of Georgetown County, the 40-something actor has followed his love of performing from childhood with a passion that only the most successful in his field attain – and it has not only fulfilled his dreams, but has given a fortunate public one of the greatest talents of our time.
Oberst will be appearing at the North Myrtle Beach Library on June 12 in a special performance entitled, “In Their Own Words,” a reflection of 15 years of playing the great, the famous and the odd. In it, he will encapsulate a career which includes a well-known local career in spot-on portrayals of such luminaries as Lewis Grizzard, Mark Twain, President John F. Kennedy and Jesus of Nazareth.
His bio is a virtual powerhouse of a resumé that any actor would long to possess. A career that began along this very coast quickly brought attention to a uniquely gifted performer who didn’t just play the roles of those he chose to portray – he became those characters. It is the key that many others in the profession fail to fully grasp, but for Oberst, it’s abundantly obvious.
“All my life I have wanted to entertain. It’s my earliest memory and my earliest desire,” Oberst recalls. “I think God gives each of us a gift, and then He gives us a desire to express that gift. It’s the old idea of a vocation. The trick is to make your vocation your occupation, if you can.”
From the beginning, his path was fortuitously plowed by a pre-destined series of events. “I had a drama teacher in high school who changed my life, Judi Peterson,” he continues. “She put me in a 9th grade play as a villain and I added an Elvis impersonation to the character (don’t ask me why – it just seemed the thing to do.) I vividly remember the moment I did my little bit and heard the applause. Here I was, the ultimate unpopular kid, and the other kids were applauding? For me? I was hooked. Same old story; scratch any performer and I think you’ll find a kid who wanted to be liked underneath.”
But even for someone with a God-given, natural talent, when asked what is was like to pursue acting in this area, Oberst replies, “It was difficult. We only had one little theater group in town. Thank the Lord for drama in school. Without it I would have been lost.”
As it is with most things, acting wasn’t a single panacea for his impending success. There were other influences.
“My first job out of college was with the Georgetown County Chamber Of Commerce. By a series of weird circumstances, I ended up being their Executive Director for a few years in my early 20’s,” he fondly recalls. “I was a kid. I knew nothing. So I just made stuff up. People were very nice to me. That job taught me a huge lesson in life: how to ask for help. Generally people are willing to help with anything if you ask nicely. People like to feel needed. More flies with honey, you know?”
For years, locals turned out in droves to watch his performances in area venues, most notably the annual “Nights of a 1,000 Candles” event at Brookgreen Gardens during the Christmas holidays. Anyone who has witnessed his one-man rendition of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” knows just how intense a performance this actor is capable of unleashing.
And his incredible (some would say a genuine reincarnation) interpretation of famed southern humorist Lewis Grizzard is, quite frankly, the stuff of legends. So much so, that Grizzard’s widow personally lauded his performance, and the two became fast friends.
His portrayal of John F. Kennedy in the stage play JFK toured 20 states and had the honor of playing at the Kennedy Library. A deeply spiritual and giving person, Oberst gives back by staging a first person recreation of the teachings of Jesus. Oberst’s presentation “Jesus Of Nazareth” has played to over 1,000 churches and schools, to religious and secular audiences.
So when he made the decision to go for the brass ring and moved out to Hollywood some three years ago, it was a literal tossing of the dice, as with all who make the trek. But Bill Oberst, Jr. had a secret weapon:
Bill Oberst, Jr.
In a place where the daily fare of public personas in Tinseltown seems to read more like a tabloid than an inspiring tale, his character, kindness as a person and a deeply spiritual background served him well.
Casting directors and producers aren’t easily impressed, but Oberst began working nearly as soon as he hit town in 2008. To date, Oberst has appeared in over 40 projects on the big and small screen in a wide variety of roles. From a serial killer in Dismal to a school principal in his critically acclaimed role in The Devil Within to a cop in The Secret Life of Bees to his award-winning role as General William Tecumseh Sherman in Sherman’s March, Oberst is making his presence felt. He is widely referred to by industry insiders as, “The best actor you’ve never heard of.”
A combination of Oberst’s acting intensity and his physical appearance created a compelling screen persona that brought him to the attention of the movers and shakers in a particular genre of film: horror.
As a result, a rapid progression of filmwork came to him, and he parlayed each opportunity into another, as word spread of this unique actor “with the disturbing screen presence.” Soon, his performances caught the eye of those involved with the more mainstream projects – and, in true Hollywood storyline, the genie is now out of the bottle.
Oberst has just been cast as a demon in the upcoming feature film The Last Supper opposite Oscar-nominated veteran actor Robert Loggia. The film relates the Biblical story of the Last Supper as told through the eyes of the Apostles. Loggia plays the Apostle Peter, who narrates the film. Oberst was tapped by casting director Billy DaMota, CSA to embody the role of the ageless demon who appears to Peter in one-on-one scenes with Loggia.
I had the great fortune to befriend Bill some time back, and he graciously allowed me to interview him for this event.
Howle: Who were the biggest influences on you as far as your interest in acting and theatre?
Oberst: I have always loved monsters. I always identified with them and even sympathized with them, because I felt like one myself. So the old classic monster movies were a big influence. I wanted to be like people whose careers had ended before I was born. I wanted to be Lon Chaney. I wanted to be Boris Karloff. I practiced walking like The Wolfman. I wanted to make movies like that. I went into stage first, because there was no chance of my ever making movies being a kid from Georgetown County, SC. I enjoyed the stage immensely for 12 years, but I find it very satisfying that I finally ended up in Hollywood doing what I wanted to do as a kid. Sometimes God allows life to still hold a few surprises for us, even after 40!
Howle: How difficult was it getting established and finding and agent/agency that you felt gave you the best opportunities?
Oberst: There are no words to describe what a tough, tough environment this is. It’s the Super Bowl for actors. Everyone wants to make it here. It is a harsh place to be and there is no mercy shown by the industry to a newcomer. There are too many newcomers every day for anyone to notice or care. It is brutal. After 3 years here, I am somewhat known by some people in some circles, and I work pretty regularly, but there are still times when I think I will never work again. It’s not a place for the faint of heart. I often think of the first half of Psalm 124:2 “If it had not been for the Lord who was on our side…” He has been my agent and my manager and my advocate.
Howle: How did you find your way into the horror genre?
Oberst: The first movie role I booked out here was in a little thriller called The Devil Within. I played a very disturbed and possibly murderous high school principal. It was a nice supporting role and I was lucky to book it right after I got here. I had done a horror film called Dismal, in which I played a backwoods cannibal, in Georgia just before I moved out, so those two put me on people’s radar in LA as “that guy with the disturbing screen presence.” I embraced it and now it is my calling card on film. Oddly, my two biggest budget and highest prestige projects were not in that field at all. Both were on TV: the title role in The History Channel’s “Sherman’s March” and the male lead in The Hallmark Channel’s movie “The Shunning.” I’m grateful to Michael Landon Jr. for giving me a shot at being something besides scary in that Hallmark movie, and “Sherman” got me my first agent here.
Howle: What were the biggest suprises that you found in the industry? Good and bad?
Oberst: The bad news is that sometimes an actor can’t afford to eat out here. The good news is that the food on set is really, really good!
Howle: Has it been a surprise to find that there is such a cross-working network of contacts that overlap different genres of film and TV work?
Oberst: That’s very astute of you to ask; very perceptive. Yes I have been surprised to find how small a world the film and TV industry is, especially on the production side. It is yet another reason to be nice to everybody in the business…they all talk!
Howle: What have been the projects that have given you the greatest satisfaction?
Oberst: “The Shunning” was very special to me, because Michael Landon Jr. gave me a chance to prove I could do a big-budget drama. I wanted badly to prove him right and make him proud, because he had gone to bat for me with the network to get me hired. I also loved playing Lewis Grizzard and hearing that sweet sound of laughter for 10 years. But I suppose the most satisfying role I ever did was, and always will be, “Jesus Of Nazareth.” It was only seen by people in small-town churches, it will never be on TV or film and it didn’t make me rich, but the memories of doing it are precious to me. I wouldn’t trade the experience of seeing people’s faces changed as I spoke the words of Jesus for Oscar nor for Emmy.
Howle: What’s it like for you, to come back periodically like this to your hometown area and reprise some of those earlier works, such as the performance you are giving at the NMB Library on June 12?
Oberst: Being back home is a balm to my soul. I love it. I wish I could make a living doing what I love there. I dearly wish it.
Howle: What are your goals as you continue to expand your acting horizons?
Oberst: To keep on making a living doing what I love is plenty for me. Everything else is gravy.
Howle: Is there anyone you would like to acknowledge in helping you achieve your goals to this point?
Oberst: All God all the time. God and family. God and family and friends. God and family and friends and a thousand people who have been kind to me. I’m so blessed and so grateful.
Howle: Any advice to someone wanting to pursue a career in acting?
Oberst: Don’t do it if you can help it. What I mean to say is, if you can imagine yourself being happy doing anything else for a living, do that instead. Acting is a bitch of career path. It is uncertain, unstable, not merit-based, full of rejection and virtually guaranteed to break your heart many times over. But if you have to do it; if it burns so hotly in you that you just have to do it; by all means do. That means it is your gift, and you are obligated to give that gift back to others by living out the vocation God has graciously given you.
It’s like an old preacher in Santee told me years ago when I asked him how he got his call to the ministry: “Preaching chased me. I ran, but it caught me.”
If this is your vocation, start acting right now. Don’t wait. Don’t be afraid. Learn your lines, say your prayers and get out there. Just listen for the applause. That’s how you can tell you are doing it right.
Suffice to say, Bill Oberst Jr. is doing it right.
You may follow this rising star’s skyrocketing career at http://www.billoberst.com .
Tickets to the June 12, 2 p.m. performance of “In Their Own Words” were available on a first-come, first-serve basis as of press time, and are required for admission. The North Myrtle Beach Library is located at 910 1st Ave. S. in North Myrtle Beach.
This article was also published in Alternatives NewsMagazine, Vol. 25 No. 18, June 2-16, 2011.