Recognized mostly for hundreds of television roles dating back to the 1950s, Peter Mark Richman broke into film alongside Gary Cooper in the 1956 civil war western, “Friendly Persuasion.”
Years earlier, a family member attempting a little friendly persuasion of his own almost pressed young Mark into a different career path.
“My father died when I was 16 and my brother was kind of a surrogate father,” recalled Richman from his home in Los Angeles. “He was a pharmacist and I worked in his store as a teenager. He thought I should get a real education so I ended up reluctantly going to pharmacy school. I expected to flunk out after 6 weeks but stuck it out, graduated, and became a licensed pharmacist in two states.”
However the attraction of the stage proved more enticing than dispensing penicillin.
“I managed a drugstore for a year, but always wanted to act,” said Richman, who studied at New York’s Actors Studio before finding his way onto the East Coast stages in the early 1950s.
“I was touring in a play called ‘The Rainmaker’ with Eva Marie Saint in New England when my agent called to say producer/director William Wyler wanted me to do a screen test for ‘Friendly Persuasion.’ I caught a private plane out west and got the role.”
Richman says working with Cooper, a living legend in 1956, was a joy.
“He was just terrific, a hell of a guy, and very learned – far from the ‘yup’ character he often depicted in some films. When exchanging dialogue, he really digested what you said before replying – there was a thinking process going on rather than just reciting lines. His career began as a film extra and told us he was jealous because some of us had stage experience and he always wanted to do theater.”
In the credits for “Friendly Persuasion” Richman is listed as simply Mark Richman. He took the daring step of modifying his name mid-career in 1971.
“I added ‘Peter’ because my wife and I joined a spiritual movement called Subud which required having a name that matched your inner life,” explained Richman. “My agent was worried when I told him I was planning a name change, thinking I may change it dramatically to something like Salvador! He was pleased when it was just Peter.”
In addition to acting, Richman, who turned 87 in April, is also a prolific painter and writer, penning the 1999 drama feature “4 Faces” as well as novels, short stories, and plays (see www.petermarkrichman.com).
A few years ago in Los Angeles, Richman was doing a scene from his play, “A Medal for Murray,” with Sean Penn’s mother, Eileen Ryan. Afterwards, he was approached by noted Israeli actress Efrat Lavie during her visit to the U.S.
“She loved the play but was heading back to Israel and wanted to take a copy of the script back home with her,” said Richman. “The next thing I knew, it was translated into Hebrew and became a smash hit over there.”
Described as a “warm, witty, surprising, and heartwarming human comedy,” the production opened last summer to glowing reviews in Tel Aviv’s Beit Lessin Theater, and continues to run through 2014.
“I went to the opening and didn’t understand a word, but could tell the audience enjoyed it from their response,” noted Richman. “It’s a universal play in any language.”
Away from cameras and audiences, Richman enjoys painting figurative expressionist portraits.
“I’m a real painter,” he stresses, “not a celebrity artist. I began painting in oils when I was 12 and have had seventeen one-man shows over the years.”
In the entertainment world, however, Richman continues to be visible as a frequent character on cable TV through reruns of dozens of shows such as “Matlock,” “Murder She Wrote,” and “Three’s Company.”
“I appeared in over 500 TV episodes,” he said, “but never did play a pharmacist.”
Nick Thomas (www.getnickt.com) teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 400 magazines and newspapers.