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Broadway, film vet comes home to perform in Peoria

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Steve Vinovich gives the kind of advice that matters most, that which comes from experience. That's why he tells wanna-be professional actors to be willing to work hard, sell themselves and learn to take rejection and keep coming back for more.

"It all comes down to how much you want it. If you're ambivalent about it then don't bother. The real work in acting is getting the job. The job is the cookie," said Vinovich, a Peoria native and veteran of Broadway, film and television.

"Talent isn't enough any more. You have to sell yourself, you have to do the business of the business. That is definitely part of it now."

Vinovich, now living in New York City, is in Peoria as the guest of Corn Stock Theatre. He will be performing the lead role of Charlie in Corn Stock's production of the Larry Shue comedy "The Foreigner," which will be performed in the tent in Upper Bradley Park June 21 through June 29.

Enter Vinovich's name on Google and you will find an impressive listing of acting credits and images that have made up a professional career spanning more than 40 years.

His name isn't one that is quickly recognized and his face is one people know they've seen but they can't quite remember where. But make no mistake; he's good enough and has done enough he doesn't need to worry about finding work and it's been that way for a long time.

"In his business, that's being at the top," said Doug Day of East Peoria, who once performed in New York and was responsible for bringing Vinovich to Corn Stock. "There are an awful lot of people who wish they could get there."

Vinovich, 68, is quick to acknowledge the accomplishment. "I've been retired and doing what I want to do for 40 years," he said, grinning broadly. "I have been incredibly lucky. I've gotten to do probably 80 percent of the theatre roles I have wanted to do on the professional stage; I've done film and TV. I've done a little bit of everything, really.

"I don't consider myself a star by any means. Oh, I would've liked to be a star, to some degree, though I wouldn't want to be one of those big stars like a Brad Pitt who can't even walk down the street without being bothered. But I do get recognized sometimes, which is fun. And I have made my living as an actor and that is rare. Like I said, I've been lucky," he said.

Vinovich is the son of Jennie Kuhel and Stephen J. Vinovich. His father, like others in his family, was in the insurance business and he spent his childhood on the South side of Peoria. He graduated in 1963 from Spalding Institute. (Recently he attended his 50th Class Reunion and got in a round of golf with a couple high school classmates, including U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.)

It was while in school in Peoria he began entertaining his friends and family with puppet shows. Once he memorized a Bugs Bunny cartoon and performed all the parts. "I got hooked on performing then, I guess."

He attended the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana with plans to earn a degree and get into broadcast journalism. But after an instructor saw him in an oral interpretation class, he was asked to play the lead role in a play on campus. "I became a name on campus and that's all it took, really. I knew what I was meant to do, what I wanted to do," he said.

From there he went to Los Angeles, began acting and earned a master of fine arts degree at UCLA. Later, he was asked to audition for the Julliard School, considered the top performing arts school in the country. Believing he was auditioning to be part of an acting company he was offered a full-ride scholarship and accepted and earned his second master of fine arts degree.

He stayed in New York and performed in shows on Broadway and off-Broadway. He also performed in New York-based soap operas and did more than 200 television commercials. "That was how actors supplemented their income, doing soaps and commercials. Of course, now there are no longer soaps in New York and not nearly as many commercials are shot there. So it's much harder for young, struggling actors."

Among his Broadway appearances Vinovich created the role of Ben in "Loose Ends" in 1979 and portrayed Eddie in the Neil Simon classic "Lost in Yonkers." Off-Broadway and regional shows included "Twelth Night", "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Poker Session."

In 1982 he married Carolyn Mignini, an actress and singer, and in 1986 they moved to Los Angeles, where their two sons live. It was then Vinovich's television and film career started.

His television credits include episodic appearances in "Three's Company," "Remington Steele", "Hill Street Blues", "The Hogan Family," "Married ... with Children", "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine", "ER", "Home Improvement" and "Matlock." He was a regular on the series "Valeries" and "Raising Miranda."

Film credits include "The Mechanic", "Romancing the Stone", "Mannequin", "Awakenings", "The Santa Clause" and as the voice of Puffin in all three "The Swan Princess" films.

All told he did more than 90 guest shots on television.

Still, Vinovich said, his preference is theatre. He still has a few roles on his bucket list, including Willie Loman in "Death of a Salesman."

His love for theatre is why he moved back to New York City a few years ago, even though he and Carolyn keep a home in Los Angeles. Television and film roles were becoming less frequent and he believes there is still plenty he can do on the stage. He's open to Broadway, Off-Broadway or regional theatre.

This spring Vinovich did a two-month stint as Ben Franklin in a regional production of "!776" and when he returns to New York after his Corn Stock show closes he will appear Off-Broadway in the play "Old Jews Telling Jokes."

"When I came back to New York it's like I was starting over. And really, I am, because I've outlived most of the producers and casting directors who knew me when I was there before. It's a whole new breed, a whole new game. It's harder for agents, too, because nobody talks to each other anymore. They email or text each other. But I'm getting on stage and that's all I want to do," he said.

"I definitely prefer theatre. It is there where you really have control over your work, which is really the only thing an actor really can control. Theatre is the actors' medium. When the curtain goes up, there's no stopping after 45 seconds to shoot another take or what have you. It's you, your cast and the audience. There is nothing better."

Vinovich said he has no regrets and would never discourage anybody from going for a career as an actor if they have talent. He said he has seen talent in Peoria since he started working on "The Foreigner." That includes his cast mates in that show.

"I'll tell you, these guys are really good. They are as good as many of the actors I work with professionally. It has been a pleasure working with them," he said.

The pleasure, said Day, his friend from college and roommate for a while in New York, has been for the Corn Stock organization and the cast of "The Foreigner." Day portrays Froggy in the production.

"Steve is making us all better because we are watching a real pro at work every night. That's a big reason I suggested we bring in a guest artist because it is a nice way for Corn Stock to celebrate 60 years and it's a nice gift to our audiences and to the other actors to get to see him work. He has been incredibly patient with us, too, waiting for us to catch up with him. It has been a pleasure work with him," Day said.

Even though he and Vinovich have been close friends since 1966 it is the first time they have performed together, he said.

Day said few people know Vinovich passed on a chance to go to China to perform so he could do the Corn Stock production. "He said he'd been to China before, but he'd never played Peoria as a professional before."

Jeff Sloter, who is directed "The Foreigner," had similar sentiments. "In short, working with Mr. Vinovich has been a privilege and an eye-opening experience. Rarely do folks in flyover country get to work with someone of his professional stature," he said.

"Repeatedly, I have been asked, 'Is this guy really that good? Can you really tell the difference?', to which I reply, 'He's better!' The experience has been both challenging and rewarding. Challenging in that Steve causes all of us to work at a higher level than we ever imagined we could. Rewarding because Steve is incredibly patient, easy to work with and openly shares his wealth of knowledge on how to do the work. He has raised the bar and shown us how to jump over it," Sloter said.

Also, he added, Vinovich has been "easily accessible, approachable, friendly, and supportive to me personally. I remember during our early conversations him telling me to stop stressing out. Excellent advice and he has made it possible. He has also shown the same kindness to the entire production company. It is one thing to be at the top of your profession and quite another to be a regular guy. Steve is both."

Vinovich said he appreciates those kind of sentiments and added he knows it's important to be kind and friendly with co-workers. Among his favorite co-workers, he said, have been Brian Cranston, now making it very big as the star of "Breaking Bad," Christine Baranski, who was a classmate at Julliard, and the late Lynn Redgrave, with whom he co-starred in "Twelth Night." He also mentioned Don Knotts and John Ritter "as two of the nicest, kindest guys I ever had the pleasure of knowing."

Those actors, he added, maintained their humility despite their success and he said he believes that is important for young actors coming up. "Maintain your humility and be very grateful. And don't be afraid of rejection or even of being embarrassed. It makes you stronger," he said.

His favorite review from the many he has received was one most would be embarrassed about, let alone be willing to share. "The show was 'Pipe Dream' and it was a flop. One of the reviews of my performance suggested I leave New York on the next plane," he said, laughing. "It remains one of my favorites."

One final piece of advice Vinovich would share with young actors is to learn to sing and dance as well as act. "Learn to do as much as you can. The more tools you have the better off you are. Kids today can do it all and its frightening to guys like me. When I started it was like being on a football team, where every person had a specific role to play. It's not like that now so you have to do many things well. That includes doing musicals," he said.

"Bob Fosse once told me, 'If you can do a musical, you can do anything.' He was right. So do the work; don't be lazy. If you want it bad enough, and you have talent, you can do it."

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).