Is It Enough to Be a Star?
ON THE night of August 17, 1968, my dreams came true. I was interpreting the difficult dramatic role of Hippolytus in Phaedra, by the 20th-century Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno. The other professional actors who played the roles of my father and stepmother were top performers of the best reputation. The scenes, developed with power and realism, gripped the audience. We were interrupted on five occasions with applause. Two were scenes in which I took the burden of the dialogue.
At the municipal festival of San Lorenzo del Escorial, in Spain’s Madrid province, that night represented a special triumph for me. After years of bitter struggle I enjoyed the sweet taste of unqualified success! Shortly after, I began to receive more and better offers to participate in films and TV.
But what had started me off on that stage career? To help you to understand my motivation I must take you back to my childhood in the 1940’s, to Seville in Andalusia during the terrible era after the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.
I was the eldest of five children, brought up in the typical poverty, hunger and misery of the postwar period. We were so poor that I used to hang around the local grocery store waiting for the other customers to leave so that I could buy bread on credit without anyone knowing. I really believe my acting ability began there as I attempted to fool the neighbors.
Our home atmosphere was not exactly a bed of roses. My parents were always quarreling and fighting. My father was an avowed enemy of anything that smacked of religion, while my mother and granny believed in the Virgin Mary and all the “saints” of the Catholic Church. As a child, my life was dominated by fear and insecurity—fear of violence, fear caused by religious superstition, fear of la mala suerte, or bad luck, which seemed to be related to everything.
In spite of all of this, in my childish imagination, I sometimes pierced a hole in the roof of my nightmare and began to dream . . . to dream of a better world where people would love and trust one another. Those childish daydreams were my safety valve.
When I was 16 years of age I had my first timid contact with the theater. I attended an amateur stage production presented at a local Catholic school in Seville. I sat there waiting in expectation and suppressed excitement. The curtain went up and to my surprise there unfolded before me a beautiful world of music, color and fantasy. From that moment on I fell in love with the theater. Here was a world of happiness, apparently with no fears, tears or hunger, where I could give full rein to my imagination. It was a springboard for communicating my dreams and hopes to others. I decided that I was going to be an actor.
I immediately got in touch with a group of amateur actors and asked if I could take part in their next play. It was to be The Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ. They needed extras so I was accepted. I was given the minor role of Andrew, one of the 12 apostles. Although my participation was very limited, it was enough for me to know that at last I had found my setting. That first play was important for another reason—through it I was introduced to the Jesus of the Bible. His person inspired in me a deep respect and admiration.
I was determined to progress and so I enrolled in the Seville conservatory to study dramatic art. When I was 18 I got my first opportunity to appear with a professional company doing a provincial tour. My first role was that of a student. After a short rehearsal I made my modest debut in a real theater. At last I had my foot on the first rung of the ladder to success. And how different from the amateur group were those professionals! Here there was an atmosphere of relative affluence, importance and self-sufficiency.
For several weeks I served as a general helper to the manager who was also the leading actor. I could not believe my good fortune. I was now a part of that beautiful world of make-believe.
The Ladder to Success
Sad to say, my youthful illusions were soon shattered. I began to realize that I was surrounded by immorality. The leading actor and actress were living together, even though she was married to someone else. Furthermore, she objected to her lover’s showing me any kindness, and in a short while I lost my job. So back I went to Seville to complete my drama studies.
I knew I needed to gain experience and widen my repertoire, so I accepted a contract with a provincial company. After two years of touring through Andalusia and appearing in cities such as Córdoba, Málaga and Seville, I decided it was time to go to Madrid, Spain’s capital city, where most of the major theaters are located. My first contract, in 1962, was in the dramatic comedy Hombre Nuevo (New Man) by José María Pemán, in the Eslava Theater. My role involved dancing the twist, which was then the vogue in Spain. Apparently I made my mark.
My next important step up the ladder of fame was in 1967 when I appeared in Lower Depths by the Russian playwright Maksim Gorki, in Madrid’s María Guerrero Theater. Again I worked with good actors, which served both as a training and a stimulus for me.
In 1968 my big opportunity in television arrived at last. I had already played minor parts in that medium, but now I was offered a major role in the play called La herida luminosa (The luminous wound) by José María de Sagarra, a 20th-century Catalan poet and playwright. On that occasion even the weather favored me. It rained so badly that evening that many stayed at home and watched TV. Under my professional name, Manuel Toscano, I became famous overnight in Spain. A film producer offered me a leading role in his next movie.
Reality Is Different
It seemed that everything was going my way. And yet I was not satisfied. The theater had not turned out to be that sublimely happy world of fantasy that I had imagined in my youth. Instead, with very few exceptions, it was rife with vanity, envy, superstition and immorality. To illustrate my disillusion let me tell you one of my experiences.
One day I received a phone call from a stranger who wanted me to meet him in a well-known Madrid café, frequented by leading actors and actresses. At the appointed hour a well-dressed gentleman presented himself to me as a director who was looking for a leading man for a play he was about to present. He thought I was the ideal actor for the part and he invited me to his apartment to talk over the terms of the contract. When we got inside he threw himself at me and tried to kiss me!
Yes, he was yet another homosexual in the theater world. He insisted that if I wanted the leading role I would have to be more cooperative. I shoved him away and stormed out, telling him that I was not willing to work at that price.
It is an unfortunate truth, but the entertainment world is riddled with perversion and moral corruption. And for many there is a constant atmosphere of insecurity. The stars walk in fear that their light may be extinguished on the next opening night. Their success is as durable as the run of their latest play. As a consequence, drugs and illicit sex are a regular escape route.
A Change of Circumstances
In 1965, during a visit to the Madrid conservatory for dramatic art, I met a student actress in whom I became interested. Later we got engaged and in September 1967 we were married. Since then she has become the mother of our four children, who have filled our lives with purpose and joy.
Another event that was to change our life pattern occurred in 1969. While in the “Roma” film studios in Madrid, where I was participating in the film Los cañones de Córdoba (The cannons of Córdoba), I met a young actress who began to talk to me about the Bible. She explained to me God’s purpose for mankind and the earth, and how peace and security would soon be introduced by God’s Kingdom. I was intrigued and wanted to know more. She invited me to an assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be held the next day. At that time the Witnesses were still not legalized in Spain. The assembly was to be in a garage, but that did not put me off.
When I got there I was immediately impressed by the genuine kindly atmosphere. One of the elders, Ricardo Reyes, made arrangements to study the Bible with me. His serenity, meekness and clarity of thought were just what I needed with my extrovert actor’s personality.
As the study progressed, doubts assailed my mind. Was this really the truth or just a sham like other religions? Was there a gimmick or a trick in it? After so many years in the atmosphere of a false world of make-believe I wanted the truth, the real thing.
It became so important to me that I neglected my work in my zeal to investigate the Bible. So many questions in my mind were calling out for an answer. What purpose does life have? Does God exist? What is there beyond death? With the aid of the Bible and the textbook The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life my doubts disappeared. After nine months of study my wife and I were convinced it was the truth and we got baptized in September 1970.
A New Challenge
The change of viewpoint and personality that the Bible caused me to develop presented a challenge. Could I reconcile my new Christian way of life with the roles I was playing in the theater and on TV? A turning point for me was, I believe, the day I was in rehearsal with some other actors, a director and a theater manager. A discussion started on how to increase public support for the works being presented. The general complaint was aired that the censorship was too strict, and that if it were relaxed to allow more sexy scenes on the stage the public would flock to the box office. When I saw that group of professionals, people of prestige in the theater, all in agreement, and nobody with the courage to defend true art, good customs and culture, I realized that we were all in the same trap together—the commercial sex trap of cheap success. I decided to quit.
My friends predicted that I would soon return to acting because it was in my blood. Now it makes me remember an expression of José María Rodero, a well-known Spanish actor, who once said: “If the theater disappeared nothing would happen. On the other hand if we did not have water, that would certainly be dramatic . . . The actor is a luxury, like the theater, like culture, a necessary luxury, of course, but not indispensable.”
Now, more than a decade later, I can honestly say that I do not yearn for the stage. I am still able to practice my art each year, as a director and an actor, in the Bible dramas that Jehovah’s Witnesses present in their district conventions. As participants in such dramas my wife and I have acted in front of audiences numbering in the thousands in different auditoriums and football stadiums. The difference is that we have performed with a better motive. In the theater I wanted to be the star, to receive adulation. In these Bible dramas it is the story that matters, not the actors. Thus there is no competition, no upstaging of fellow actors. These Bible roles have given me much greater satisfaction for the simple reason that we have portrayed real events with an edifying moral from the lives of famous Biblical characters.
Out of Work Actor
Of course each actor’s case is different, and I am not trying to say that a Christian cannot work on the stage. It is a matter for individual conscience. In my case, when I left the theater I had to get a job. I had no qualifications other than my stage experience. After many difficulties I finally got a job, and that was the end of our economic problems.
We are certainly proof that Jehovah is true to his word and sustains those who seek first his Kingdom. As the Bible puts it: “A young man I used to be, I have also grown old, and yet I have not seen anyone righteous left entirely, nor his offspring looking for bread.”—Psalm 37:25.
Shakespeare wrote: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Yet I have discovered that life can have far more meaning than that, provided one gets to know Jehovah and his loving purpose toward mankind. We as a family share the hope of seeing this earth transformed into what it should be by virtue of its potential—a Paradise park for obedient mankind. This is not fiction or make-believe. It is based on the solemn promises of the Most High God, and we are assured that it is impossible for him to lie. (Hebrews 6:18; Titus 1:2)—As told by Manuel García Fernández.
[Picture on page 24]
Manuel García Fernández and his wife in a Bible drama