12:32 AM, Jan 12, 2013
'All My Children' star Walt Willey speaks Friday at North Side High. / KENNETH CUMMINGS/The Jackson Sun
Walt Willey didn’t get into show business until he was 30 years old. The main reason he went to his first audition was because he didn’t want to regret not trying later in life.
“I didn’t want to turn 40 and go ‘What if?’” said the actor known best for portraying Jackson Montgomery for more than 20 years on the soap opera “All My Children.”
Students taking fine arts classes at North Side High School attended special sessions on Friday with Willey, who was in Jackson to promote an upcoming show he produced about Wild Bill Hickok and to speak with students about acting, show business and the importance of the fine arts.
“You can do any of this,” Willey told a room of students Friday morning. “There is no reason you can’t. You have to relocate or do other jobs, but you can do it, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.”
That philosophy was a major part of what the actor shared with the students. He also talked about hard lessons he learned in Hollywood, from people who take advantage of success to drug addiction. Willey said he struggled with cocaine addiction for six years.
Willey said he wasn’t sure what he wanted to be someday; he just knew he wanted to leave his small hometown of Ottawa, Ill., and be successful. He joined the Army, attended college and had a job as a sales administrator. Then he went to his first audition at age 30.
“My first TV job was me eating a hamburger on ‘All My Children,’” Willey said. “All you saw was my elbow, but it was me, eating a hamburger. But I was on set, learning how people do what they do, see how Susan Lucci did it, how David Canary did it. I was being paid to see how it was done.”
As he sat on the edge of the stage in the school’s theater, Willey encouraged students to try for every job they can get in the show business industry, even if that means being an extra in a commercial. Doing those jobs brings experience, education and possibly future work.
“I’ve been in the business for 30 years, and it’s all I’ve done for 30 years,” he said. “I’ve been paid handsomely to pretend to be somebody else. It’s not a bad deal.”
It does mean that he had to get up at 4:30 a.m. five days a week, memorize 40 pages of scripts, wait around for other actors to show up or technical issues to be fixed and spend many long hours away from home.
“If you feel like you can take 10,000 ‘no’s for those 10 ‘yes’s, then do it,” Willey said as he wrapped up his talk.
North Side Principal Ricky Catlett was happy to have the actor visiting his school Friday. He said Willey met with every theater, music and fine arts class to talk with them about his craft. Willey also posed for photos with students and signed autographs.
“He was explained what acting is like and what to expect in the business,” Catlett said. “The students really enjoyed him being here.”
Next week, Willey will hold acting workshops after school, he said.
“This is definitely a highlight for North Side, and we’re proud of our fine arts programs,” Catlett said. “We try to focus on that and hope to bring in different actors. Maybe we can get some students focused and maybe get them interested in fine arts, in addition to academics.”
Jeremy Young, who teaches theater classes at North Side, said having Willey speak to his students was great.
“His wealth of knowledge as well as his experience is great,” he said. “For these kids to see someone who’s been in the industry for so long and to share his knowledge is wonderful. His encouragement is good, too — saying it doesn’t matter your beginnings, you can do it. I think the kids benefited.”