THE ARTS 7.17.09
THE ARTS 7.17.09

Actor loves his new S.F. gig as the wizard of flaws

The Wizard of Oz once considered becoming a rabbi.

No, not that wizard, the original charlatan from the famous film, but the one you can see onstage at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco during the yearlong run of “Wicked” — Lee Wilkof, a stage and screen actor with a storied career and a Jewish upbringing in Ohio.

“There was a time, even though I wasn’t religious, that I considered going to rabbinical school,” Wilkof said during an interview in the Castro District, where he’s living for the next six months.

“I thought about it, maybe not so seriously, but because I was floundering,” he said of his early college days in Cincinnati, home to Hebrew Union College. “But then I went to the theater department and I did a play, and I liked it, and the next year I did a couple more.”

Lee Wilkof is the wizard in the San Francisco production of “Wicked” at the Orpheum Theatre. photo/philip groshong

Within a few years, he had moved to New York City, and a few years after that, his acting career had momentum.

Thirty-six years later, Wilkof, 57, is the wizard in “Wicked.” The last time he performed in San Francisco was in 1986, working with Bob Fosse in “Sweet Charity.”

“I love playing the wizard,” said Wilkof, who has been in the role since June. “He’s a shlubby guy with the trappings of self-importance. He’s a very complicated character who’s weak and duplicitous. Of course, I make him likable. My wizard is wacky at first, and then I show his dark side.”

“Wicked” imagines what happened in Oz before Dorothy dropped in. It tells the story of how two women — one beautiful and popular; one smart and misunderstood — became Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West.

The musical debuted in San Francisco in 2003, and after growing in popularity (with productions in New York, England, Japan, Germany and Australia) returned to San Francisco in 2005, and again for a yearlong run that began in January.

“I can tell that people come to live here [in San Francisco] to be themselves,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be any judgment in this town except by the odd tourist. I think maybe that’s why ‘Wicked’ has been embraced so widely here.”

Wilkof grew up in Canton, Ohio, the middle child of three brothers and parents who were in the iron and steel business.

“My mother irons, my father steals. Ba-dum-bum,” Wilkof joked. His brothers eventually joined the family business (one, Todd Wilkof, lives in Oakland), but Lee always felt the pull of the Big Apple.

As a child, he was enamored by cinema. “I didn’t live in a horrible house, but I wasn’t that happy at home. I found solace in a movie theater,” he recalled.

After landing small roles in off-off-Broadway productions and a stint in Los Angeles where he tried his hand at TV and film, his big break came in 1982 — the year he auditioned for a show called “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Wilkof landed the role of Seymour Krelborn, a shy florist who raises a plant that feeds on human blood. The musical was a smash hit.

“If I’m known for anything, it’s been the musicals ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ ‘Assassins’ and ‘Kiss Me Kate,’” Wilkof said. The latter earned him a Tony Award nomination. “I’m considered a musical comedy guy. But I hope I’m thought of as more than that.”

Holocaust history and film buffs often recognize him from “Grey Zone,” a 2001 film about the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz — Jews who were forced to help Nazi guards shepherd other Jews to the gas chambers.

“I had read the play ‘Grey Zone,’ and when I found out the writer was making it into a film, I wrote him a letter, which I had never done before or since, and I told him how much it would mean to me to at least be considered for a role in the film,” Wilkof said.

He auditioned and was cast in the small role of Morris, working with stars David Arquette, Steve Buscemi and Mira Sorvino.

“I’m very proud of it,” Wilkof said. “I’m known among my friends as someone who’s interested in the Holocaust. It’s troubled me since I was a little boy, and I’m still trying to unravel why it happened.”

Even backstage, while his cast members are in a flurry of costume changes or singing scales, he prefers to sit quietly and read historical novels and biographies.

The consummate reader has finally tried his hand at screenwriting. His script, tentatively called “Fat of the Land,” is about Wilkof’s experience growing up in Canton, and how when he was 15 he’d call into a radio talk show every Friday night and “torture” the host.

“There are several scenes during Shabbos dinner at my grandparents’ house, and that’s probably the heart of the movie — the relationships between me and my family and grandparents,” he said.

Wilkof inte nds to direct the film, and as soon as he wraps “Wicked” in early January he will direct all of his energy toward getting the film cast, shot and produced.

“I don’t intend to change my career and become a director. I’m going to keep acting,” he said. But “it’s a unique coming-of-age story, and a story I want to tell.”

“Wicked” plays at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., S.F., through Jan. 3, 2010. Tickets $30-$99.Information: (415) 551-2000 or

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.