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Pittsburgh native squeezes fitness into busy theater schedule

| Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2003

(This is another in an occasional column on how people in all walks of life fit fitness into their lives.)

Tom Atkins is not always himself.

That's because it's the Pittsburgh native's job to make us see other people and circumstances through his abilities to portray and convey them.

Through Dec. 14, the veteran stage, film and television actor is "The Chief," Art Rooney Sr.

And he's inspiring in bringing alive the spirit of the late Steelers founder and owner in a one-man tour-de-force for the Pittsburgh Public Theater.

For 90 minutes, in this original play written by Rob Zellers and Gene Collier, the audience feels as if it is sharing a one-on-one moment in time with Rooney at the O'Reilly Theater.

Considerably more than a sports story, "The Chief" is a tale of a man, a life and a city. It takes place in 1976 in Rooney's office at Three Rivers Stadium as he prepares for an awards banquet honoring him.

He welcomes the audience into his world with stories of growing up on the North Side, playing minor-league baseball with his brother Dan and taking a fledgling semi-pro football team franchise from nothing to an NFL dynasty.

"It's a better story than just about a guy owning a football team. It's more universal," Atkins said. "It's like a terrific old Jimmy Cagney movie about a bareknuckle guy who grew up in a not very attractive part of the city who just made his own life. He was as much an influence on the city as the city was on him. I just think it's a terrific story. And he never lived more than a mile from where he grew up."

Atkins saidhe is having the time of his life in the role. "I never dreamed it would be this enjoyable when I read the first draft a year and a half ago," he said.

What makes the evening so enjoyable and inspiring to him is the interaction with the audience.

"People just seem to love Mr. Rooney. He is just one of the most beloved characters in the town," he said. "A woman came up to me after the show and said she could care less about football but loved this play and the humanness of it. What a wonderful man he was."

This production should be filmed for posterity by PBS or another network.

Coach Bill Cowher should require his team to attend to gain some inspiration for next season.

Atkins met "The Chief" once, when he was 11 or 12. "I was at the track with my dad and Mr. Rooney asked who I liked in the daily double. I had no idea what a daily double was," he said with a laugh.

If he could have dinner with Rooney today, Atkins said he would ask him what he remembered about his late father, George "Mose" Atkins, who played semi-pro baseball opposite him on the North Side.

A lot of people have told Atkins they have attended "The Chief" more than once. "I never even go to a play twice," he said.

On weekends, Atkins is presenting the story twice a day. He has been doing five shows between Fridays and Sundays alone. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays ( Details: 412-316-1600; online at www.ppt.org).

"On Sunday night when the curtain comes down I'm beat," he said. This is his first one-man show in his long career.

On Broadway, he has appeared in "The Changing Room" and "The Front Page." His TV appearances include "The Rockford Files," "Lou Grant," M*A*S*H," "Law and Order: Criminal Intent," and "Homicide," among others shows.

His film credits include "Escape from New York," "The Fog," "Creepshow," Lethal Weapon," "Bob Roberts" and Striking Distance," among others.

Staying in shape for such efforts is up to every individual actor, Atkins said. "I've known actors whose idea of staying fit is to drink regularly and often," he said. "I don't know anybody who has a formula."

Atkins, a graduate of Carrick High School and Duquesne University, said he has been blessed with good genes. He and his wife walk five days per week at about 5:45 a.m. It's a two-and-a-half mile, rolling, trek.

The actor, who turned 65 last month, believes the walk helps him in his profession. "I never want to do it, but I'm always happy I did it," he said. "It makes me feel good."

The exercise keeps him from feeling bogged down, he said.

Atkins said it is not difficult to stay committed to fitness. "We seem to be pretty good and regular at it," he said. He often is accompanied by Gus, his golden retriever.

The actor has used those walks through the years to learn lines. Once, he was trying to memorize a monologue of Irish prose. "I passed a lot of people on my walk who probably thought I was nuts," he said.

Atkins said he does not feel additional pressure to stay fit in being the only actor in "The Chief" in a show that has no intermission. There is no understudy.

"I just do what I do. Hopefully I won't get hit by a bus," he said.

If there is a lesson from "The Chief," Atkins said it may be in persistence.

"You do what you want to do and have the best time you can doing it, and don't hurt anybody in the process," he said.

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