Joel Daly
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  • Joel Daly

We think of Joel Daly as an anchorman and Mary Mikva as a judge. But today, for the length of this story I’m telling, both are actors.

For Daly, the stage is his third life. An anchor at WLS TV, Channel Seven, from 1967 until he retired in 2005, Daly’s been an attorney since 1988; he was an associate at Corboy & Demetrio, a certified mediator for the Cook County courts, and an instructor at his alma mater, Chicago Kent College of Law. But he’s also performed as Clarence Darrow in David Rintels’s one-man show, and he’s done the David Mamet two-hander, Oleanna. In 1994 Wisdom Bridge Theatre cast Daly in the lead when it adapted the novel To Kill a a Mockingbird for the stage. “Calling on WLS TV newsman Joel Daly to take the pivotal role of Atticus Finch might seem a peculiar and provincial choice for director Jeffrey Ortmann to make, but it’s nearly a stroke of brilliance,” said the Reader‘s critic, Adam Langer. “What Daly lacks in acting skill, he more than makes up for in avuncular geniality, which gives the production a delightful, homey feel. He doesn’t play Atticus Finch; he is Atticus Finch.”

Daly remembers the play, which was his first in Chicago, and he remembers the review.

“I was a young trial lawyer,” he tells me. “I called the director and I got the part. And so I’m sitting in this restaurant having dinner”—and he opened the Reader. He feared the worst. “The Reader was hard on a lot of people. My recollection is they didn’t mince any words.” And sure enough, his eye immediately confronted a headline that said, “It’s the Acting, Stupid.” But that turned out to be another show. He found the Mockingbird review, and when he read what Langer had to say about him—well, “the whole restaurant must have wondered what just happened.”

But that was then. I put today’s question to him. Are you Howard Beale?

That’s who he’s just been cast as—the berserk anchorman of the 1976 movie classic Network.

Nate Herman, a veteran of Second City and the Saturday Night Live writing staff, opens a new season of his staged reading series, “Films for the Ear,” this coming Sunday evening at 27 Live in Evanston. The film is Network, and Herman asked Daly to read the role that won Peter Finch an Oscar.

“I don’t know,” says Daly. But he’s worked out who Beale was, and he relates to him. Beale was an old-fashioned newsman who went over-the-top because of all the pressure he was under. Daly knows those pressures—he felt them too, constantly. “There are always these people who want to make you what you’re not. ‘Do it this way. Do it that way.’ I said, ‘I just want to communicate with people, talk to them.'” In Daly’s heyday at WLS, a publicist dubbed the newscast he anchored “Happy Talk,” and the name stuck. It was unfair, says Daly; it didn’t describe the newscast his team actually did—though he allows that the team did include John Coleman, “the crazy weatherman.” But it did describe the newscast as his station wanted to promote it.

Beale, Daly explains, “was an Ed Murrow man” when that no longer counted for anything. His wife had died, his ratings were down, and he’d just been given two weeks’ notice. And that was terrible, because Beale’s high-profile job as a network anchor had messed with his head in a way Daly understands all too well: “If you’re not on TV, you don’t exist.” To save himself, Beale “decided to become a mad prophet. It gave him the opportunity to stay on television, and he’s shrewd enough to take that opportunity.”

The scene everyone remembers finds Beale, wild-eyed, disheveled, still in the trench coat he stormed into the studio wearing a few seconds earlier, telling the nation, “You’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say ‘I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value.’ I want you to get up now, I want all of you to get up out of your chairs, I want you to get up right now and go to the window and open it, stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!'”

And this the nation does.

Throughout Paddy Cheyesky’s screenplay, Daly has observed, Howard Beale delivers long, “beautiful statements” about how wretched television is, statements Daly is trying to commit to memory so he can act them on the 27 Live stage, not just read them from a script. For instance, Beale tells the nation: “You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! We are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off!” This, says Daly, is Beale “spreading the gospel of Ed Murrow as this mad prophet.”

And was he right? “I think Paddy Cheyevsky was a wonderful commentator of his time,” Daly says. Yet Network “says more about what television is today than it did in 1976. With all the reality TV and all the other things that didn’t exist in 1976—TV’s worse.” But just as Winston Smith caved to Big Brother at the end of 1984, so does Howard Beale cave to his network masters. “You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples,” says the head of the corporation that controls Beale’s network. “There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars . . .

“And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.”

“Why me?” Beale wonders.

And his omnipotent leader explains, “Because you’re on television, dummy. Sixty million people watch you every night of the week, Monday through Friday.”

Says the awed Beale, “I have seen the face of God.”

Do you understand his change of heart? I ask Daly.

“No, I wonder about it,” he says. Is Beale truly persuaded that he’s been wrong all along? Is he simply tacking one more time to stay on TV? What’s the motivation?

Daly has to work that out. And one other thing too. At the end of Beale’s big speeches to the nation’s little people, he collapses. “I have to fall about six times, and I’m not good at falling down,” Daly says. After all, he’s almost 80.

But this is the life he’s chosen.

I’ve slightly known Mary Mikva socially for many years, and primarily as the daughter of the former congressman, federal judge, and White House counsel Abner Mikva. When she was elected a Cook County circuit judge in 2004, I heard about it. But I didn’t know how she moonlights until I went to see Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s The Glass Menagerie at Theater Wit and spotted her name in the program as the understudy to Maggie Cain as Amanda Wingfield—one of the greatest roles in American theater.

Before Menagerie‘s run ended, she played the role nine times.

“I was a theater major in college,” Mikva tells me. “When I got out of college I tried to get work acting but it was discouraging so I went to law school But I’ve been acting off and on forever. It’s a whole different side of your brain and life, a whole different part of you. You get to use an emotional part of you. What I like to compare it to is going on vacation, but it’s like being on vacation from yourself and not just your life.”

The Mary-Arrchie Glass Menagerie, conceived and directed by Hans Fleischmann, who played the narrator, Tom, was one of Chicago’s most critically acclaimed productions over the past year. “I feel so privileged to be able to do only one or two shows a year and still be able to act with people of the caliber I acted with in The Glass Menagerie,” Mikva says. “Only in Chicago are you able to do that.”

Here’s how it happened. She had toted her bike onto a CTA train late one night and was heading home. She was looking at lines she had for an audition the next day—she thinks for a student film. She also thinks her bike might have fallen over. At any rate, a guy across the aisle looked up, saw her with a script in her hand, and asked if she acted. She said she did. Well, we’re casting understudies for The Glass Menagerie at Mary-Arrchie, he said. Would you come in and read for Amanda?

And she did. The understudies got little time to rehearse with the actual cast. But she saw the show over and over and projected herself into it. “That’s the beauty and peril of being an understudy,” she says. “You don’t get to find it in rehearsal, you have to find it in yourself.”

She found it in the fears she’d felt raising two children. “Most of my concerns as a mother were unfounded,” she tells me. “Part of me always knew everything would turn out fine for my kids. I don’t think Amanda—as much as she tried to convince herself, she couldn’t be as optimistic as I am.” Amanda goes through the play in a state of delicately veiled dread, fiercely maintaining her delusions about her own charms, her son Tom’s sturdiness, and most of all her daughter Laura’s capacity to function socially. “Amanda’s life was really challenging, really hard,” says Mikva. Luckily for her, raising kids is hard even when it’s easy. All parents dread.

When you put on your robe and enter your courtroom, aren’t you also playing a role? I ask her. To my surprise she immediately says no. “People who see me as a judge say ‘You’re exactly the same person,'” she says. “And I am. And the part of my brain I’m using is very much the analytical and practical and grounded. When I am acting of course I am also myself, but I am using the part of me that is more emotional and irrational.”

That would be why when she acts and goes to a different part of her brain, she calls the parts holidays from herself, however grim the drama. (For instance, last year she played the nurse in Rendition Theatre’s staging of Strindberg’s The Father.) “I really try to keep the two worlds separate,” she tells me. “People have to know me for a while as a judge before I tell them that I also act, and I rarely mention my work as a judge to people that I work with in the theater. I get to go back and forth between the two worlds, both of which I love, sort of incognito.”