Actor’s latest role is his most challenging

By Albert Amateau

“How do you get an obituary in The Villager,” asked the man on the phone.

“Who’s the deceased?” replied the obit writer.

“I’m not dead,” said the man, “but I want to be in The Villager when I go.”

Taken by surprise, the obit writer laughed.

“I’m glad I made you laugh. That’s how I want to be remembered,” said the man, introducing himself as Richard Stack, a Villager for 40 years.

Born in Indiana, Stack spent his boyhood in Spearfish, S.D., his high school years in Las Vegas, and was an actor for 30 years until 1988, when he was diagnosed with AIDS.

“I’ve been gay all my life and never had a problem with it,” he said in an interview about a year ago.

Despite dire health problems — he underwent triple-bypass surgery at St. Vincent’s Hospital last month — Stack reported last week that he was doing well and that his philosophy was “We all do what we can, and sometimes even what we can’t.”

Now approaching his 70th birthday, he has been through a lot.

“My father died when I was 12. He shot himself with my 30-30 deer rifle,” Stack said. “My mother had to fend for herself with my two sisters and me. So we left Spearfish. … Have you ever heard of it? They say the river there freezes from the bottom up. The town really is famous. I made my theatrical debut there as a kid in the annual Black Hills Passion Play, like everyone else in town.”

The Passion play came from Germany in 1932 with its director, Josef Meier. The pageant toured the country and settled in South Dakota, where it played in an outdoor amphitheater in Spearfish at Easter time from 1939 until the company disbanded in 2008.

“His daughter, Johanna Meier, was a Wagnerian soprano, one of the best,” Stack recalled. “I was onstage with her at the Met in New York City when I first came here. I was a super — loads of people got to the opera for free as extras in the crowd scenes.”

When the family moved in 1954 to Las Vegas, Stack was 15 and already stage-struck.

“We had a wonderful singing teacher who got us into master classes with singing stars who played the casinos in town. We had a ballet teacher who put on ‘Cinderella,’ and I danced the prince. I was happy as a pig in yogurt,” he recalled.

After graduating high school in 1957, Stack got parts in shows that started in Reno and wound up in Phoenix, Ariz., where he spent a season with the Sombrero Players, a resident stock company.

“I then went to Hollywood to live with a guy named Jack Ryan, who told me I looked like the actor Robert Stack. He convinced me to change my name from Stapp to Stack,” he said. “Ryan had a Jaguar and a Corvette and I’d drive around in the Jaguar. It was a great time. I went to an open call in Hollywood for a touring company of ‘Call Me Madame’ with Ethel Merman, got a part and got my Actors’ Equity card,” he said.

Stack came to New York in 1967, found an apartment in the Village and won a role in the Equity Library Theater production of “Of Thee I Sing,” a Gershwin musical that moved to Off Broadway. A busy career followed with parts in summer stock, Off Broadway and road shows of “South Pacific” and “Same Time Next Year.”

“I met Joan Bennett around 1970 and did a ‘Butterflies Are Free’ tour with her. She was a friend for 20 years. She died in 1990,” he said.

Stack’s last show was a national tour of “Noises Off” in 1988.

“It ran for 10 months, and then I broke out with shingles [a painful disease that that affects nerve endings and attacks victims who had chicken pox as children]. I went to a doctor who diagnosed me with AIDS-related complex,” he said. “I had a lifestyle of a person at risk. My last lover had AIDS and never told me. But we had broken up after I went into psychotherapy,” he said. “I was lucky; a lot of friends were gone by that time, and I began taking antiviral drugs.”

Stack quit doing shows after that, and went to The Actors’ Fund for help.

“I organized the fund’s AIDS initiative and ran it for two and a half years,” he said. “I’m still an Actors’ Fund client — I’d probably be dead without it.”

Stack goes to the theater and reads a lot, buying books at Biography Bookshop a half-block from his apartment. He takes care of his tortoiseshell longhair cat, Patchouli. His health regimen is exacting but he does it with the help of rotating aides provided by the fund.

“It’s like having a roommate without the sex,” he quipped, referring to the aides who help him get through the day.

A few years ago Stack had a serious health crisis.

“They found me on the bathroom floor unconscious. They revived me and took me to the hospital. I was lucky because I used to have a D.N.R. bracelet — Do Not Resuscitate — but I wasn’t wearing it at the time,” he recalled. “I don’t have it anymore.

“I’ve been living a charmed life,” he said last week. “A friend from Vancouver, Jim Wallace, a teacher and a filmmaker, said he wanted to make a documentary with me. I don’t have any regrets about my life, and after the bypass surgery, I learned to accept my mortality and I’m not afraid of it.”