Pawleys Island’s Bill Oberst Jr. in Emmy Award-winning “Take This Lollipop”
Bill Oberst Jr. was struggling to find the right word. It was right there on the tip of his tongue.
After a few moments, he was able to convey the message.
“Hope,” the Pawleys Island resident said. “That’s the word, that’s the word I was looking for.”
In that moment Oberst, who has been cast in movies and TV shows and has performed live theater for 25 years, was looking for the most accurate word to describe the reaction he’s gotten from crowds that have seen his newest on-stage act, “Ray Bradbury Live (Forever),” in person.
“People are moved. They are leaving more optimistic than when they came in,” Oberst said of playing Bradbury, an author best known for writing “Fahrenheit 451.” He died in 2012. “You can’t encounter him without feeling more hopeful.”
Oberst, who will be performing as Bradbury on the East Coast for the first time Tuesday through Friday in Charleston at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, portrays the longtime author and screenwriter while conveying the man’s messages and philosophies that pertain to topics such as humanity, outer space and mortality.
“It’s Ray himself bringing pieces of his works and also his beliefs about life and his joy and his enthusiasm,” said Oberst, who’s appeared in TV shows such as “Criminal Minds” and “Scream Queens.” “It’s an exuberant show, but it’s also touching because it’s called ‘Live Forever’ and, of course, no one does and no one can.”
At 14 years old, Oberst had no clue who Bradbury was and the thought of later portraying the iconic writer would have seemed like it was from outer space. That was until a chance encounter in his native city, Georgetown.
“I was walking in the woods and I look down and there’s this book with a golden cover and on the cover in the pine straw there’s this man in glasses and he’s looking up past me, he’s looking up, up, up, up into the sky, and I remember my eyes following up into the trees and I then I looked down at the book and it said ‘S is for Space: Tales of imagination by the master of Imagination,’” said Oberst, a self-proclaimed loner who was “different in just about any way you could be different” growing up. “I had never heard of him. But I opened the book and I fell in love.”
Oberst became a huge fan of Bradbury over the years and first played him in a memorial festival in Illinois that was put together after the writer’s death in 2012. He had contacted the Bradbury estate about the idea of touring as the late author and eventually caught the attention of a friend of the family, which set the wheels in motion.
Oberst, who splits time between residences in Los Angeles and Pawleys Island, has come home each of the last three summers to write the script, which took 19 drafts to complete. Oberst — who has done the show in Los Angeles and Indianapolis — said the goal of the performance is to further spread the ideas of Bradbury, whose views over the years have been both celebrated and criticized.
“Ray said you will never cure humanity’s ills. We will eternally be monsters one day and angels the next and monsters one day,” said Oberst, whose longtime friend and Pawleys Island resident Stacy Rabon will join him in Charleston while playing Bradbury’s wife, Maggie. “Ray said ‘we’ve got to leave this earth and we’ve got to go out into space if we’re going to survive long-term as a species, because eventually this planet won’t be here anymore. Either we will have ruined it or something will have happened to it.
“Humans will not change, but even with that we still have to be hopeful enough to go out into space.”
Oberst felt a strong connection to Bradbury early on in playing him, and thought the portrayal would fit in perfectly into today’s society, in which social media allows everyone to tell their own stories. He believes Bradbury would be a fan of that because he believed our lives have to have a greater meaning, which Oberst said makes his words even more powerful in this day and age.
“When I was reading those words out loud, you could feel the audience feeling like they were one instead of many. And as the country became increasingly more the way the country is now I thought ‘I’ve got to do something that’s unifying,’” Oberst said. “I’ve got to use whatever little talent I have, I’ve got to use it for something that brings human beings together and reminds us of our common humanity.”
Portraying a cultural stalwart live is not new for Oberst, who’s impersonated figures such as Jesus Christ, Mark Twain and Lewis Grizzard. Playing Grizzard, a late American writer and humorist who became a Southern icon, helped serve as a catalyst in landing the Bradbury gig.
Oberst said Calvin Gilmore, who founded the Carolina Opry in Myrtle Beach, helped him get the Grizzard job in 2000 in a role of theatrics first made famous when Hal Holbrook famously did so as Mark Twain in “Mark Twain Tonight” beginning in the 1950s. Such performances, Oberst believes, stretch beyond entertainment and have the power to influence future generations the same way in which historical events do.
“Neil Armstrong wasn’t walking on the moon alone. The entire world, all of humanity that had ever lived, was taking that step with him,” Oberst said. “That’s a very rich, theatrical idea and it helps to give meaning and cohesion to life and it makes us feel like life is more than just this collection of little distractions.”
‘I’ve acted my whole life’
Oberst said he is often described as “the creepy guy” or “the face that you see but you can’t figure out where.”
The former is thanks to his performance as a Facebook stalker in interactive short film “Take This Lollipop,” which won an Emmy Award in the category of “New Approaches - Daytime Entertainment” in 2012. The latter is in reference to his singular appearances in popular shows such as Criminal Minds or movies in which he isn’t the main character or that weren’t box office hits.
“I’ve acted my whole life,” Oberst said, acknowledging that he’s become known for his roles as a villain. “My face has made me that, yes. Hollywood only has two settings for guys, leading men and villains. Particularly if you have acne scars you’re automatically the villain.
“It’s been good and it’s been fun because I do love horror movies, I have since I was a kid.”
Oberst said his role in Criminal Minds — in which he played a serial killer — was one of his favorites. Recently he added another notable role to his resume and, yes, it’s in a horror movie. He was cast as Tony Commando in “3 From Hell,” an upcoming film by Rob Zombie that is the prequel to his well-known horror movie series that includes “House of 1,000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects.”
Because of disclosure agreements and the fact a release date has not been announced, Oberst said he couldn’t comment on his character nor the film. Nonetheless, he said he enjoyed working with Zombie and applauded his abilities as a director.
For Oberst, it was just another highlight in a career that he believes he was destined to do.
“This is my thing. It’s the only thing that I can do and to have been able to make a living at it for 25 years has been remarkable,” he said. “I truly do thank God every day for the ability to do it.”
Oberst said he’s rarely recognized — aside from being that creepy guy or a familiar face that you just can’t put your finger on — in Pawleys Island or anywhere else, which is exactly the way he prefers it. He hopes those who see him as Bradbury think of Bradbury and not Oberst.
That way, he said, he’ll know he’s done his job.
“I don’t want people to leave this show thinking I did a great job. I want them to think ‘Wow, Ray Bradbury was an extraordinary human being and here’s what his ideas meant and how can I take those into the world,’” Oberst said. “I just want to be absent and let the character live.”