A Conversation With Actor Alpha Trivette Of “American Made”
Thank you so much for your time, Alpha. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I was born on Christmas Eve in Ladysmith, Virginia…a tiny crossroads on US Rt 1 between Richmond, and Washington DC. The youngest of 5, till little brother, Danny came along, I experienced the rural life, with both sets of grandparents on farms located a few miles away in one set in Chilesburg and the other in Beaverdam, Virginia. Our weekly ritual was a 20 mile trek to Fredericksburg for weekly groceries and generally a drive to my maternal grandparents’ farm in Chilesburg to take a few things to them, as well.
I guess we were poor but never really knew it…it just seemed normal for that place and that time. I loved sports and dedicated most of my energy to playing baseball, planning one day to be a Major Leaguer. It was a dream through Little League, high school and American Legion. But it was not to be. However, I was also active in an organization called FFA…Future Farmers of America. Of course, every boy in the school was, as that time and my older brother, Randy had been a chapter and state officer…so it sort of came natural for me to move down that country road, too.
Dad worked for us to achieve what he never did…he put three of us, my 2 brothers and me through college at Virginia Tech. Along the way, baseball took a back seat and FFA took the wheel. I served as chapter, federation, State and National president of the organization and as a result, got to travel to many places around the world and meet with leaders in agriculture, business and government…even a few world leaders.
How did you get involved in radio and acting?
I guess as I look back, my desire to entertain was evident and strong early on. I used to memorize comedy routines…my first being, Bob Newhart’s “Introduction of Tobacco into Civilization.” Still remember it…still funny. And I used to stay up late or get up from bedtime and sneak out to watch the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I was able to satisfy some of that need to be in front of an audience through FFA…public speaking, parliamentary procedure contests, presiding over meetings, that sort of thing. Once I got into college at VA Tech, I took classes in oral performance of literature and entered comedy and talent competitions…and won a few…and took TV production classes, which allowed me to host a weekly current and campus events type show, produced by the students and communication faulty…which I LOVED!! I got to be that Johnny Carson type, I had admired since childhood.
Then with my degree in Agriculture Economics…and a minor in Communications…I went to work first at Virginia Farm Bureau and within a year or so, I was offered the position of Director of Public Relations for the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives in Louisville, KY.
There, among other things, I was responsible for arranging and hosting the annual meetings for each of our member electric co-ops from one end of Kentucky to the other. Many of these meetings were conducted in large circus tents and had attendance of up to 6,000. For the month-long tour of meetings across the state, we always booked talent in the form of a gospel or country music group and a children’s act to entertain the crowd. And there was usually a beauty contest to name the Miss __________ Electric Co-op. Again, I got to fulfill my hosting, emceeing, Johnny Carson dreams.
It was in Louisville that I got involved in community theater and performed in several stage plays…I found an agent and began booking a few TV commercials and radio voice over jobs…scratching that itch from childhood. Then one day in the Courier Journal newspaper, I saw an ad for a nightclub in Cincinnati…about 70 miles away…looking for standup comics. I had done so much public speaking and much of those appearances included joke-telling and humor, I gave it a try. I drove to Cincy, performed for a very enthusiastic audience and upon leaving stage, the bar owner, Don Merris, shook my hand, gave me TWO DOLLARS and a free beer! I became a professional standup comic THAT NIGHT!
Then I began to pursue and book more comedy gigs…even getting booked for several weeks at the Playboy Club in Cincinnati!
After a couple years, a country music act from Nashville, Little David Wilkins, whom I’d had met along the way, offered me a chance to open shows for him in a cross country bus tour and I left the corporate world for good to be a full-time entertainer.
I also booked comedy clubs through my friend and comedy agent, Tom Sobel. He booked me to headline for the first time at the Comedi Inn in Charlotte, NC…there I met Kim, the manager…and we got married exactly one year after that night (guess I REALLY wanted to get booked back)…and we are still married 34 years later.
Living in Charlotte, I was still headlining the Comedy Caravan rooms throughout the South and Midwest for my friend, Tom Sobel in Louisville, Comedy Zones, based in Charlotte with rooms all over the East, Mid Atlantic and Southeast, as well as other great clubs across the country. Found an agent in Charlotte for acting and some film roles came along…Rockin’ Road Show,” “Rutherford County Line,” “King Kong Lives” and “A Time To Triumph,” a CBS-TV movie starring Patty Duke and Joe Bologna.
After a headlining a show one night at the Comedy Zone in Charlotte, Jack Murphy, who was star of the Q-Morning Zoo at WROQ approached and asked if I’d like to do radio…SURE! Why not! That started me on a 25 year career in morning radio. I worked in some of America’s great cities; Charlotte, St. Louis, Seattle, Kansas City, Tampa/St. Pete, Denver and then Atlanta. Over those last few city-stops, I had gravitated away from comedy and acting to focus solely on radio. Once the radio days ended, I returned to acting with classes at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta and have acted ever since.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I will be in two films out this Fall…I play the role of Judge Linkletter in “American Made” the new Tom Cruise feature. That was fun because I had a wonderful scene with the amazing Jayma Mays…she actually attended Virginia Tech, as well…a fellow Hokie…and I believe I could be the first actor she’s worked with in a major motion picture who had actually been to her hometown…Grundy, Virginia.
I am also in a film called “Mine 9” a wonderful picture that tells the story of a West Virginia coal mine disaster. Writer/director, Eddie Mensor did an amazing job of telling this story, which is based on three separate and actual mine explosions that occurred in West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. That film was special to me, as my mother’s roots come from the coalfields in and around Pocahontas, Virginia where my grandfather was the manager of the company store for the Pocahontas Fuel Company. I had other relatives who spent their lives in the mines and ancestors who lost their lives mining coal.
There’s a project that is available now on Vimeo called “Come on in We’re Dead; It’s the story of the deadliest single shootout for law enforcement in US history. It occurred in Springfield, MO in January of 1932. It is little remembered today but was headline news of the day and forever changed the way law enforcement surveilled and approached suspects.
There are a couple of other projects that I think have some tremendous potential…Mr. Lockjaw; a murderous puppet who controls the mind and life of his master, Miles.. This would make a marvelously creepy series. I play the kindly, yet nosy superintendent of the building where Miles and Mr. Lockjaw live.
And there is also Project IsisX; the story of an extra governmental organization that operates outside the controls of any sovereign nation while taking care of “chores” those nations are prohibited from handing themselves. I play the director of that shadowy organization.
My first network series was Banshee. I had a three year run as Israel Proctor in on this Cinemax drama created by Alan Ball.. It was an action packed show with everything you’d imagine a Cinemax show to have. My character was an Amish Elder whose son Kai Proctor (played by the truly talented Ulrich Thomsen) was shunned from the family and sect for actually protecting the family farm but was violent in doing so…so… Kai operated a meat packing plant but also was involved in a few shady activities like running drugs and prostitutes, operating a strip club, selling guns and killing people…he was a bit rebellious.
My first series regular role was in Tyler Perry’s Too Close To Home on TLC. We finished our second season of TCTH and as yet, neither Tyler Perry Studios nor TLC has made an official announcement about the its future. In this show, I play Dr. Allen, a character who suffers from dementia in a tiny town called Happy, Alabama. The town has many family and community secrets, many of which are hidden away in the Doctor’s cloud of dementia.
I had a guest starring role in Drop Dead Diva, playing the memorable Judge Stone.
What are you most proud of?
I am proud of where I came from. We never had much growing up. I remember my dad saying to me once, “If I could just make $8000 a year, I’d be sitting on top of the world.” He was a very simple man and he and my mom worked hard to give us what we did have. They came through a lot in their lifetimes and despite the hardships, made life better for their kids. And though, I look back and see many times how unappreciative I may have seemed, (you know how kids, especially teens can be) I am ultimately proud of all I’ve been able to achieve because of them. Now, I’m proud of my children…one raising three of her own here in Georgia and one making a name for herself in her chosen industry in New York. We lost our son back in ’09 and we’ve come a long way as a family since then. I am proud of all he and my girls as well as my grandchildren and my dogs have taught me. I do believe they have made me a better person.
Do you think the acting profession has changed over the past 30 years? How
There are certainly more avenues to express one’s talent these days. 30 years ago, New York and Los Angeles were the meccas of entertainment…if you wanted to do anything in the business you had to go to one of those places…and they still are the pinnacles of the industry but it’s far more diverse today and spread out. In my days back in Charlotte, in radio and a novice in acting…Dino De Laurentis open a studio in Wilmington, NC. That was huge! Major motion pictures were shooting outside of Hollywood. “King Kong Lives” for example…Georgia had glimpses of the bright lights with “Deliverance” back in the 70s and then later in TV with “In the Heat of the Night” and then “The Dukes of Hazzard.” And there were hit and miss on-location shoots at various places but now filmmaking is big outside of the big two. New Mexico, Toronto, Vancouver, Louisiana and especially ATLANTA, quickly becoming a global leader in film and TV production. Major motion picture studios are popping up and producing the blockbuster films and hit TV shows of today…Pinewood studios with its Marvel lineup, Tyler Perry Studios with his Madea films and his string of successful TV franchises…all over Georgia film and TV is booming, making for a $9.5 BILLION industry in the state, with additional growth coming each year. Now people from New York and LA are finding Atlanta the place to be…because of work, lifestyle and affordability.
More and more TV networks are seeking original, scripted programming creating extreme competition for the big networks, NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX. Amazing new shows are staples now for cable networks; USA, STARZ, HBO, CMT, BBC AMERICA, PBS, HISTORY CHANNEL…on and on…
Additionally, there are new formats for actors, producers, playwrights and screenwriters to target. Streaming via Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, PlayStation, YouTube, Vimeo…Facebook for crying out loud…etc…etc…
These avenues are also seeking original scripted material. Webisodes have become a thing to stream on numerous online sites creating tons of opportunities for filmmakers and creators of all levels to target.
Now, the hitch is…for actors and creators….the pay for them may be considerably less that what the networks traditionally paid. The yin and the yang…getting paid something beats getting paid nothing.
Which do you prefer, acting or being a radio personality?
I loved and love both…I particularly loved the steady paycheck of radio. My job in radio was mainly the comedy, or the color guy, so to speak. I was the more creative part of the shows of which I was involved. So, I was still performing…whether it be talking about a story or a person in the news as myself or one of the many characters I had invented and presented…I was still creating and performing. The difference in radio and performing on stage as a standup or in a play is the instant feedback. On stage, you get the instant gratification of the laugh or the cry or the gasp or groan…with radio, it is only there in the reaction of the other people in the studio…and in the phone calls of those who wanted to play along or to comment. That was always a big part our our radio show, audience participation. We loved it, encouraged it.
So, the preference is only in the perception. In my mind, I am performing, either way and once again…for me…fulfilling that Johnny Carson dream.
What drives you?
As an actor? Wanting to get better. Wanting to be accepted and believed as the character I am portraying. As a standup comic, I did a lot of impressions…and the trick with that is to be believable as that person you are impersonating…and not just by the sound of the voice the vocal pattern but visually, as well. When I would do Peter Falk as Columbo, for example, I wanted to have his mannerisms, facial expressions as well as the voice. The same with Clint Eastwood…the voice is essential but the face and movement, done right, enhance the believability.
I strive to do that with the characters I play, too. To make sure I make you believe I am who I am pretending to be. If YOU believe, then THAT is what the whole suspension of disbelief thing for actors. My agent, Joy Pervis at J Pervis Talent calls me her “chameleon.” She swears I morph into different characters. And I admit, there have been some roles in which friends have watched and afterward did not even realize that character was ME.
As a person? Probably the same…to get better. To do that, you also have to, like an actor, be open to direction…change…growth. Muhammad Ali said, “If you believe all the same things at 50 that you did at 25, you’ve wasted 25 years.” So, I try to be more like the person my parents wanted me to be and the man my 4 dogs obviously believe I am. And not just for me but for my family and especially my grandchildren, who live with us. I want for them to see me as an example of what a man, a parent and a grandparent should be. I was blessed to grow up around my grandparents and I know what a life lesson that is.
Based on your personal experience, what advice would you give to young people considering a career in theatre?
Obviously STUDY! Study the craft study the business and immerse yourself in it…trust your talent and believe in yourself. That is true of any chosen career, I think. BUT…don’t get LOST in it. Find a center…be grounded…have a base. Of course, you will need to take risks and you can most easily do that when you’re young and mostly unencumbered but have a vision of reality. Acting is such a make believe world, as we’ve touched upon and if one is not careful, it can taint ones grasp on reality. So, the way I see it, it is really important not to be blind to the world around. Understand that there are people who DO toil and scrape by and others who work hard and do extremely well…understand them. Get to know them, if you can. Get your hands dirty. Find out what it’s like to plant and harvest your food. Love or tend to an animal larger than your dog or cat. Talk to people who didn’t vote for the same person you did and don’t just assume they are inferior because they don’t march to your political beat.
Being grounded only serves to let you breathe in tough times and be more resilient. I think it also helps to embrace a character who may be far removed from your own reality.
What’s more, this business is full of rejection. We may audition for hundreds of roles…roles we believe we are PERFECT for…and only get cast in a handful of them…or none…so for the sake of sanity, we have to understand it’s NOT PERSONAL! So many factors go into an audition and into the reason a casting director liked you or your audition or liked another one more. Grounding also allows you to take stock of those auditions and grow from the things you pinpoint as the flaw, while understanding that there may not have been a flaw at all…maybe they went with the other guy because he had green eyes or she was shorter than the star…cause that particular star doesn’t like to work with actors taller than he is …
Grounding also serves to allow you to accept who you are, what roles you can and should pursue…in essence, to know your brand.
And take care of yourself…your instrument…you voice, your body.
Which skills are most important to becoming a successful actor?
I think we touched on some of those…talent, for sure. Confidence, persistence, patience, humility, a willingness to learn and accept coaching, direction and rejection.
You mentioned that you did work at the white house. Can you tell us that story
Yeah…the White House job came as a result of my FFA days. I presided over the National FFA Convention in Kansas City…20 + thousand people in the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium. The 4 day program was always filled with the normal business of the organization but also entertainment, entertainers, speakers, politicians…
One of the special guests at our convention was then Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.
The Vice President was there by my invitation, as I had met him earlier aboard Air Force II while flying over the Atlantic ocean. More on that in a minute. Now our convention and organization featured a National FFA Band, selected from FFA members from all 50 states who came together for a few rehearsals over a few days and then blew us all away at how amazing they were in such a short time. The band prided itself on its performance and its ability to play intro music for each special guest. Upon his arrival to speak, we asked the Vice President what music he would like our band to play as he was introduced to the podium. Expecting, of course, something regal, befitting the office of Vice President of the United States, Rocky floored us all when he requested Sweet Georgia Brown. Well, that is exactly what our National Band gave him. It was marvelous.
Can you tell us the Air Force 2 story?
Ah…now to Air Force II story. While I was serving as National FFA President, there would be extended periods in which I would be traveling to State Conventions, visits to states, leadership tours and conferences, industry meetings, speaking engagements and so on. After one particularly long stretch, I had come home…I was only 19 at the time…and had crashed. My mom was allowing me to rest that morning when the phone rang. She came in and said it was someone named James Cannon from the White House. Naturally, I thought it was some sort of prank…most likely perpetrated by one of my 5 fellow National Officers (all of whom were very dear friends and remain so to this day) so once I finally DID take the phone, I made some sort of snide remark, which I knew only one of my fellow officers would understand. Mr. Cannon was unphased by the remark and proceeded with his introduction and asked if I would be available IN THREE DAYS to fly to London with Vice President Rockefeller. He told me if I did not have a passport, no problem, they could get me one…IN THREE DAYS…I did have one, however and he gave me instructions to arrive at Andrews Air Force Base on the specific day and time. I hung up and immediately called the National FFA Headquarters to see if this was legit. They made a few calls themselves and found out that it was, indeed a legitimate invitation. I was to be part of a US delegation to attend the opening of the American Bicentennial Exhibit — The World of Franklin and Jefferson, opening at the London Museum.
Also on this trip would be; Bicentennial Commissioner (and later Senator and husband of Elizabeth Taylor) John Warner, Senator Sam Brooke of Massachusetts, Chief of the Hopi Nation, representatives from the Brookings Institute and others but most important to me…PEARL BAILEY. She had just taken a break from staring in MAME on Broadway and she was adorable. She latched onto me and called me “The Baby” the entire trip. After the thrip she sent me 4 books she had written, each autographed and personally inscribed.
Following the exhibit, at a reception at the home of the Ambassador of the Court of St. James, the Ambassador himself…who shall go unnamed…though he was married into the Kennedy family, approached the Vice President and me as we spoke in the reception room, threw his arms around the two of us, with the familiarity of a drunken fraternity brother and slurred, “Is this a great party, or what?!” As he staggered on to his next guest, Rocky shook his head and said…”Shit!” A look and a memory, I shall never forget!
It was during that conversation and a subsequent chat and photo session aboard Air Force II on the return home that I formally extended the invitation to the National FFA Convention, which the Vice President later accepted.
How about the story of you drunken moments in the middle of Red Square in Moscow.
Ha! That is a gem. After my year in FFA, I was asked to be part of a People to People tour of agricultural sites in Europe; specifically, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Denmark and the Soviet Union…yes, it was still the USSR then.
Near the tail end of the tour, after flying to Moscow and then to Kharkov in the Ukraine, we returned to Moscow before departing for East Berlin…another story.
The USSR had only recently opened to tourism and did so out of a need for an influx of foreign currencies. The Ruble was not a hard currency, was not traded internationally. Part of this effort was the opening of Barioshka Shops and bars. They did not accept the Ruble…only foreign monies; American, Canadian and Australian Dollars, Swiss Francs, German Marks, British Pound, etc.
My friend and fellow officer, Scott McKain (now internationally noted speaker and author) and I decided to explore a bit of Moscow from our Hotel Russia at the end of Red Square. We found one of the Barioshka Bars and took a seat. The thing about these places, though they did take American Dollars, they did NOT make change. The price of a drink called a VODKA LEMON (I think similar to a Tom Collins) was $2.50…we did not have two dollars and 50 cents in change…but we did have a FIVE. So, we ordered two…one for me, one for Scott…for five bucks. Now this was GOOD Russian vodka…and quite a bit of it in this drink. Beauty. Then the waitress came over with two more drinks, for EACH OF US sent over by some other members of our tour, (One an executive with Moorman Manufacturing and the other a director with Steiger Tractor) who had also wandered into the bar. Apparently they only had TENS. We gladly accepted. Those two went down better than the first two. Then after a bit, here came TWO MORE DOUBLE ROUNDS from that same generous table of friends.
By this time, we were on our lips and it was time to go. To get back to the hotel, we had to traverse the entire length of Red Square with Gum Department Store running the length of the Square on our left and the Kremlin on the right. We were in good form…very drunk and very happy on this brisk Moscow night. Howling with laughter, we stood in the VERY MIDDLE of RED SQUARE. Then we heard the bells in the Kremlin clock tower chime midnight…sobering. Then came the more sobering sight of two members of the Russian Red Guard goose stepping from their guard hut at the far end of the Kremlin wall, marching toward the center and in our general direction. It was time for the changing of the guard at Lenin’s Tomb. He was encased in a glass tomb at the entrance to the Kremlin. A chill came over the two of us with the realization of a warning we had been given that public drunkenness was punishable by imprisonment.
That thought sent a shiver of reality and sobriety through the two us as Scott and I, those two guards, the bells of midnight and ole Vlad Lenin himself were all that was present in the Square on that starry night. We headed back to the safety of our hotel…quickly…without further incident.
It was the flight out of Moscow that really put things into perspective, however. Upon leaving Moscow, we flew to East Berlin and drove through the famous Checkpoint Charlie into West Berlin…essentially we flew from Communism, to Communism and then drove to freedom. The East at that time was still a mess. Gray, dismal and still littered with remains from WWII bombings. Driving through the checkpoint, we were of course, forced to leave the bus, were told our luggage was overweight and had to pay for them to permit us to cross…they shook us down but we felt glad to escape.
The West was vibrant, alive, just like any American or Western European city. Such a contrast in such a short space.
You are in a position of influence. How have you used your position and skill to help people’s lives?
Ever since my radio days, I have worked to raise funds and awareness for a number of causes…one that has been near to our hearts is homeless pets. As a pet lover myself, it’s been a pleasure to promote via radio, personal appearances and fundraising through Paws for Cocktails events benefiting Fur-Kids and others. Along with my radio partner, Kelly Stevens, we’ve have raised tens, maybe hundreds of thousands for no-kill shelters, veterinary care fostering and adoption of homeless, neglected and injured cats and dogs.
I am also the celebrity spokesperson for Second Wind Dreams…it’s sort of a Make-a-Wish for elderly, dementia patients and those in long term senior care. We grant their wishes and provide personal and educational services worldwide. September 14 is International Second Wind Dreams Day and the 20th anniversary of the organization. I will be participating in Virtual Dementia Tour, which gives a hands on experience into what it is like to suffer dementia. Then a wish will be granted for an elderly patient.
I’m also senior board member for Lumbee River Productions, a 501C-3 organization. We are currently building resources to create a movie production company and educational facility to produce film and TV programs about, created by, benefitting and employing indigenous people, minorities and women in all phases of the production process.
We have two feature films in the pipeline right now that we hope will be in production soon.
Who are some of the most famous people you have interacted with?
Well, I mentioned a few already…While working at the White House, I was privileged to actually be invited into the Oval Office for brief sitdowns and briefings. I had met President Ford in a previous Rose Garden ceremony while with FFA. He was a most gracious and personable man.
I encountered Jimmy Carter on several occasions. The first time I met him, I was in the office of Governor Ray of Iowa at the Capitol in Des Moines. I was National FFA President at the time and was approached by a man waiting to see the Governor. He slapped me on the back and let me know he was a former FFA member himself and was running for President of the United States. Later that year, he also spoke at our National Convention.
While on the previously mentioned People to People tour I/we met an agricultural comisar while in Kharkov before touring a tractor factory…cannot swear to it but I do believe now, based on the time, the position of the man and the circumstances that that comisar was Mikhail Gorbachev.
What was that like?
I try to not get carried away by anyone’s fame or status. I am always more impressed by a person’s demeanor, their genuineness, openness and graciousness. I’ve found in acting most truly big names tend to be somewhat shy. Sometimes that can be mistaken for being aloof or standoffish but that is not always the case. I don’t seek out people just because they are famous. I tend to gravitate toward those who exhibit the traits and talent I just spoke of. To me, that is more reflective of a person’s greatness.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I am more likely to be inspired by someone who has led a normal, unremarkable life but has overcome many obstacles in getting there. There is a lot to be said for high climbers and overachievers who have become famous but to me normal people who have shown great character in the face of adversity deserve as much or more credit.
These people tend not to even realize just how much of a contribution their lives have been. Kind of like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” These people are so busy with giving as a normal part of life they have to be told, “You really HAVE HAD a wonderful life!”
I think about people like my grandfather. I spoke of him earlier…manager of the Poky Fuel Company Store…he and my grandmother saw 4 of their children die before them. In the case of three of the children, Grandpa actually laid them out for burial himself…because that is what they had to do. Later he bought a farm in Virginia, moved his family there, raised them and and a number of nieces, nephews, cousins and other strays, all while just trying to do the best he could for himself and his family.
And then my mom and dad’s generation who went through the Great Depression, WWII, Korea…then came home and got on with their lives…raised families…built communities…those people are heroes…to me, anyway.
Who do you aspire to be like one day?
I want to be like my dad. As I said, he was a simple man. He lived by the motto; “Do the best you can and keep on going.”
I want to remembered and loved by my grandchildren and my dogs for they have taught me so much about love, patience, understanding, devotion, loyalty and love.