It's Saturday night, and actor Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber, Gettysburg) is a long way from home. Not Hollywood, mind you, but Chelsea, Mich., population 5,000. It's where he grew up, raised three children and stayed married to the same woman, even though he accidently left her at a truck stop years ago. On this evening, Daniels, 55, sits in a gazebo, entertaining a crowd of 160 gathered on a lawn in Safety Harbor. "Safety Harbor? Where the hell is that?" he had asked his manager.
He's in town to play a role at which he excels: himself.
Folksy singer, songwriter, guitarist.
Nice guy next door.
Master of self-deprecating wit.
And activist for the arts.
In April, he testified at a congressional hearing to encourage support of funding for the National Endowment of the Arts.
No one had heard of Chelsea, he said, until he bought an old warehouse and founded the nonprofit, professional Purple Rose Theatre Company 20 years ago (named after the 1985 Woody Allen movie that nabbed him his first Golden Globe nomination and helped launch his Hollywood career). Since then, the Purple Rose has brought over one-half million people to Chelsea and that in turn has spawned new restaurants, coffee shops, art galleries, jewelry stores and hotels.
"Because of the arts, my sleepy home town is now a destination," he told the committee.
On Saturday, the 6-foot-3 veteran of the big screen and Broadway came to town to help two local artists raise money and awareness for their proposed Safety Harbor Art and Music Center.
The artists are Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda (who are acquainted with Daniels' manager). Their guests had spent the first part of the evening sipping wine or hot cider, trying to guess the identity of the promised mystery guest.
Justin Timberlake? Willie Nelson? Neil Diamond? Bill Murray?
Safety Harbor Mayor Andy Steingold thought Steve Martin might show up based on some hints in some e-mails.
"He plays the banjo, has been on Saturday Night Live and has a new album coming out," the mayor reasoned.
But it was Daniels who walked in toting a six-string Martin guitar. He wore jeans, a casual shirt, his trademark brown fedora, and salt and pepper stubble.
Daniels took his seat at the head of the gazebo, tuned his guitar, looked at the audience and said, "I could do scenes from movies if you want to see me do that instead."
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Daniels is known as the actor with an innocent face who has played a wide range of roles in more than 50 films, including, Pleasantville, The Squid and the Whale, Good Night and Good Luck and the one that always gets a laugh, Dumb and Dumber.
He's starred on many stages, including Broadway, and has won both Tony and Golden Globe award nominations.
His musical talent is less well known.
But after a bodacious ballad or two, he transformed the crowd into eager fans.
On Saturday night, he was fun and funnier, cracking people up with flawless comical timing and irreverent — but PG rated — lyrics.
Take for instance a ditty about a road rage experience he had in Canada.
Have a good life, then die
I hope it hurt so much it makes you cry
I hope it's torturous and slow
I hope you know you're gonna go
Have a good life, then die.
He's been writing songs and playing guitar since the '70s. His songs are his diaries, he said, written as something to leave his kids one day.
After being nudged to perform them in order to raise funds for the Purple Rose, he found he really enjoyed sharing his music and musings about life, Hollywood, celebrity trappings and family.
Daniels delivered his lyrics with a voice like a worn Michigan road filled with buckles and potholes — sometimes smooth, sometimes deep, often gravelly. But, it takes you where you want to go.
In Dirty Harry Blues, a reference to the film Blood Work, he told how Clint Eastwood made his day when he killed him in the movie.
Recreational Vehicle described a family road trip, a misadventure in a rented 28-foot Jayco, a "palace on wheels" that "slept six comfortably" and got "1.8 miles to the gallon." That's when he accidentally left his wife behind at a truck stop in Pennsylvania.
"Those of you who are married have some idea of just how much trouble I was in. This goes way beyond, 'Oops I forgot.' "
"That one was true," his wife, Kathleen, said after the show.
Daddy's Little Daughter described his attempt to stay alive while teaching his lead-footed daughter to drive.
And he threw in an obligatory sing-along where he had the audience chanting, "How about we take our pants off."
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Donations from Saturday's crowd totaled about $5,000, all of which will go to the proposed arts center. After his performance, Daniels retreated to the guest house to talk a bit more about the importance of the arts.
"Artists are exaggerated versions of the rest of us," he said. "You need that because life needs to be illuminated. Despite the American Idols, despite the reality shows, despite all the inane crap that we're hit with all the time, there is more to life. There is a deeper understanding, and the arts are the ticket to that."
Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org