J. Michael Cumpsty ’82

Distinguished Young Alumni Award

J. Michael Cumpsty ’82

Opening night was a smash—Copenhagen, a drama about two nuclear physicists on opposite sides in World War II, was on its way to three Tony awards. Champagne flowed in the dressing room of Michael Cumpsty. Many have speculated over whether Michael’s character in the play, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, assisted or hindered the German efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and the controversy swirled around the Heisenberg family for years after the war.

In the midst of this celebration, a middle-aged man appeared at Michael’s door, tears running down his cheeks. Michael escorted the man into his dressing room and asked what was wrong. The man said simply, “I am Heisenberg’s son.” He went on to tell the actor that the play had given him new insight into his father, a man who found it difficult to express emotion, much less to be an advocate for himself in the scientific world where others suspected the worst of his work during the war.

It was a poignant testimonial to a young man whose business is expression. Michael Cumpsty has treated audiences to his insightful portrayals, and his remarkable versatility,

from the Chapel Hill stage, to Broadway, to Hollywood.

Michael was born in England, and moved with his family to South Africa at the age of two. He returned to Great Britain to go to school at age 16, and upon graduating was offered a spot in medical school back in South Africa. He chose instead to accept a Morehead Scholarship and to pursue a major in English.

His post-graduate path pointed toward medical school, or to a return to Europe and a career in the diplomatic corps. Michael had a deeply-rooted interest in acting, but he’d always thought of it only as a hobby. He spent his Morehead travel summer in England, studying acting from the repertory approach—but everyone told him that if he could make it in the States, he should cast his lot there.

He noticed that the Playmakers offered an environment more like the theater in Europe, where professional actors are able to work together in a group for an extended period of time. “Most actors go from show to show to show,” Michael says, “but don’t work in a regular company. So they lose that whole sense of learning through osmosis, the way people have learned to perform for centuries through watching people work on an ongoing basis.” He needed time and space to orient himself and find his true direction, and the Playmakers was his conservatory; after a year in the master of fine arts program, acting no longer was just a pastime.

Millie Barringer, former chair of the drama department, says Michael stood out in a talented class of actors, and that the question with him always was, not when, but how soon.

Less than six months after he graduated, Michael was making a stir in the more prestigious regional theaters. In 1989 he arrived on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase. Stints on “Star Trek” and “LA Law,” and film roles in State of Grace, Fatal Instinct, and The Ice Storm have given him a growing base of fans, in the audience and backstage.

His Copenhagen co-star, Phillip Boscoe, notes Michael’s range of dramatic ability, and his determination to understand in detail the history and the psychology of the famous physicist he portrays. David Hammond, current artistic director for the Playmakers, points out that Michael “has successfully navigated the demands of the entertainment industry while remaining committed to his artistic development.” Not many actors, he says, can juggle ‘L.A. Law’ and Electra.

His stage credits now include the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of 1776, Racing Demon, and the Tony-winning revival of The Heiress, Translations, La Bete, Timon of Athens, and Artist Descending a Staircase. He has played in New York Shakespeare Festival productions of Timon of Athens, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Winter’s Tale, Romeo and Juliet, King John, and Hamlet.

He is, simply, one of the best serious actors of his generation in the American theater.