Owen O’Farrell’s son, Owen, wasn’t impressed when his father pointed to 78-year-old actress Julie Newmar on the television one morning and told him he’d worked with her in 1977 at a dinner theater on Long Island while he was a student at Hofstra University.
“I said, ‘that woman was the hottest woman on the planet when I was your age,’ and he looked at me like I was crazy.”
But the incident sparked a feeling of nostalgia in O’Farrell for an earlier time when acting and theater was his passion.
“I was feeling a little melancholy and looking at my audition pieces — scripts that I had done — and I thought ‘am I ever going to do this again?’” O’Farrell said. “And the very next day there was an audition notice for Thunder River Theater Company for “The Cherry Orchard.”
O’Farrell was driving a bus for RFTA at the time, and didn’t yet have enough seniority in the company to claim a schedule that would allow him to make time for rehearsals and shows.
“But then I thought, I could audition just to work up an audition piece,” he said. “So I told my son, and he said ‘I wish you would do a play dad, I’ve never seen you act.’ Here’s the person I love more than anyone else in the world, who’s never seen me do the thing I love to do more than anything else in the world.”
So he auditioned for Lon Winston, TRTC’s founder who was directing the play. Winston was “blown away” with O’Farrell’s talent.
“He really wanted to work with me and he gave me the perfect role — the tiny little part of Boris, the next door neighbor, who’s the comic relief. And it was perfect because I could just polish it up, strut it out there, and let my son see what dad can do.”
The next year, Winston called O’Farrell and offered him the lead character, James Tyrone, in the Eugene O’Neill play “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Since that time, O’Farrell has gained a reputation as one of the finest actors in the valley, and has acted in several TRTC plays including “American Buffalo,” “Hamlet,” “Rashomon” and “The Tempest.”
Last year he played the lead role of Vic, a New York City cop, in the Arthur Miller play “The Price.” The role, O’Farrell said, was perfect for him because he’s from New York City and had an uncle who was a New York City cop.
This spring he received rave reviews playing the role of Lennie in TRTC’s production of the John Steinbeck classic “Of Mice and Men.”
“In this valley there’s a limited number of talented actors, so you can’t do a show unless you have somebody in mind to do the specific roles,” O’Farrell said. [TRTC] “picks shows with me in mind, and you can’t ask for better than that.”
Go west, young man
When O’Farrell was a young actor, talent agents heard his deep “father” voice and told him “You’re going to work a lot when you get older, but until you grow into yourself, it’s going to be tough for you to find work.”
“I decided that if I have to wait until I get older to get good work, why not go skiing?”
So in 1986, O’Farrell accepted a friend’s invitations to come ski in Aspen, staying five days his first visit and two weeks his second visit. On his third visit he stayed for an entire winter and subsequently made the valley his home for 10 years. During that time he made his living mostly as a wisecracking bartender at the Hotel Jerome where he got fired for joking with one of the “lost skiers” in 1993, and at the Woody Creek Tavern where he had frequent and memorable encounters with some famous locals including John Denver and Hunter S. Thompson.
But when a buddy from New York called and offered him a partnership in his entertainment company — Murder Mystery International, which teaches leadership principles to Fortune 500 companies through theater performance, O’Farrell took it.
“He gave me the murder mystery division because we were best friends since the first day of college, and he didn’t want me to work for him; he wanted me to work with him,” O’Farrell said. “It took three years, but we got a profit going and had shows booked from September to the end of the year. I had my son and had bought a house in New York, and all was starting to go well, and then [terrorists] started flying planes into buildings.”
The fallout from 9/11 devastated the company, and left O’Farrell desperately trying to keep food on the table, and keep his family together. He ended up moving the family to Ft. Collins to be close to his wife’s mother, but had difficulty finding work there.
“I started working as a bartender on a luxury train for six weeks at a time, but it wasn’t an ideal situation because I had to be away from my family,” he said. “I knew that RFTA was hiring, so I called them and ended up back here. We sold the house in Ft. Collins and I’ve been working for RFTA ever since.”
Now that O’Farrell has more seniority at RFTA, he’s able to get the shifts that work best with his schedule of rehearsals and shows with TRTC.
“The first year was rough because I would be at the theater rehearsing until 9:30 at night, and then have to get up at 3 in the morning,” he said. “But now I can start later in the day while I’m doing a show. Even so, we rehearse for six weeks, and depending on the size of the role, I’m pretty toast.”
Some longtime valley residents might remember O’Farrell’s small role in a 1993 movie shot in Aspen called “Aspen Extreme.”
“Believe it or not,” O’Farrell said with a grin, “I played a bartender with an attitude.”