Dallas — The irony of taking over the role of LBJ in an emergency is not lost on Brandon Potter. Just days prior to the opening of the Dallas Theater Center and the Alley Theatre co-production of All the Way in Houston, the actor was called in by DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty with a request.
“We all knew James [Alley company member James Black] was sick and it was an emergency situation, but we were just kind of holding our breath waiting to see if he was going to be able to do it.” He wasn’t. Moriarty asked Potter to fill the role of LBJ.
“He gave me the day and said think about it. I said ‘Look, if we’re going to do this let’s start right now.’ ” That was Saturday. By Tuesday Potter had the first 60 pages memorized for the design run.
The decision to cast Potter as LBJ did not come quickly. DTC “scoured the country” looking for a quick replacement. Only five actors have played this role, “Including Bryan Cranston, and I don’t think he was available…” says Potter. One actor that had played LBJ before was interested but after learning he would only have 11 days to prepare for the role turned it down.
Potter, a member of DTC's Brierley Resident Acting Company who had been playing George Wallace in the show, says he didn’t realize the league of actors he was working with until it came down to making this work.
“That isn’t me putting up false gratitude—they saved me. It’s like I was learning an opera for the first time and I didn’t know the language. Kevin [Moriarty] is so good and his blocking made perfect sense. These actors led me around on stage like a sheep and fed me the lines.” I was not the motor driving this. They were.”
When it came time to move the show up to Dallas Potter still held out for the possibility of the original actor returning. When it was clear he would not Potter began to own the role as his own.
All the Way is the story of Lyndon B. Johnson’s dive into the American presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, and his plans to force the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. The play takes its name from Johnson's 1964 campaign slogan, "All the Way with LBJ."
The play was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and premiered there in 2012, in a production directed by Bill Rauch, with Jack Willis originating the role of LBJ. It premiered on Broadway in March 2014, also directed by Rauch. It won the 2014 Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. Bryan Cranston won for Best Actor.
All The Way is perfect for a Texas audience. Johnson was a Texan and famous for it. He and his wife Lady Bird (each member of the Johnson family were given names with the initials “LBJ,” including the family dog) were instrumental to development and progress in Texas. This included bringing electricity to rural parts of central Texas, near where Johnson grew up. Lady Bird was a sharp businesswoman and his partner in many crucial ways.
Potter says there was much wringing of hands that this could actually happen. He credits the professionalism to the entire team to pull it off. Originally cast to play George Wallace, Potter had to keep those lines memorized in the back of his head in the event that Black would return.
“I wanted to see what James could do with this role, and I hoped he would be able to come back for the Dallas run.” When it became clear that he would not be returning Potter focused all his efforts on LBJ.
At first he mostly ran on adrenaline but then the role became more natural. He became the “motor” that he wasn’t able to be when he first began the role. As the cast returns back to Dallas to prepare for the Dallas run, Potter is more than happy to be home. His wife remained in Dallas during the Houston run and Potter would commute back to Dallas on his day off for voice over work that he does here.
“I told Ardis [Campbell, Potter’s wife] that I’m not putting on pants for a week and there will be a lot of ordering chicken wings.”
A wildly successful run in Houston has laid the groundwork for Potter taking on this role in Dallas. They played to sold-out audiences almost every night in Houston. The cast features many other local actors, including many of DTC’s resident acting company. To start the play again with the confidence of knowing he can do it will surely aid Potter in turning in a stellar performance to hometown audiences.
“The irony is not lost on me that I was not supposed to be the president here. But I did it. It’s like I was freebasing acting! It was quite a rush, I have to say.”