Infantry to ‘The Edge of Night'
Forrest Compton | The Island's own soap star ... and much more
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He's retired now, but still does the occasional radio commercial and participates in the Historical Society's “Voices from the Vault” presentations. They allow him to stay near his home on Little Ram Island Drive. “He doesn't want to leave Shelter Island,” said Jeanne.
He's acted in movies, plays and television shows, including “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” “The Twilight Zone” and “Hogan's Heroes,” among many others. Mr. Compton is best known as Mike Karr, the attorney and main character in the long-running soap opera “The Edge of Night.” The soap was primarily crime-oriented, “cops and robbers” as he describes it, and his character dealt with all kinds of complex dramas from being held hostage to investigating political corruption.
After graduating high school in 1943, he enlisted in the army. He fought in the 103rd Infantry Division and went overseas to France, Germany and Austria. He was wounded in the left thigh by a mortar shell in Alsace, France and ended up in the hospital for six weeks. It turned out to be a fortunate injury: “While I was gone, my company really took a beating — loads of deaths.”
After the war, he attended Swarthmore College with the idea of studying pre-law and political science. He started doing plays at Swarthmore. “I really enjoyed it.” he said.
In the middle of his junior year, he switched majors from political science to English, with the intention of continuing acting. After Swarthmore, he went to Yale Drama School, where he got his master's degree in fine arts.
Afterwards he moved to New York to pursue his acting career, where he lived in a cold-water flat on West 49th Street. “I was paying $18.21 a month” in 1952, he said. Aside from his theatrical gigs, his first few jobs were industrial shows. In these productions, actors would travel to different cities and put on a show (sometimes three to four hours long) to promote a product.
Being a part of this traveling show eventually led him to California, where he settled down in 1957 and took a number of smaller parts. He was cast as Colonel Edward Grey in 1964 in the television series “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” and in a curious inversion of his years as an Allied soldier, he began to take roles as German soldiers in that and other shows. “Once it becomes known you can do a German accent, they just throw you in there,” he said.
He started acting in “The Edge of Night” in 1971, when the show was still broadcast live. “The excitement of it being live really made it special,” said Mr. Compton. “If something went wrong, you just kept going, kept the mouth moving.” The adrenaline involved in being someone else, he said, is part of what drew him to acting.
But perhaps the greatest draw was “to be able to create something outside of myself. The challenge of being real with, sometimes, words that aren't so real.”
It's clear that Mr. Compton appreciated the intimate connection viewers have with the characters in soap operas. Even though they know he's playing a character, he says, they still think of him as Mike Karr. As opposed to a movie star, who has a certain aura, soap fans “see you in every day in their living room. It's small and in the home, so they think of you as a friend.”
He recalls one teenage boy who sat down next to him in a subway car. Immediately, he could tell that the young boy recognized him. After a few confused glances, the boy whispered, “Are you Mike Karr?” Mr. Compton responded, “Yeah.”
The boy asked in a genuine tone, “What are you doin' on the subway, man?” After all, why would such a successful, important lawyer take the subway instead of a cab? Not wanting to ruin the illusion, he ignored the real reason (it was cheap) and responded, “Well, it's much faster.”
But in the end, it is his pure acting prowess that makes his characters seem so real and his acting so striking. Mr. Compton said of his occasional readings at the Presbyterian Church, “As Pastor Bill explains to me, most people who read the Scripture don't explore what's in there. If it's anything that's got any kind of emotion or substance in it, you can invest it with a kind of gravity that hopefully will help them understand it better.” It is Mr. Compton's ability to extract gravity from situations, even the seemingly ordinary, that give his performances such power.
And whether he's performing in a nearby play or for “Voices from the Vault,” or just doing a reading at church, the Island's lucky to have him.
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