When Charlie Robinson was first approached about Dallas Theater Center’s The Trials of Sam Houston, now playing at the Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas through May 13, he wasn’t sure he was interested.
The Los Angeles-based actor had recently performed opposite Michael Learned in Driving Miss Daisy in Kansas City, he had television work to do and he was eager to return home.
After reading Aaron Loeb’s substantial script, Robinson was so intrigued he couldn’t stop talking about it. After some encouragement from his wife and friends, he decided to take on the daunting challenge of a world premiere.
“I shed a lot of tears on this one,” Robinson said. “It turned out to be a beautiful thing.”
The Houston native has never shied away from artistic challenges. As a teenager, Robinson sang with the R&B group, Archie Bell & the Drells and later, Southern Clouds of Joy. While working in maintenance at Camco Oil Tool Center, he noticed an ad in the newspaper advertising acting classes at Chris Wilson’s Studio 7. After only a few weeks, he dropped out of the program and returned to his job. Wilson called him at work and told him he needed to return.
“If she would have not called me back, I would have never done it. She was like an angel for me,” Robinson said.
Robinson performed at the University of Houston, Alley Theatre and he worked on some small films. In 1972, he moved to Los Angeles. He is best known for playing Macintosh “Mac” Robinson, the court clerk in NBC’s Night Court. During rehearsals, Robinson learned of the April 16 death of Harry Anderson, his Night Court co-star.
“What a wonderful person he was. Nine years we worked together on that show and it was great,” Robinson said. His other television and film work includes Home Improvement, Mom, Apocalypse Now, and Jackson.
As much as he loves film and television work, theater is Robinson’s home. “I’ve done a lot of theater and I always try to find, in all of my work, the soul of what the person is about, the real pain we all have. If I am able to find that, then I think I’ve done the real work,” Robinson said.
Robinson has three intriguing characters to explore in The Trials of Sam Houston: old Sam Houston, Jeff Hamilton and President Andrew Jackson. After committing to the show, he began researching the historical characters. Fleshing out characters he had only heard of in history books led to personal growth.
“It’s been a blessing because I’ve learned so much not only about Sam Houston, and about Jeff Hamilton and about Andrew Jackson, I’ve learned so much about myself, finding truth within myself,” Robinson said.
Robinson was immediately captivated by Jeff Hamilton, born a slave in 1840 and purchased by Sam Houston at age 13. Hamilton was Houston’s driver during his two campaigns for governor and he became Houston’s office clerk once Houston was elected. Hamilton was a fly on the wall of history, meeting many historical figures while Houston was in office. He remained close to the Houston family after Houston’s death and later in his life, he spoke about his experiences with Houston at historical events, including the Texas Centennial.
“I feel so fortunate to play this character. He was such a strong and beautiful man who really had so much respect and love for Sam Houston,” Robinson said.
In the play, Hamilton confronts Houston’s flaws. “Jeff Hamilton, finally through all the pain, tells the truth about the fact that he really wanted Sam Houston to save his mother and he didn’t do it. That’s something he had to carry through his life,” Robinson said.
Working to create these characters with Loeb continuing to make changes to the script was challenging. “One day, you’d learn passages and then you’d come back the next day and they were all cut. The thing was those cuts were so important,” Robinson said.
Robinson put aside his research about the characters, including reading Hamilton’s book, My Master: The Inside Story of Sam Houston and His Times, to focus on Loeb’s intentions.
“The given circumstances that the playwright does is what really helps me. It’s what he is telling me that this character is saying and does and his feelings and his physical actions that helps me bring a character to life,” Robinson said.
Loeb’s vision of history is inclusive. “He wanted to find a way to tell the truth about our history and the interesting thing is he found a way to do it by using African Americans and women to tell the story. That way, we all feel we’re a part of our history,” Robinson said. “That’s the way to connect, by letting people see this is all of our history.”