CLASS CLOWN: PHIL NEWBY (1971-2009)
The following article appears in print tomorrow (Thursday)
The day after actor Phil Newby, 37, was found dead in his apartment last month, the victim of an apparent suicide, 200 company members and friends of Sacred Fools Theatre Company, where Newby performed the body of his work, gathered through the day, as though to a temple, to process their shock and grief. Such was the impact of the wildly popular performer, who, according to his father, Bruce Newby, had been battling depression since the age of 8.
“Phil was an extraordinarily generous person,” said director Kiff Scholl. “Everyone loved him and knew of him unequivocally as a comic genius, onstage and off.”
Newby's younger sister, Emily (who avoided both the clinical depression and a degenerative muscular disease that afflicted Phil from his 20s) remembers hearing him imitating TV characters through their bedroom walls. He would repeat phrases, loudly, like he was rehearsing, until he got it just right. “And sometimes he would just laugh out loud as a funny idea crossed his mind.”
One such idea included dragging Emily to the local outdoor mall in home town of Santa Clara, where the 8 and 10 year olds set up a psychiatry booth modeled on the Charles Schultz's “Peanuts” cartoon and Phil charged a quarter to give advice to adult passers-by.
“And they paid, and played along,” Emily recalls. “He was fearless.”
When he first came to Los Angeles 15 years ago, his acting teacher, Shari Carlson remembers the slender young man, then in his early 20s, as “just brilliant, so funny, and undisciplined. He did eventually develop habits of discipline — that was a self-confidence issue.”
Daniel Postelwait, Newby's best friend since the third grade, knows all about Newby's self-confidence issue:
“I remember in high school, from the captain of the football team to any clique, and the theater group there, Phil would know somebody from it, and they adored him, everybody thought he was funny. While Phil felt he was trying to fit in, in reality, most people thought he he was it, he was the coolest guy. I believe that he had a deficiency in terms of being able to accept all the love that was truly there, and being able to accept it.”
Postelwait adds that Newby had been battling his depression with various treatments and medications, the effects of which may have backfired. Newby visited Postelwait in Seattle the week before he died.
“There were subtle hints, I should have noticed” — when, for instance, Newby asked if his friend had ever attended a funeral. “As we parted, he gave me a hug, longer and closer than usual, and I welcomed it.”
“He said that if nothing else, his life had value because of our friendship. I was very moved and told him I felt the same way. I told him how much he meant to me and that I loved him. And I didn't realize that was the last conversation we were going to have. How many people do you get to have that final conversation with, and have that be exactly what you want to tell them.”
–Steven Leigh Morris
For more testimony on Phil Newby by his friends, family and colleagues, press the Read On tab at the bottom of this section.
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For more on Phil Newby, press the Read On tab directly below..
PHIL NEWBY REMEMBERED:
Philip was an extraordinarily generous person, onstage and off. After meeting each other on La Bête, we were instant friends. Whenever he and I could find one-on-one time, especially in the last year or so, we bounced between philosophical discussions and gut-wrenching laughter. Everyone loved him, idolized his skill, and knew of him unequivocally as a comic genius, onstage and off. Yet somehow he always made me feel like I was the funniest person he knew. Most of us had come to refer to him as “Sweet Newby”. This is a devastating loss.– Kiff Scholl
Phil was, without hyperbole, one of the funniest actors to ever set foot on stage. With impeccable timing and delivery, he could turn even the most benign of lines into comic gold. Many of L.A.'s best writers and directors clamored to work with him, often writing roles specifically for his offbeat sensibilities. Whether playing a hyperactive half-bunny/half-beaver in last year's new musical Beaverquest! or a put-upon hunchback in the award-winning LaBete or even just playing himself in his self-penned “The Prisoner” homage The Captive, Phil was always a scene-stealer. His characters were never trite, simplistic fools. Rather, they were always imbued with humanity and grace–it was not uncommon to hear a chorus of “awwws” through the laughter. Off stage, he was equally warm and hilarious. I can remember the first time Phil made me laugh, simply by referring to his beat-up car as the “pussy wagon”–complete with air quotes. He was a generous performer, universally beloved by his peers and respected as an artist. -Jenelle Riley
In Beaverquest, Phil played the character of Neville, who throws himself a birthday tea party that's attended by two of his stuffed animals- Blueberry and Mr. Jenkins. So onenight our prop designer shows up to rehearsal with a stuffed animal- a simple yellow duck- that she thought would be fine to use as Mr. Jenkins.There was nothing wrong with the prop, but when I showed it to Phil, I could tell he wasn't happy. “That's not Mr. Jenkins,” he said, and he asked if he could go out the next day to find his own prop. So at rehearsal the following day, Phil arrives with a bag, walks right up to me and pulls out a pepto-bismol bright pink glittery unicorn with a shiny stubby horn, spikey pink mane and tail, and a pink bow around its neck. And with a straight face, completely serious, he informed me that “this was Mr. Jenkins.” And so it was- that's the one we used in the show. I feel like this story sums him up because in his acting he always embraced the silly and the wacky, yet always came to it with professionalism, caring, seriousness and an honesty that was cherished by the people he worked with, whether they be fellow actors or writers like me. He had to have the right Blueberry and Mr. Jenkins for the scene to work right- and I guess he picked well, for he stole the show every night… On a side note, I felt honored and moved that the stuffed animal that Newby felt was right for Neville's other friend Blueberry (both during the late night run and the mainstage show) ended up being my childhood panda bear that I have had my whole life.– Padraic Duffy
Yes, our sweetest Phil. I wish I could think of one particular thing, I'm sure there are plenty… What I remember most was how generous Phil was as a scene partner. That poor guy, with Joe and me towering over him, with me actually throwing him around the room , my character using him as a prop, and him always up for anything! Phil was such an intelligent and unpretentious actor, he was always simply and beautifully present . Audiences adored him. Our characters lives onstage were always growing and Phil was devilishly playful. As a person, I cannot remember an instant in which he was not kind and respectful. He was a rare presence, totally unique, with a brave love of theatre and all of us in it. Phil always had the funniest things to say, his jokes always ended the round, impossible to top. Phil loved watching all of us do our thing, almost like a spectator even as he was inside of it. He would want all of us to love what we do and continue to create with passionate abandon. He will be missed terribly.–Dan Mailley
My favorite story is that Phil was telling me about a television audition he had where he had to be terrified. When he was done with his sides, he mimed a stain spreading on his pants and said, in his inimitable way, “peeeeeeeee.” he hadn't planned it and seemed almost shocked that he had done this, but it was so hysterical and indicative of both his work and his person: genuine, spontaneous and wholly original. He's in my phone with an exclamation point, Newby!, because that's how he made you feel, just excited…joyful, onstage and off. He gave so much, and I wish we could've given him what we needed. I first saw him in Ivona, Princess of Burgundia and remember being so daunted by the talent level of the company. Then I finally met him during the early days of Serial Killers, where it was clear he was one the go-to guys if you wanted to bring the funny. We got to know each other much better while doing La Bete, where i remember that backstage he drank from a mug with a picture of himself drinking from a mug on it. just amazing. Ugh. one of our friends said the other night that we should take comfort in the fact that we could all make him laugh. It's a nice thought, but i'll miss doing it. — Jaime Andrews
A couple things that pop into my mind are that Phil absolutely hated sports of all kind, but his closet friends like myself and Scott Leggett and Padraic are sports fanatics . Phil loved our company so very much that he would endure hours of football and basketball games with us and would always keep us in stitches by playing the part of the “foppish guy” who would always proclaim “ahhhh sports!!! I see you are watching a great sporting event of a competitive nature. I do so hope your sporting club is victorious!” He always said he wanted to watch a game with us wearing a fur coat, raccoon hat, pennant in hand and a bullhorn right out of the roaring '20s. That never happened, but he always just simply loved to be with his friends even though he found most sports to be the work of cavemen. He was just a bit more refined than us all. I have never met a brighter soul, and a more gifted actor. We would sometimes work on auditions together and he was always so insightful. I am a better artist and a better human being for having the great luck to be in his life , if it only was for a few years. We performed a lot in Serial Killers of course but what stands out is my time with him during Beaverquest. Having Phil play my son Neville was truly a gift….Scott gave us a little freedom to work out a couple vaudvillian-esque bits and he had the timing of a comic from a different era. He was the Buster Keaton of his time. I have never met such a genius on stage. Live, love and try, for life is precious.–Bryan Krasner
When I was directing him in Beaverquest! The Musical I was a bit worried about the character Phil was playing. Neville was half-breed son of a giant bunny and a lonely beaver. The character isn't introduced until the second act and it's literally a three page monologue involving stuffed animals and a child's play tea set. When we had the first reading and we arrived at that point in the play, Phil went crazy. Standing up, striking poses and eliciting waves of laughter. I looked at one of the actresses who was new to Sacred Fools and didn't know Phil… her jaw had dropped. I stopped worrying at that point. Another fond memory is the first time I saw Phil. Sacred Fools was doing their twenty-four hour theatre show, Fast and Loose. There was a piece that had been going on for about five minutes and it was OK. There were two actors who were telling an interesting story, when all of a sudden Phil entered wearing a trench-coat. You could feel everyone in the theatre turn their heads and fix on him. Whoever the other two poor bastards were, they completely vanished. I just remembering saying to myself “Who is that guy?” I found him after the show and introduced myself. We were fast friends. Every time that I've gone to write a Serial Killers or work on a project, I've always had Phil in my mind. He was totally committed as a performer and able to inhabit a character completely. You could use him anywhere. I will miss him. — Scott Leggett
From Bruce Newby (Phil's father):
Phil had one sister Emily who lives with her husband Alan and seven
year old son Leo in Arcata, California up near the Oregon border. His
parents, Bruce and Carmen Newby, are retired and live in Guadalajara,
Jalisco, Mexico. Philip began acting in fifth grade in the Santa Clara
Junior Theater and always wanted to be an actor. He attended Santa
Clara High School, several community colleges, and was graduated from
UC Berkeley in 1994 with an AB in sociology. He acted in plays in every
school he attended. He took pride in being a serious professional actor
and studied continuously. He was always a kindly man.
About Philip's emotional depression: Phil's great grandmother Newby was
a psychotic depressive and almost everyone on his father's side
suffered and suffers from depressive symptoms. Philip showed
significant capacity for this disorder by the age of eight and fought
it every way he could all his life. His records indicate he tried both
medical and talk therapies more or less continuously. He was a good
enough actor that his family never suspected how much trouble he was
in. His parents and sister loved him greatly and are devastated at his
loss. We thought he was doing fine. We did an hour with his therapist a year ago, Emily had also come down because his therapist wanted to meet us. It went quite well, we thought, well he's getting somewhere with this [clinical depression] He always valued his privacy, and we just didn't have a clue how badly it was deteriotating. Phil got all the derpession stuff, Emily didn't get any of it. A god awful shock. You don't want to outlive your children. The community was very kind to us, we really appreciated it.
From Daniel Postelwait (friend)
We met half way through 3rd grade, and were best friends ever since. He had come up on the 6th of January, he came up for a week and cut the trip short, stayed two and a half days because he wasn't feeling himself. I was concerned then. I called him over the next few days, and he seemed to be doing very well. He was doing probably more than anybody I know in terms of actively seeking ways to better himself and feel better about himself and do several things that worked. He was doing a few things that didn't work, and I believe those things that didn't work created a perfect storm.The part I like to focus on is the part that everybody loved – that Phil would move a foot and everybody laughed. People called him the perfect performer, so honest. He had this vulnerability that you could see through his actions, his physicality, and yet was completely in command. It was a treat.
From Emily Newby (sister):
He was my only sibling, we were not even two years apart, I'm younger, so we played a lot together, we played a lot in school – he was the leader when we played, just his personality, much more outgoing; he would bring up schemes that I would never have dreamed of. There were often reenacting cartoons – Lucy (from Peanuts) sets up psychiatry booth and gives advice, we would go to outdoor shopping center, he put up a sign and for 25 cents, we will give you advice for your problems. People would give him a quarter and discuss their adult problems. We were like little kids. And I would stand there feeling embarrassed. He was very serious about it, they thought it was funny and cute but they would go along with the act. He started acting at 8, oh yes, he used to learn card tricks, and my parents would take us to an adult party, and he would say to an adult, I bet you $1 that you can't figure out the right card. And of course he would win. We would make $10 at a party of my parents friends. When we we were in an old house where our rooms were connected by a door, I could hear him in there he was practicing voices from movies and TV, and he would say them over and over to get them just right. I was used to hearing him talking to himself or just lauging out loud. That was when he was 14 years old. My family went camping every year. We would drive down to Big Sur, we would claim that we were bored but of course there was plenty of stuff to do; he wanted to play Yoda. He was teeny, underdeveloped, five feet tall all through high school. He would get on my back with him doing the Yoda voice to become a Jedi Knight. We played Yoda and I ran into the tent, it had poles and I ran in and smacked his head, he fell off onto the floor; of course he didn't break character, he was howling in pain as Yoda. During the last few years I knew my brother was not the same person. Around his friends he stayed the comedian, but on family vacations, which was with my family and my parents, I noticed he had no energy, sitting around reading all day, no more talking real fast, like I do. He was almost lethargic and he would sleep a lot during the day. Now I realize it was more serious than I knew. For somebody who doesn't have depression, it's hard to understand that disease. He also had a disease related to MS that made his eyes droopy, It's a genetic mutation, I think it was discovered in his 20s. His vision was starting to get poor. His neck muscles were weak. That affected his acting career too. His look was different. And to be a young man who's not even five feet tall in high school, that was hard for him. From high school, he didn't believe that people liked him. He had a ton of friends. I had a few, he had a million. For some reason he was not able to believe it, that people liked him. Same thing in L.A. We go down there, there's 150 people saying how great he was, he was going to these therapy groups writing in journals saying how he had no self-worth. That was his goal, to be able to see himself as a good person. Looking through his journals, we understood that his private self was so far removed form the self he showed.