Local actors break out in Prison Break

OPRF English teacher and Forest Park artist find roles in the hit TV show

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Oak Park and River Forest High School English teacher Paul Noble is a teacher, first and foremost. That drug dealer you saw on the first episode of Prison Break (if you looked fast) was Noble all right, but he just plays one on TV.

Noble, who has taught creative writing and acting at OPRF for 18 years, is quick to point out that his acting career comes second. Yet, Noble's skill at his so-called hobby took a turn last fall when he appeared on the new hit Fox series. He had the distinction of being the first actor to appear on the show, playing Eric Diamond, a former drug dealer who orders a hit on one of the main characters, Lincoln Burrows, in the first five minutes of the first episode.

Hobby though it may be, Noble's acting is backed up by solid credentials. He performed in five shows in four years in the early 1990s and then took three years off to earn his masters of fine arts in acting at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, which boasts such graduates as Academy Award winner Denzel Washington and Winona Ryder. Noble graduated in 1997, came back to Chicago and began acting in non-Equity (non-union) theater, so he could continue to teach at OPRF.

Just this past May, Noble performed in the Sam Shepard play, True West, with the Hypocrites, a local theater group. The play is known for kicking off the careers of seasoned Hollywood actors Gary Sinise and John Malkovich and building the reputation of Steppenwolf Theatre. It's about two brothers, one meek and one insane.

Noble played the insane brother, and during the play's run, Prison Break casting director Claire Simon came to see it with her friend Erica Daniels, the casting director at Steppenwolf. (Simon was in town because the principle set for Prison Break is a former state prison in Joliet.) Three months later, Simon called and asked Noble to come in to audition for the show. The rest, as they say, is history.

"Every actor in town knew they were shooting Prison Break here, and everyone knew someone who'd auditioned," Noble said. "I called her back and told her that I had a 'day job' I loved and that while I was flattered she'd called me, I didn't imagine I would be able to do that kind of work. She called me back and said that she'd already heard I had a day job I loved, that she thought that was great, and that I should still come in, because the shooting often required only a day or two."

So, that's just what Noble did. He first read for a skinhead character who is one of T-Bag's cronies (and for those who are loyal viewers, you know who T-Bag is). Unfortunately, he recalled, when he walked into the audition waiting room, he encountered five guys who actually appeared to be skinheads.

Noble didn't get the part, but he did get the attention of Simon, who asked him to come back the next day and read for the character of Diamond. When Noble went in the following day, he found himself alone in front of a camera, filmed the scene with an imaginary scene partner, and was told the tape would be sent to Hollywood for approval.

"Well, 18 hours later, Claire [Simon] called me to say they were 'putting a pin in me,' which meant they were putting me on hold," Noble said. "I can only imagine the phrase comes from back in the day when they actually put a pin in your headshot and posted you on some bulletin board. Anyway, she called me six hours later to tell me I'd gotten final approval from the higher-ups at Fox."

So, on the big day of his major television debut, Noble drove himself to the North Side of Chicago feeling, he remembered, like the poor kid on the block who gets invited to the rich kid's house for a birthday party. Upon his arrival, he was whisked away by a production assistant to his very own trailer. He didn't get to admire his new digs, however, because he was immediately shuffled off to wardrobe in another trailer, and then to makeup in a third trailer.

A tattoo artist went to work applying several tough-looking (temporary) tattoos to Noble, who spent the time meeting Danny McCarthy, one of the actors he would be doing his scene with, and David, the boy who would be playing his son.

"Danny's a longtime working actor in town, a totally regular guy, and was just a few episodes removed from my dazzled state, so he was great to talk to," Noble said. "He plays Danny Hale, the shorter of the two evil Secret Service guys. As we waited, I walked down to my trailer and peeked in and it had my character's name on the door, not mine (to probably to keep the paparazzi away), but it had a couch, a fridge, a TV, a stereo and a bathroom. It was pretty intense."

When Noble emerged from the trailer, McCarthy was sitting with Paul Adelstein, who plays his partner, Paul Kellerman. Adelstein also hails from Chicago and started a theater company 15 years ago with John Cusack. Adelstein also recently appeared as George Clooney's sidekick in Intolerable Cruelty.

Finally, it was time for Noble to shoot his big scene at Navy Pier. He'd just visited there with his goddaughter Mariana the previous week, but this time was much different, he noted. Even though he felt like a rookie when he arrived at the set, as soon as his fellow actors watched the rehearsal of the first sequence and saw that he had most of the lines, they began to stare.

"They started to stare like I was somebody," Noble recalled. "Until they pointed the camera at me, I was just a guy, another extra, but when the director started talking to me, saying things like, 'Step toward him if you want to step toward him; don't worry about us,' once all that started, I was suddenly someone to be polite to, someone to move aside for, someone to envy."

Noble rehearsed the scene over and over, saying, "Just a few more rides, then you have to wrap it up" about 20 times before the director was satisfied.

Then he moved on to his second scene, where he had to make a phone call from a phone booth to order the hit. As six cycling extras rode back and forth behind him for eight takes, people started to gather, once again making him feel, he said, like all eyes were on him. And then it was over.

Before he left, Noble stopped in the dining area room and thanked his fellow actors and crew. Then he walked back to his trailer, sat down in the doorway and called a few friends to laugh about how insane his whole day was.

"The entire day was titillating and totally crazy," he said. "But, I know if I were to devote myself to acting, there would be a huge part of me that would miss teaching. I would never have the gratification of hearing a kid that never talks in class say goodbye after a good lesson. While my one moment in that sun was plenty, I certainly won't forget it."

Noble's not the only local actor to get a shot on Prison Break. Jennifer Taylor, who owns the Painted Board Studio on Madison Street in Forest Park, where she sells her own hand-painted furniture, has been playing the recurring role of Becky, the secretary of prison warden Henry Pope (Stacy Keach).

Getting the role was serendipitous for Taylor, who has acted for 25 years but had been having trouble finding acting work. She'd just about decided to devote herself full time to her other artistic endeavors when this gig came along.

She decided, however, to go on one last audition for the role of Becky, and show business pulled her back into the fold. "I can't tell you how good it feels," she said. "It is a mini-dream. For as long as I've acted, I've always wanted to be a part of a group that tells good stories. I think the creative process validates a person. I have only done three episodes of the 12 episodes, but it has been great."

The show shoots most of its scenes at the former state prison in Joliet, which was constructed in 1858 and was also used in The Blues Brothers. Its limestone facade and dark interior provide a perfect backdrop for the show, according to Taylor.

Although she initially played a prim and proper secretary, in a recent episode she stepped into the forefront of the show's plot when a romantic encounter between her character and a guard enabled a prisoner to escape. Taylor said she was very nervous about the scene, but was also excited because her character impacted the storyline of the show.

When Taylor called her husband about her big scene, he just groaned. "Here I am in this room, on a table making out with a man, and I'm almost 50 years old," she recalled. "There are about 50 people standing around, but when you act it quickly becomes clear that any idea of romance will be removed. Everything is by the numbers, but it was really fun."

Taylor's journey to the Chicago area is just as interesting as her most recent role. After graduating from Viterbo College in Lacrosse, Wis. with a bachelor of arts in theater, she moved to Minneapolis and started acting in a few productions. During her time there, she married Gary Henderson; soon after their wedding, they moved to New York City with just $500 between them. And as it has been for many others, the big city provided a rude awakening.

On just their second day in New York their car, packed with all their worldly belongings, was stolen. The couple was forced to find a mattress in the street and sleep on friends' floors until they found jobs.

After that rocky start, they settled in. Henderson decided to go to Yale to get his master's degree in photography and Taylor landed a part on a soap opera, The Edge of Night, as Detective Chris Eagen. She acted alongside now Desperate Housewives star Marcia Cross.

"That role was really fun. During one part of the show I got shot in the head and was blind for three months," she said. "For three months, I was in a hospital bed. I'd lie there and paint eyeballs on my bandages when I knew I would be off camera to make the actors doing a scene with me laugh."

Finally, when the soap went off the air in 1985, she and Henderson moved to Los Angeles. Once there, Taylor landed roles on the Bob Newhart Show, Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Shelly Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends and Highway to Heaven. But it was still a struggle to find consistent work, and after five years, Taylor and Henderson, both of whom are Wisconsin natives, decided to move to Chicago.

Shortly after moving to Riverside in 1991, Taylor had an idea to start an arts center. The idea led her to Ruth Freeark, which in turn led to the birth of the Riverside Arts Center. Now 13 years later, "It's going like gangbusters," said Taylor. "I'm still the vice president to this day and it is an awesome place."

But the creation of the arts center proved to be just the beginning. Just before Taylor left New York, her husband gave her some oil paints and, when she arrived in Los Angeles, she started painting in earnest. Then, in 1995, a friend asked Taylor to paint a coffee table. Word got around, and she started painting her signature fruit and vine designs on all kinds of furniture.

Taylor began the Painted Board Studio in Riverside before moving the business to its present location in Forest Park.

"It really has been an amazing journey so far," she said. "I really cannot imagine doing anything else. I have about five different helpers at the shop that gives me the flexibility I need if I have to go to an audition. Business has really been great and I couldn't be happier."

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