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Volume 26, Number 2 — February 2019

Quite A Character: Frank Hoyt Taylor

Frank Hoyt Taylor lives in the Scott County, Va. town of Dungannon. His film and television credits are many. (Photo by Tim Cox)
Frank Hoyt Taylor lives in the Scott County, Va. town of Dungannon. His film and television credits are many. (Photo by Tim Cox)

By Jane Meade-Dean | UVa-Wise | April 29, 2008

*** From UVA-Wise newsletter Spring/Summer 2006 ***

To make a career as an actor you need to pack your bags and head for New York or Hollywood, right? Well, not necessarily.

Frank Hoyt Taylor has been working steadily in films since his 1984 appearance in The River. But Taylor's home — a pastoral farm in Dungannon, Virginia — couldn't be farther away from the bright lights of Tinseltown.

Taylor lives in a house he built with his own hands on a farm surrounded by breathtaking mountain vistas. When he's not tending his vegetable garden or caring for his beehives, he might be preparing for a part in an upcoming motion picture. The last few years have been especially busy for Taylor, whose acting talents can be seen in recent movies like Dreamer and Junebug.

"I like California and I like going out there but when I get tired of it, I've got this beautiful place to come back to," Taylor said. "I consider myself very lucky that way."

In Junebug, Taylor plays David Wark, an autistic folk artist with a penchant for painting surreal Civil War battles. The celebrated independent film provided Taylor with his biggest film role to date and glowing reviews for his work.

"What you try to do as an actor is open yourself up to the words on the page," Taylor said. "There is a power in the carefully chosen words the writer has produced; I just went where those words took me. A lot of the writing in Junebug was great and performing it was a matter of keeping a certain tone of voice, a lower, much different kind of speaking voice than I have."

Taylor modeled his character's speech pattern after that of the late Ray Hicks, a well-known North Carolina storyteller with a distinctive mountain accent. Taylor's vision of how Wark should sound helped land him the role coveted by character actors up and down the East Coast and in L.A.

"That's the most fun part of doing this kind of work," Taylor said. "The early preparation of putting a character together is in some ways the most creative part of the acting process. It's something every actor does at every audition. If you get the job, you build on it and take it to other levels."

One critic described Taylor's work in Junebug as "uncanny." Reviewer David Edelstein said of Taylor, "You'll think this guy, with his affectless dialect, is a found object, but Taylor is merely an accomplished actor." That's just the kind of reaction Taylor wants to evoke. "When an actor has the opportunity to portray a character with a strong accent, it can carry with it the very smell and taste of the part of the country it's from," he said.

During a career that has spanned more than two decades, Taylor has appeared in dozens of movies and well-known television shows like Matlock, Alias, and In the Heat of the Night. A few parts stand out among the long list of characters Taylor has played. His favorite roles include Wark in Junebug; Uncle Bogg, the character he played in 14 episodes of the popular Christy television series; Sheriff Guidry in HBO's Emmy-winning A Lesson Before Dying; and Delmer Collier in The Wilgus Stories.

"The characters I probably do best are those that are closer to my own life — characters that are earthy, connected to the land and its people, rural instead of urban," Taylor said.

Taylor's first foray into acting was on the stage at what was then Clinch Valley College. The Norton, Va. native returned to the College in 1966, three years after dropping out with what he called "the worst grades ever recorded."

"The late 1960s were a very exciting time at the College," Taylor said. "The cultural evolution was alive and well there. The Jefferson Lounge (formerly located in Zehmer Hall) was an important place. It was a great place to have heady discussions, to laugh and joke, and to learn outside the classroom."

During one memorable day as Taylor walked through the Jefferson Lounge,
Charles Lewis called him over and encouraged him to audition for an upcoming production.

"He talked me into being in a little one-act play called Picnic on the Battlefield," Taylor said. "And I discovered I could do characters." It was the first of several Highland Players productions in which Taylor would appear.

Taylor describes Lewis as "a great teacher who put his heart and soul into his work. He challenged all of us and really made us think." And there were several other faculty members Taylor says made a considerable impact on his education, including notables like Don Askins, the late Buck Henson, Bill Maxwell, Helen Lewis, the late Theo Gibson, the late Judd Lewis and Ron Heise. Taylor completed his English major in 1970 and has the distinction of being a member of the College's first group of students awarded bachelor's degrees.

"I can think of no one for whom I have greater respect than Chancellor Joe Smiddy and I can't say too strongly what a great school Clinch Valley College was for me," Taylor said.

After graduation, Taylor went to work with the FOCIS in Big Stone Gap, Va., where he was hired to coordinate arts programs for public schools. "There was this real cultural revival in the 1970s," Taylor said. "We were all focusing on Appalachia and wanting to learn more about it."

It was from that fertile Appalachian environment that Roadside Theater was born in 1975. Part of the acclaimed Appalshop in nearby Whitesburg, Kentucky, Roadside set out to create a body of drama based on the history and lives of Appalachian people.

Taylor's friend, Don Baker, co-wrote the theater company's first full-length play, Red Fox/Second Hangin'. When it was time to debut the work about the coming of the first coal and timber industrialists to the mountains, Baker asked Taylor to be a member of the production.

"I've always loved to tell stories, so it was a natural fit," said Taylor, who credits that trait to a genetic gift from his mother, Blanche Gentry, who remains a great storyteller at 92 years old.

The three-man cast, which also included Baker and the late Gary Slemp '73, staged more than 400 performances at venues across the United States, including New York engagements at the Theatre for the New City in 1977 and the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1978.

"A lot of my characters come from working with Roadside Theater," Taylor said. "The three of us would portray about 50 different characters during a performance of Red Fox, so it was a wonderful training ground for me."

Red Fox would be a full-time job for Taylor for the next 10 years. As the show was drawing to a close in 1984, he decided to audition for a part in The River, which was being filmed in nearby Hawkins County, Tennessee.

He got the part and worked on the production for three months. It would be another 18 months before he'd work again, this time in Matewan, an account of a West Virginia coal mining massacre.

Taylor found an agent and started going to lots of auditions. One small role here led to a bigger part there. Today, with 17 movies and 19 television shows to his credit, Taylor is still going strong.

"We've all had a fascination with the movies, they're such a part of our culture," Taylor said. "But acting is a craft like any other craft, and you just sort of learn how to do it." While Taylor doesn't study with an acting coach, he has been a self-professed student of film since his childhood days of watching movies in Norton's Koltown Theatre.

"We're all part of the great myth of movies and movie stars so I was like anyone else who got to work on a movie for the first time," Taylor said. "It was really very exciting — but it was also very hard work."

Actors like Taylor can expect to spend at least 12 hours on the set. The work is often much more physically demanding than moviegoers might expect.

In January, while working on his latest independent film project The List, set for release in 2007, Taylor worked outside from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. With the temperature hovering in the 20s, Taylor welcomed his scenes on horseback just for the chance to soak up a little heat from his equine partner.

"Sometimes the best acting you do is to pretend you're not exhausted," Taylor said.

Beyond his work on screen, Taylor does dramatic representations aired on West Virginia public radio. In one show, he's the voice of an old rainbow trout. In another, he narrates oral histories of West Virginia fire tower workers from the early 20th century. Two years ago he was part of a re-enactment of Sen. Robert Kennedy's 1967 tour of Eastern Kentucky. He's even tried his hand at teaching. In 1991, following Professor Lewis' retirement, Taylor served as an adjunct theatre professor at the College and directed a production of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love. "I would love to do something like that again," he said.

While his work may take him away from home for weeks at a time, Taylor's heart always remains in Southwest Virginia. He hopes a future project might focus on the religion and spiritual music of the region.

"My roots are here and my people are here," he said. "This way of life and our history are what I know best."

Frank Taylor is currently on location in Wilmington, North Carolina, at work on another independent film called Hounddog, which stars Dakota Fanning. Taylor plays a doctor in the movie, which is set for release in 2007.

Frank Hoyt Taylor's resume includes roles in television, film and the stage. He has worked with well-known directors including Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton and Rob Reiner. Below are the productions in which he has appeared along with the part he played in each:

Warm Springs (HBO), Conductor
A Lesson Before Dying (HBO), Sam Guidry (Star)
Boycott (HBO), Jack Crenshaw
Astronauts (Pilot), Phalcon
Alias, FBI Agent Dunn
Runaway, Pug Holly
Noah Dearborn (CBS), Simmons
Passing Glory (TNT), Coach Elroy (Co-star)
Almost Perfect Bank Robbery, Chief Bill
Tuggle (Co-star)
Christy, Uncle Bogg McHone (14 episodes)
Scattered Dreams, Warden (Star)
I'll Fly Away, Jere Blount (6 episodes)
Gift of Love, Dr. Norring (Co-star)
Sophie & the Moon Hanger, Lester Hopkins
In A Child's Name, Rev. Hickman (Co-Star)
C-15 The Professionals, Carson
Bluegrass, Sam Brady
Matlock, Donald Veech
In the Heat of the Night, Henry Baldwin
Red Fox, Second Hangin' (Star)

Dreamer, Champion Breeders Cup
Junebug, The Artist (Lead)
Big Fish, Farmer
Stroke of Genius, Reporter
28 Days, William Tucker
Ghosts of Mississippi, Dan Prince
Other Voices, Other Rooms, Edward Sansom (Lead star)
When We Were Colored, Straw Boss (Star)
Night Ride, Delmer Collier (Lead Star)
Sommersby, Grand Wizard
Matewan, Al Felts
True Colors, Senator Lackerby
The River, Zemke
October Sky, Judge Indy
Walker, Deerskin

Red Fox, Second Hangin' (Star)

A! ExtraTopics: Film