Making Believe: Actor Robert Sicular’s Devotion to Berkeley, the Bard, and The Bay

By Emily Wilson

Born and raised in Berkeley, Robert Sicular feels sorry for people who didn’t grow up here. He even loved his time in high school, which he remembers as full of opportunities–not just in academics, but in sports and music and the arts. When he went there, Berkeley High School’s commitment to drama was clear—there was a theater technician and costumer along with the two drama teachers—all full-time.  

Sicular, a professional actor currently appearing as Uncle Charlie in the Pulitzer Prize winning August: Osage County, running through Sunday (Oct. 9) at the Marin Theatre Company, never considered going to college anywhere but UC Berkeley. And although he left after his sophomore year in 1978 to be a professional actor with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre—then in a storefront on College Avenue—he remembers the inspiring professors he had during his time there, and he calls one of them, William Oliver, who was in the drama department from 1958 until his retirement in 1991, one of his mentors.

“He was the quintessential eccentric genius with a wonderful deep voice, and he was super intellectual,” Sicular says. “He could be domineering, but I sort of played with him and he liked that. He had a great sense of humor.”

Oliver directed Sicular in three of the four plays with The Old Chestnut Drama Guild, a semi-professional summer theater group on campus in the ‘70s, in his first paying job as an actor. Sicular still has the first dollar he made with them, framed.

“They told me to drop the English accent,” he says. “Well, I wasn’t speaking with an English accent.”

His mother was an actress with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and Sicular’s parents encouraged his ambitions to be on stage. He says that his time at Cal nurtured those ambitions and gave him a lifelong love of learning. After that first stint with Berkeley Rep, where he performed in four plays in Napa, he’s worked steadily—spending eight years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and some time in Los Angeles where he got recurring roles in soap operas, including The Young and the Restless and General Hospital. But mostly he’s been able to stay local, where, along with MTC and the Berkeley Rep, he’s performed with Word for Word, ACT and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival.

Although he doesn’t like the term “theater geek,” Sicular acknowledges that he wasn’t your average teen. He listened to classical music and headed to Ashland when he was 14 where he saw and loved, Troilus and Cressida. He loved working with the OSF, he says, but he was glad to come back to the East Bay.

A Shakespeare role led to his stint in L.A. A casting director saw him as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and asked him to read for a role in a soap opera, which he got. But once they had him, they weren’t quite sure what to do with this classically stage-trained actor with a background in Shakespeare (he’s been in 31 of the 38 plays).

“They told me to drop the English accent,” he says. “Well, I wasn’t speaking with an English accent.”

Mostly, he played doctors and lawyers, but he did get to use an accent once when playing an Eastern European museum curator.

“I was on a date with the bad girl on the show, and she invited me back to look at her etchings,” he says. “It turns out she really did want me to look at etchings, and I got to say my favorite line, ‘You mean you haf been playing with me all this time?’”

What stands out on his resume is his part in a Bollywood movie, Dil Pardesi Ho Gaya, which happened by accident. Sicular visited an elementary school friend who had a Foreign Service posting in Mumbai, and they went to a movie set. Sicular’s friend told the director Sicular was an actor and he should put him in the movie. So the director did.  

Sicular feels lucky to be in the Bay Area, though when he started out acting it was a lot cheaper to live here, he says, and the profession was different.

“The theater community is relatively small and tight knit, and in those days there was a lot more hiring of locals,” he says. Still, “The best way to get cast in any play is to know the director. And the more work you’ve done, the easier it is to get work.”

Jasson Minadakis, the director of August: Osage County and the artistic director of MTC, is one of those directors who knows Sicular. He thinks the actor, who he calls a valuable collaborator, is too modest. Sicular has been able to do what a lot of actors can’t do because of his range, professionalism and talent, he says.

In one of the major roles Sicular played in Marin, says Minadakis, “He was literally playing the devil, and in this, [Osage County], he’s the brother-in-law of the matriarch of this family, and he’s the sweet older uncle and too nice for the rest of them. He’s a very versatile actor who also played a hippie on a commune for us as well as a major film producer who created MGM.”

Sicular says he’s looking for roles where he can strip away artifice and challenge himself. Also, he wants to always remember why he got into this: to have a good time.

“I’ve been dressing up and talking in accents since I was a kid,” he says. “We’re making believe. It’s just fun at the very core.”

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