Meet Young Frankenstein

As Young Frankenstein’s Broadway monster, Shuler Hensley lurches and bellows. But at home in Montclair, he’s one big teddy bear.

Photo by Richard Drew/Associated Press

In his dressing room, after each performance as the monster in Young Frankenstein—Mel Brooks’ latest Broadway extravaganza— Shuler Hensley peels off his latex cheek scar and glues it to the wall. For a year now, he has been building a kind of latex mosaic.

“I’m making a desert motif with cactus and butterflies,” he explains. “It’s kind of interesting. I started that when I did Tarzan.” Hensley played a gorilla in that Broadway show. “I took my foreheads and made a design with them. It’s very Shawshank—you take a piece of each show, and before you know it, you have 400 pieces on your wall. It’s like, wow, because you can just lose track of time.”

In The Shawshank Redemption, prisoner Tim Robbins tunnels to freedom by chipping away at the wall of his cell. Hensley has it easier, but still faces a bumpy ride. After each show, he gets into his Volvo SUV and drives through the Lincoln Tunnel—which exits onto a mile or so of some of the worst pavement in New Jersey—and takes Route 3 home to the big trees and fresh air of Montclair.

With his wife, Paula, daughter, Skyler, 8, and son, Grayson, 4, Hensley lives on a main street in a Mediterranean-inspired, 1895 mansion. “People come up to us and say, ‘Your house is a landmark,’” says Paula. Neighbors have told the Hensleys that Theodore Roosevelt used to attend parties at the house.
At 6’3”, 270 pounds, with a voice more powerful than a foghorn, Hensley is built to play a heavy. He doesn’t mind being typecast. In fact, his name is in lights because he is so good at making audiences quake but at the same time empathize, and even laugh, with his villains.

A one-time University of Georgia pitcher with a 90 mph fastball, Hensley is as rugged as he looks. Yet one thing scares him: “I have a fear of being late to anything,” he says. “I mean, airports, whatever. I can’t function unless I know I have time on the early side. So if it’s an eight o’clock show, I usually leave about four, because much after that you never know what the traffic will be. I have an hour and 20 minutes of make-up before the show.”

It isn’t easy becoming green. The makeup, an alcohol-based paint, is applied in layers. “It needs to set before they do the next layer,” Hensley says. “It can be uncomfortable, especially on two-show days, because I take it off between shows. If you’re freshly shaved, it stings. You have to plan when you shave, because the application can be like a dog licking your face.”

Just as confining are the thickly padded suit Hensley wears and the heavy, four-inch platform heels he pulls over his size 12 feet. The costume’s restrictions contribute to the monster’s rigid, raised-from-the-dead mannerisms. He staggers, he roars, he terrifies. But Hensley pulls it off with charming absurdity. His monster is desperate, confused, unruly, yet oddly lovable.

“This role is ridiculous because being physically grotesque is pretty much the limit to his flaws,” Hensley says. “He’s the straight man. You have all these crazy people around him that he reacts to in a real way. That’s where the humor comes from.”

Since the monster only roars and growls intermittently, Hensley had no lines to learn. Mostly he listens. “I found it completely liberating because of the listening,” Hensley says. “You have to be present and react, but I’m more aware of things going on in the scene that maybe I wouldn’t be with a lot of dialogue.”
Shrieking can damage an actor’s voice, but Hensley, who once studied opera and still listens to it before every show, quotes Luciano Pavarotti: “‘Great opera singing is really supported screaming. Go to a baby’s crib and watch how a baby can cry and scream for five hours and never lose its voice.’” He adds, “It’s all about the breath.”

Hensley’s most strenuous ordeal—not that you would know by watching it—is the hilarious Act Two number, “Puttin’ On The Ritz.” In this scene, Roger Bart, playing Frederick Frankenstein, son of the infamous Dr. Frankenstein, presents his hulking creation to dubious Transylvanians. Bart and Hensley come out with top hats, tails, and canes to sing and dance the famous Irving Berlin song. Dancing like Fred Astaire in cement shoes, the monster practically steals the show.

But music does not tame this beast. He runs amok, kidnaps the heroine (Megan Mullally), and carries her off stage. “You need to be aware of picking your feet up because it’s a different center of gravity when you’re picking someone up,” Hensley says. “I’ve thrown my back out a few times.”

Such maneuvers require theatrics and athleticism, qualities Hensley says he inherited from his parents, Iris and Sam. He grew up on a 60-acre farm in Marietta, Georgia. “It was an adventure,” Hensley says. “It was great to run around in the woods. I guess I was a monster even then, because I’d find dead trees and push them over and pretend I had super human strength.”

When Hensley, 41, was growing up with his older siblings, Sam Jr. and Nevanne, his mother, a former dancer, was director of the Georgia Ballet. Iris knew people in the theater, including her childhood friend, actress Joanne Woodward, who Hensley still speaks with regularly. When Hensley was four, his mother featured him in her production of The Nutcracker. But he caught the acting bug in the wings. He vividly recalls watching the dancers come offstage panting, only to leap back in front of the audience as elegant, effortless-looking ballerinas.

“It was a transformation, emotionally and physically, to go to the wings and then for the first time have the light hit you in the face and realize you are in this world that’s different,” Hensley says. “For me, it felt like where I belonged.”

Hensley’s father was a civil engineer, state senator, and All-American defensive-end at Georgia Tech. Sam would pitch to him for hours. At the University of Georgia, Hensley played varsity baseball and sang with the glee club.

“The best thing about my parents is they never pushed one or the other side on me,” he says. “They encouraged you to give it a try. So I never felt forced into acting, which is what I think made it so fun.”
Hensley studied opera at the Manhattan School of Music, and earned a master’s degree at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

People often asked him about his unusual first name. “Shuler was my grandfather’s first name on my mom’s side and his mother’s maiden name,” he says. “My family traced it back to David Shuler, who was a colonel in the Revolutionary War. So the Shulers have been here forever.”

Hensley starred in his first major show in 1996, relocating with his wife from New York City to Hamburg for a year to play the iconic masked lead in Phantom of the Opera. Returning to New York, he reprised his role as the menacing sorehead Jud Fry in the revival of Oklahoma! at Lincoln Center, a role he had first played in the London production. He won Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics’ Circle awards for his multifaceted portrayal of the resentful, rejected farmhand.

“It pretty much put me in the spotlight,” he says. “It was the National Theater. It was [director] Trevor Nunn and [choreographer] Susan Stroman. Then it was the chance to do the role differently and pretty much reintroduce people to ‘Lonely Room,’ Jud’s song [often cut from early productions because it made Jud not a pure bad guy]. I think ‘Lonely Room’ is the revelation of his character. All those details sort of made it the perfect storm.”

The key to playing a villain, it turns out, is not to see yourself as a villain. “Even a psychopath does not think he’s a psychopath,” Hensley says. “He thinks he’s right and everyone else is wrong. I don’t think you can go through life going, ‘I am an evil person.’ It’s like terrorists. They don’t see themselves as evil. They see themselves as right. It’s an interesting exercise to go into that idea, and not play a villain completely as a villain, because what makes them more tragic or unsettling is if they have redeeming qualities. If they are capable of love or suffering, if you can show those sides, it heightens the stakes.”

For all his brooding roles, Hensley off-stage is funny, congenial, and, above all, a family man. He met Paula, a British expatriate and yoga instructor, in 1993. He was attending a birthday party at a Manhattan restaurant. Hensley had an audition the next day, so when things got rowdy, he slipped out to the bar and spent the evening chatting with the lovely bartender and imbibing margaritas. Hung over, he flubbed his audition, but was so smitten with the barkeep, whose name was Paula, that he attended an aerobics class she taught.

“I tried to impress her, so I got right in front,” he says. “I was the only guy in the class, so I got the heavy dumbbells, fifteen pounds, and within three minutes I couldn’t lift my arms. Then I went down to two and a half. So I made a huge impression.”

Apparently he did. Hensley and Paula wed in 1995. Hensley established himself in theater, television, and film, including 2004’s Van Helsing, with Kate Beckinsale, his first portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster. Paula and the children frequented the museums, parks, and restaurants near their Upper West Side apartment.
But on visits to Georgia, Hensley and Paula would watch their city kids romp across the lush landscape.

“They got the bug to have some sort of place outside of the city where they can run around,” Hensley says.
The couple decided to look in Montclair, home to many writers, artists, and actors, some of whom Hensley knew from the theater. Paula looked at houses for months. Then her real estate agent showed her a breathtaking, 24-room, 1895 mansion with a spacious backyard, a built-in swimming pool, and a koi pond. “We came into that kitchen and I sat down. One of the owners was there. I said, ‘Is this your house? I want to buy your house. I really want to buy your house.’”Paula immediately called Hensley on his cell phone and told him, “I found it.”

Last year, the Hensleys became the mansion’s fifth owners. The home has a 1,000-square-foot ballroom, a huge underground safe, an elaborate staircase opposite an eight-foot-high mirror, fireplaces, stained glass windows, and ornate chandeliers. A grand piano that Hensley’s parents bought 35 years ago fit in perfectly.
The house is so massive it appears empty, a beautiful shell speckled with mementos. Toys are scattered about. Two toy poodles scamper across the hardwood floors.

After a good night’s sleep, Hensley eases his aching body into a 400-gallon outdoor hot tub. “It’s my therapy,” he says. “I probably go in four times a day. It’s crazy.” But it feels mighty good after puttin’ on the Ritz in cement shoes eight times a week.

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