- WENDELL BROCK, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
MONTCLAIR, N.J. — A simple grilled cheese won't do.
Not in Shuler Hensley's household. Not when the chef has grimy black paint on his fingernails. Not when there are hairy green prosthetic hands on the mantelpiece of an upstairs room, a "Van Helsing" monster doll in the kitchen.
Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne had their Gothic fantasy home. Marietta-born Broadway star Hensley and his British-born wife, Paula DeRosa-Hensley, have theirs. It's a sprawling Victorian mansion on the Manhattan side of Jersey. Twenty-five rooms, 6,500 square feet, an ornate central staircase, a ballroom — and a two kids who like to scream and giggle and pretend their amply proportioned papa is a monster.
While a photographer attempts to shoot a portrait — it's the Addams Family meets American Gothic, if you will — Hensley is trying to get 7-year-old daughter, Skyler, and 4-year-old son, Grayson, to sit still. Since Daddy has a brand-new sandwich press, the traditional "say cheese" melts to the promise of grilled cheese sandwiches. After that, it's nonstop nonsense.
"Eyeball sandwiches," Shuler Hensley sings in his famous baritone as the camera clicks. Everybody giggles.
"Finger sandwiches," the 41-year-old actor improvises perversely. More giggles.
Has this irrepressible comedic fool been hanging out with Mel Brooks — or what?
Actually, he has.
After winning Olivier and Tony awards for Trevor Nunn's revival of "Oklahoma!" and playing an ape in Disney's "Tarzan" on Broadway, the Westminster Schools graduate and former University of Georgia student is "ALIVE!" again as the out-of-control monster at the center of Brooks' musical "Young Frankenstein."
As New York's theater-award season swings into gear, Hensley has been nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award ("Young Frankenstein" leads the pack with 10 nominations) and a Drama Desk Award (the show has eight nods). When the Tony Award nominations are read Tuesday, "Young Frankenstein" is likely to rack up, and Hensley may hear his name called yet again.
It's "super-duper," as the "Young Frankenstein" Monster yelps during the big "Puttin' on the Ritz" number.
While Grayson watches a "Scooby Doo" episode on TV, Hensley relaxes on the sofa to talk about his trek from Atlanta to Transylvania. He says that he and director Susan Stroman — who choreographed "Oklahoma!" before directing Brooks' "The Producers" — had been waiting for a chance to work together again.
"If we could find a project where I could dance, something a little lighter, it would be great," Hensley says. "It was a no brainer."
Dance? Did this 6-foot-3 former high school and college jock just say dance?
'He's Twinkle Toes'
Hensley, who must undergo an hourlong makeup ritual every night, has given up trying to remove the black fingernail polish. But after donning an ape suit and walking on all fours in "Tarzan," he's gotten used to dancing in the 4-inch platform boots.
"It just cracks me up to see him moving so lively onstage," his sister, Nevanne Hensley Thomas, says. "When you meet him, you are like, 'This guy can dance? He's so big!' " As it turns out, she says, "he's Twinkle Toes."
Hensley's late mother — Iris Hensley, who ran Cobb County's Georgia Ballet from 1962 until her death from cancer in 2003 — would be proud. As the story goes, Shuler Hensley used to go straight from Westminster football practice to his mom's dance studio. His first stage gig was playing Fritz in one of her "Nutcracker" productions.
Hensley's dad, retired civil engineer Sam Hensley Sr., played football for Georgia Tech. "My dad was the jock/athlete kind of guy," Hensley's sister recalls. "And that's why Shuler got into baseball and football.
"Mom was always kind of fighting Dad over usage of Shuler because she wanted him to come and dance, because she needed boys all the time. And, of course, it's hard to get out of that when your mother is director."
On top of the Steinway "parlor grand" piano in the music room of the Hensleys' New Jersey home is a photograph of a young Shuler Hensley, about age 6, looking all blond and freckle-faced. On a nearby wall, he's barely discernible in a group photo of previous Tony winners.
The mansion — Hensley's answer to Frankenstein's castle — was built in 1895. Enrico Caruso is said to have sung in the music room, which features a ceiling of cavorting cherubs. "We should put monsters up now instead of cherubs," Hensley jokes.
Hensley and his wife have been together for 15 years and married since 1995. A native of Hertfordshire, England, DeRosa-Hensley is a yoga instructor. After living in cramped city apartments for years, they bought the house late last year.
In the entry way of the house is a pile of boxes — a Bowflex machine that Hensley recently received as a gift. The running gag is that he'll never get around to putting the exercise machine together. "We'll put a plant on it," he jokes.
Six days a week, Hensley makes the 45-minute commute by bus to Broadway. (He still has his mother's old car that he brought up from Georgia). He usually leaves around 3:30 p.m. for the 8 p.m. show. It's not that it takes that long to put on the Monster's green makeup, body suit, skullcap and exaggerated zigzag scar. "I have a fear of being late," Hensley says. His wife, on the other hand, is "constantly late," he says. When The New York Times ran a profile of the Hensleys a couple of years ago, the headline was "Mr. Punctual and Ms. Tardy." As a joke, the family collects clocks.
Seeks the humanity
Hensley is a playful teddy bear with dark red hair. He can play rugged, as he did with brooding and tormented Jud Fry in "Oklahoma!" Or he can play redneck, as he did in off-Broadway's campy "Great American Trailer Park Musical.
His approach to character and storytelling has always been to play against type. Even his monsters have a tender, poignant side. Almost without fail, "Young Frankenstein" critics have singled out his Monster as the most human element of the spectacular show and lamented the fact that he doesn't get to sing more.
On a shiny granite countertop of the Hensleys' kitchen is a doll-size replica of the "Van Helsing" monster, from the film he made with Hugh Jackman in 2004, still in its box and inscribed to Hensley's wife. (Hensley says he gave it to her "instead of a wedding ring.") On the mantle of an upstairs room, Hensley's enormous fake hands from "Van Helsing" sit atop a box mailed specially to him from Universal Studios' special-effects department. In the couple's bedroom is one of Skyler's "Tarzan"-period crayon drawings, showing "Daddy in the jungle."
On the day of the interview, Skyler leaves school early so she can pose for family portraits. The minute she enters the house, she asks Hensley: "Will you come chase us around, Daddy?" The actor honors the request — growling like a gorilla for his "terrified" kids.
After the photographs and the cheese sandwiches, someone fetches a favorite toy — a talking parrot that repeats whatever it hears. Everybody takes a turn saying something ridiculous, and Hensley is not about to be outdone.
"I'm the world's fastest talking parrot," he says loudly and frantically. "Go to your room, Grayson and Skyler, right now!!!"
The room goes bananas. The actor takes it all in. "This is what we do for fun."
THE SHULER HENSLEY FILE
Personal: Born March 6, 1967, in Atlanta. Married to Paula DeRosa-Hensley. Two children.
Educated: Graduated Westminster Schools, 1985. Studied at the University of Georgia on a baseball scholarship. Later transferred to the Manhattan School of Music. Master's degree from Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, 1993.
Theater: Played the lead in "The Phantom of the Opera" in Hamburg, Germany, 1996-1997. Originated the role of Jud Fry in Trevor Nunn's "Oklahoma!" at the Royal National Theatre, 1998. Won an Olivier Award for that show and a Tony Award for the Broadway version. Played the ape Kerchak in Disney's "Tarzan." Played Norbert in off-Broadway's "The Great American Trailer Park Musical." Now playing the Monster in "Young Frankenstein."
Film: Played Frankenstein's monster in "Van Helsing" with Hugh Jackman. "The Legend of Zorro." "Opah!"