MIDDLEBURY — Warren Frost has slowed down, just a little. The actor, whose five-decade career included roles on the TV shows “Twin Peaks,” “Matlock” and “Seinfeld,” will give a talk this Thursday on his unpredictable, hilarious and sometimes strange career in show business.
Frost is retired and lives in Middlebury with his wife, Virginia. He’s 88 now, and relies on a cane to get around. Yet he retains the impeccable diction, the wily charm and the passion for storytelling that successful actors possess. While he’s no longer popping up in feature films and network sitcoms, Frost still has “the bug,” as they say in theater.
Frost sat down with the Independent on Thursday to talk about his career, his craft, and the memorable roles he has played.
Frost was born in Massachusetts, but after a stint in New York City, his parents moved to Vermont. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in World War II and enrolled at Middlebury College after discharge, and studied theater. It was there he met Virginia, and the couple married after his junior year.
“We decided we were going to take Broadway by storm, and of course things never work out the way you think they’re going to work out,” Frost said. “We’ve had a good run at it, and had some very strange moments.”
Over the next 50 years, Warren and Virginia moved all over the country, as he got jobs performing on stage and on screen.
“I was going regional theater, mainly,” Frost said. “We went to California, to Minnesota, to Florida, to California again.”
The moving about included a stint in New York, where Frost worked as a stage manager at NBC. He worked on “The Philco Television Playhouse,” a popular live variety series that ran from 1948 to 1955.
In Minneapolis in the 1980s, Frost was cast as the cantankerous father in “On Golden Pond,” a role he said elevated his stature as an actor.
“They asked me first if I was interested, and ultimately we did 600 performances,” Frost said.
Though he appeared in the 1972 film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” it was not until the 1990s that Frost would begin his foray into television. He was cast as the local doctor in the cult hit “Twin Peaks,” which was produced by his son, Mark. Frost described working with his son as a good experience.
“Well, we didn’t hit each other or anything,” Frost joked.
Frost appeared in 18 episodes of “Matlock,” working alongside Andy Griffith.
“One of the things I enjoyed most was working with Andy Griffith on ‘Matlock,’” Frost said. “We’d get in fights and have a great time together. He was a good guy.”
But perhaps Frost’s most recognizable role was that of Mr. Ross, the father of George Constanza’s fiancée, Susan, on the NBC sitcom “Seinfeld.” Frost appeared in five episodes of the hit comedy, which was the highest-rated show, according to Nielsen, in both 1995 and 1998.
Frost didn’t have any connections to anyone on the show, and landed the role the old fashioned way — he auditioned.
“Everyone wanted to be on ‘Seinfeld,’ and the role was a grouchy old man, and I fit right in,” Frost said.
With Jerry Seinfeld in attendance, Frost said he killed the tryout.
“It was one of those things where you walk out of the room and you say, ‘It’s mine,’” Frost said. “That feeling doesn’t happen very often.”
Asked what it was like to work with Seinfeld, Larry David and the ensemble cast, Frost replied with a single word — “bizarre.”
“Just to give you an idea, the first show I did I was a gay man having an affair with John Cheever,” Frost said.
It was the first in a series of surreal plot elements Frost’s Mr. Ross would be party to — including the death of his daughter, who succumbed to toxic glue on cheap wedding invitations that George had picked out. George had earlier accidentally burned down Mr. Ross’ cabin, where his trysts with the novelist Cheever were alleged to occur.
Frosttook all the twists and turns in stride.
“It was a fun show to do, because you never knew what the hell was going to happen,” Frost said. “You didn’t get the scripts ahead of time, and when you did, you didn’t get the whole script.”
Despite the absurd nature of the show, Frost said that stars Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Michael Richards and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss were professionals.
“It was pretty tight,” Frost said. “You were expected to be ready when they were ready, not the other way around.”
Frost said he isn’t surprised that “Seinfeld” remains so popular — the show has continuously aired in syndication since the final season ended in 1998.
“It was unique,” Frost said. “It was unique, not quite in the same way as ‘Twin Peaks.’”
Frost said it was after shooting the show’s finale that he decided to retire from acting.
“It had been a very long, long day and I walked out of the studio and said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” Frost said. “We moved out of L.A.”
Frost said he hasn’t crossed paths with Jerry Seinfeld since the show ended.
“He hasn’t come here to see me yet; I don’t understand it,” Frost joked, adding that Seinfeld’s wife, Jessica, is from Burlington.
Frost said retiring to Vermont wasn’t something he had long decided to do.
“Actors can’t plan ahead for more than a couple of weeks,” Frost quipped.
These days, Frost keeps busy by making artwork using pieces of wood, and reading history books — several David McCullough works line the shelves of his den.
But acting isn’t too far from his mind.
“You never want to give it up,” Frost said. “It’s too ingrained.”
This week he’ll be presenting a talk called “Where Did All the Time Go?” at the Eastview at Middlebury. The production will take place at the Eastview Community Room on May 1 at 7:30 p.m.
For one night at least, Frost will return to doing what he loves.
Asked if he’d embark on the same career again, knowing all the moving around and unsteady work that being an actor entails, Frost said he absolutely would.
“I don’t want to remove the fact that I’m better now than I was when I started, but I’d like to start back at this level,” Frost said. “It ain’t a clear path for anybody, at least as far as I can figure out.”