By Matt Wing
Standing on a crowded stage at the conclusion of the 90th Academy Awards with the award-winning cast and crew of The Shape of Water, the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning Illinois Wesleyan University alum could still spot his date amongst the sea of glittering dresses and tuxedos in the crowd at the Dolby Theatre.
She was the same woman he had asked on a first date 50 years earlier when the two were junior theatre majors at Illinois Wesleyan. Though they had been acquainted from the beginning of their college days, it wasn’t until that first date Richard ’69 and Sharon Jenkins ’69 became a couple.
And they’ve been one ever since. The Jenkinses will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next August.“That was it for me,” Richard said, recalling that first date. “I came back to the dorm and Craig Mahlstedt ’69 and Larry Shue ’69 were in Larry’s room, and I said, ‘I’m going to marry her … if she’ll have me.’”
Although he had stated his intentions with a huge qualifier, it wasn’t necessary. Sharon knew, too.
“I was actually in a long-distance relationship with another guy, going to another college. I think he called me that night, and I think I kind of broke up with him on the phone,” Sharon remembered. “I knew then who I needed to be with, and it was Richard.”
Thus began the union of two of the most successful and revered IWU theatre alums. Richard has forged a highly successful acting career – highlighted over the past decade by Academy Award nominations for The Visitor and The Shape of Water – while Sharon has compiled a long list of credits and job titles, having served as a dancer, teacher, director and choreographer. The two have even collaborated in recent years, serving as co-directors for productions of Oliver! and Oklahoma! at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island – the Jenkinses’ unofficial home away from home.
Yet those who knew them during their time at Illinois Wesleyan insist they are the same people they were before going on to wildly successful careers.
“That’s the kind of people they are,” said longtime IWU theatre department chair John Ficca. “They have not forgotten their friends or their alma mater.”
Richard and Sharon Jenkins grew up a mere hour’s drive from one another, though in vastly different surroundings. Sharon was raised in Chicago, in the city. Richard spent his childhood in the more rural setting of DeKalb, Illinois.
But both knew early on the types of careers they wanted to pursue. Weekend pilgrimages to the local movie theater and participation in a junior high play convinced Richard he wanted to be an actor. Sharon declared her intentions in her high school yearbook. When seniors were asked their future plans, Sharon needed just one word. Choreographer.
Both found their way to Bloomington, Illinois, in the late summer of 1965 and enrolled in Illinois Wesleyan’s highly regarded theatre program. Each found at IWU like-minded peers with similar ambitions and faculty mentors who helped nurture their passions.
For Richard, that mentor came in the form of Ficca, the sometimes intimidating but well-respected head of the theatre department.
At the conclusion of his freshman year in which he was more an observer than a participant, Ficca requested a meeting with Richard. For the wide-eyed 19-year-old from DeKalb, it felt like being summoned to the principal’s office.
“He called me into his office and said, ‘Who are you? I know you’re in my class but you haven’t auditioned for anything. You haven’t signed up for anything. You’re supposed to audition and sign up for every play,’” Richard recalled Ficca stating bluntly. “And I hadn’t. I was terrified. I was so afraid of him.”
Ficca instructed his pupil to return for summer stock, a series of stage productions during the summer months using stock scenery and costumes, featuring talent pulled primarily from college theatre programs.
“He said, ‘Come to summer stock and let’s see if you want to participate, if you want to do this. But if you decide after you come that you’re not serious about it, you have got to make way for somebody who is,’” Richard continued, recounting a meeting many of Ficca’s students experienced at the end of their first year. “I said OK, and that’s what I did.”
While also influenced by Ficca, Sharon had no plans of becoming an actress. Intent on pursuing a career in dance and choreography, she was inspired by a young faculty member who arrived on campus around the same time she did.
“She was a modern dancer and she started bringing dance into the PE program,” Sharon said. “She started a dance group, and I auditioned for it and became one of the first members.”
The faculty member, Janet Boeh, formed the Illinois Wesleyan dance group “Orchesis.” She took her students to modern dance performances and brought dancers to campus to teach master classes. Boeh inspired her dance students by providing the out-of-the-classroom, experiential learning opportunities emblematic of an Illinois Wesleyan education.
“I had come from a pretty standard ballet, jazz, tap kind of background at my studio in Chicago,” Sharon said. “So she kind of opened the world of modern dance to me, and I thought that was really incredible.”
Faculty members and fellow classmates and cast members in IWU productions all played roles in molding and inspiring Richard and Sharon Jenkins, but none had greater impact than those seminal mentors. John Ficca. Janet Boeh.
“He was a nurturer, he encouraged us. He made it seem like it was a possible career – that you should pursue it,” Richard said of Ficca. “He really was a supporter of that and I am forever grateful to him.”
The decision to attend Illinois Wesleyan is one both Richard and Sharon are thankful they made.
“It was an incredibly important time in my life,” Richard said. “It was the right place at the right time for me and I am so happy that I went there.”
Richard and Sharon graduated in the late spring of 1969 and were married two months later. Richard spent a year in graduate school at Indiana University before his first paid acting gig came in an offer from Trinity Rep.
The chance to join the company through an apprenticeship program as an “acting fellow” couldn’t be passed up, even if it took them far from home. The Jenkinses quickly packed and made the 16-hour drive to Rhode Island.
“We thought we’d be there for about a year, two years maybe,” Richard said, laughing. “They made me a member of the acting company, and we’ve stayed for 48 years.”
Richard appeared in productions of The Taming of the Shrew, Sherlock Holmes, A Man for All Seasons and a dozen other classics in his first few years at Trinity Rep. Later, during the planning of another production, then-artistic director Adrian Hall stated the need to have someone choreograph a dance.
And while the thought of suggesting his wife quickly crossed his mind, a friend and castmate, Timothy Crowe, beat him to the punch. Crowe exclaimed, “His wife is a choreographer!” motioning to Richard.
No one could have forecast it then, but Crowe’s referral had a lasting impact. Sharon has gone on to 58 credited roles at Trinity Rep. Her first, during the 1973-74 season, was as a “dance supervisor” for Aimee, a production that also featured her husband in the cast.
“She came in, did the dance, choreographed it, and Adrian fell in love with her,” Richard said. “Every time they needed a choreographer after that, Sharon was it.”
But Sharon hasn’t let her husband forget that it was their friend – and not him – who had endorsed her for the job at Trinity Rep.
“Sharon said to me, ‘Thanks a lot. Your friend had to mention it!’” Richard recalled, laughing at the memory.
The time marked the beginning of long – and enduring – tenures for the Jenkinses at Trinity Rep. Richard was cast in nearly every production, while Sharon essentially became the resident choreographer.
Richard became a full-fledged member of the acting company, and the Jenkinses settled in Rhode Island, without ever consciously making the decision. In addition to her work at Trinity Rep, Sharon was a dancer in the Rhode Island Dance Rep, the dance director at Hope Arts Magnet School in Providence, and a dance specialist with the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. Richard supplemented his work at Trinity Rep by acting in productions at other local and regional theatres.
But even after working away from Trinity Rep, the Jenkinses have always come back. Even while pursuing roles as a screen actor, Richard returned to Trinity as artistic director, from 1990-94. And even with multiple roles as dancer, dance director and teacher, Sharon has repeatedly returned to Trinity to provide choreography when needed.
“It’s home for both of us,” Richard said. “It’s where we grew up together.”
Though they had built a comfortable life in Rhode Island and started raising a family there – the Jenkinses have two children, Andrew and IWU alum Sarah ’97 – Richard still had the itch to act in movies.
“I had made that decision when I was 12 years old, but I couldn’t get into movies,” he said. “I didn’t figure that opportunity would come along.”
Opportunity knocked, however, one night after a production of Holiday at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. At the conclusion of the play, Richard was approached by a man who, much to his surprise, offered to become his manager.
“He said, ‘What do you want to do?’ and I said, ‘I want to be in movies,’” Richard recalled. “I was 35 or 36 at the time, and that’s how it started.”
The screen success was far from instantaneous. Richard landed minor roles in films and TV series, including the feature film Silverado in 1985 and a pair of appearances on the TV series Miami Vice. A role in 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick, where he shared the screen with Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer, was “the first nice part I had in a big, commercial film,” he said.
Richard continued to pile up screen credits and built a reputation as an up-and-coming character actor. In 1991, he starred in the TV movie The Perfect Tribute, written by friend and fellow IWU alum Dennis Brown ’67 and co-starring another friend and former classmate in James Sutorius ’67.
“The casting director recommended Richard and, of course, I was thrilled,” Brown recalled. “I don’t think Richard would have accepted it if it hadn’t had been written by me, because it wasn’t a very big part, but we had a wonderful Wesleyan reunion in Atlanta on the set of that film.”
The Perfect Tribute was a Civil War period piece centered on and culminating with Abraham Lincoln’s writing of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln was played by legendary actor Jason Robards, by then already a two-time Academy Award winner. Richard had no scenes with Robards in the film, but the two were introduced on set. Afterward, Robards shared his opinion of Richard with the film’s screenwriter.
“He told me, ‘That guy is the real thing,’” Brown said. “Jason Robards spent just a few minutes talking with Richard, and he ended up later going to Trinity and doing a weeklong benefit there, and that all happened because Richard met Jason on the set of my movie.”
What Robards surmised after only a brief meeting has been increasingly recognized by Hollywood decision-makers over the years by way of higher-profile roles. Richard received critical acclaim and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for 2007’s The Visitor. He earned glowing reviews for his roles in the TV drama Six Feet Under (2001-05) and miniseries Olive Kitteridge (2014), the latter for which he won a Primetime Emmy. But he’s perhaps most often recognized for his role as the father figure in the Will Ferrell comedy Step Brothers (2008), in which he showcased one of his best traits.
“He’s one of the funniest people on earth,” his IWU classmate Brown said. “And his humor is what I think has gotten him so far, because on a film set, he’s just a fun person to be around.”
Richard’s most recent role in The Shape of Water has been hailed by many to be his best performance yet. He received nominations for Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Academy awards for his role in the film that was named the year’s best at the March 4, 2018 Academy Awards.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and there was a time when I thought I’d never get the opportunity to do it,” Richard said. “So I’m incredibly grateful and humbled by the fact that I’ve been able to make a living doing it.”
For the many film credits Richard accumulated, Sharon matched the count with a variety of job titles and family responsibilities. Her work as a dancer and choreographer and teacher was often supplemented by work at other regional theatres.
She had a Hollywood experience of her own when she choreographed the 1992 Paramount Pictures film School Ties, featuring Brendan Fraser, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
But all her jobs and side work were secondary to her most important role of mom. Balancing her schedule with Richard’s, while raising two children, wasn’t easy.
“It was challenging at times,” Sharon said. “But you just do what you have to do to get the day done and get through it.”
Her role was challenging when Richard was stationed in Rhode Island full-time. It was even more difficult when he pursued screen acting.
“When I started movies, you could be gone for 12 weeks sometimes,” Richard said. “But Sharon was there, and teaching at the time … she had both kids there and I was off doing movies, and it was hard.”
Being nearly a thousand miles away from their nearest relative meant the Jenkinses had no built-in support system to stay home with a sick kid or pick one up if soccer practice ended at the same time as piano lessons.
And with Richard often away filming his next movie, Sharon was on her own.
“It’s not unlike what a lot of young families have to do today to juggle it all,” Sharon said. “When you say it, it sounds really hard, but it didn’t seem that hard when we went through it.”
These days, life is easier for Richard and Sharon Jenkins. While many of their friends have retired, they haven’t considered retirement in the traditional sense. They do what they want, when they want.
Richard continues to take on new roles, though he’s more selective and only accepts the ones that truly interest him. Sharon has continued in her role as the “go-to” any time choreography is needed in a production at Trinity Rep.
Richard and Sharon are now working together, co-directing recent Trinity Rep productions. In 2014, they were awarded Trinity Rep’s Pell Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, a distinction previously bestowed upon household names like Robert Redford, Liza Minnelli, and Jason Robards, the guy who recognized Richard’s talent before most did, after only a five-minute meeting.
The Jenkinses make it back to Illinois Wesleyan’s campus from time to time, too. And they visit old friends. And old friends come to visit them. Ficca came to visit in Providence not long ago. Brown visited them in Florida last winter.
And their marriage is stronger than ever. “I’ve heard that you really have to work at a relationship, but I always thought, ‘Wow, if you have to work that hard, it wouldn’t be that much fun,’” Sharon said, laughing at the notion. “But I think it’s a lot of luck and it’s choosing to be in the foxhole with the right person.”
Though their lives and the world around them has changed, the Jenkinses have essentially remained the same people who went on that first date 50 years ago.
Brown likes to tell the story of Richard visiting his film class at Webster University in St. Louis. He once informed Richard that he was teaching The Visitor as part of the curriculum. A few days later, Richard emailed his friend and asked if it would be a disruption if he attended the class.
“I emailed him back and said, ‘Of course it will disrupt the class! But please come!’” Brown said. “And he did come, at his own expense, and stayed here in my guest room. And he came and did the movie, and gave us a live actor’s commentary like you’d see on a DVD, and it was an incredible class.
“No student who was there will ever forget having been in that class. That was a great gift he gave me.”
Brown continues to teach The Visitor in his film class. He recorded and transcribed Richard’s remarks from that day and has presented his friend’s commentary to subsequent classes. On occasion, a student will pose a thought-provoking question about the film. Brown will forward it on to Richard. Most of the time, he’ll get an email reply with a thoughtful answer.
To think a person, having attained a certain amount of fame and success, would be willing or have time to do such a thing, might seem unlikely. But to friends of Richard and Sharon Jenkins, it’s no surprise.
“That’s a remarkable thing to be able to say, because we all change, but Richard is the same person and Sharon is the same person,” Brown said. “They are the same admirable people they were when we first met them, and that’s why you still want to be around them.”