Reclaiming one of entertainment's greatest voices
by Julie McKenna
When I see Richard Crenna playing various movie roles such as Colonel Trautman in Rambo, Mike Talman in Wait Until Dark, or even the recurring character, Jared Duff, in the current TV show, Judging Amy, I always think about his voice. I don't have to be looking at the TV to know when he is on - his distinguishing voice gives him away, I also think of Walter Denton, the squeaky-voiced kid he played on Our Miss Brooks from 1952 to 1956 (or even Arthur from a 1951 episode of I Love Lucy), and how talented he is to be able to make such a variation in his voice. Since the age of 11 when he was in a radio show called The Boy Scout Jamboree, Crenna has made a career out of his voice, acting in over 100 movies. As I interview him, I find it amazing that he almost lost his voice to thyroid cancer four years ago.
Crenna was filming Heart Full of Rain with Carol Baker and Rick Schroeder in Canada and they were in the cold water every day - which is why he attributed his increasingly husky voice to catching a cold. Thinking it would go away, he started his next project, A Texas Tragedy, but his voice only got worse until he eventually had to see a doctor. The doctor did some tests and said it was just laryngitis and not to worry. But as Crenna told me in the interview, "One of the things you have to understand after having gone through cancer is that nobody understands your body better than you do." He did not want to leave it alone and just hope it went away. For this reason he was persistent about getting tests and he finally had a CT scan showing a lump hidden behind his laryngeal nerve. His regular exam missed it because it could not be detected from the outside. A biopsy of the lump confirmed cancer.
"The thing that was most frustrating for me was having lost my voice and not knowing what to do with the rest of my life."
He continued filming without telling his co-workers because he did not want to burden them with worrying about him. It was not easy though. "I remember one day on the set I had a shouting scene with Angie Dickinson and I was thinking to myself Am I going to be able to say this or not?" He did get through it and scheduled the surgery for just three days following the shoot.
Richard Crenna in character as President Ronald Reagan
in his upcoming film The Day Reagan Was Shot.
(photo by Marni Grossman)
Crenna had the surgery but was left with unexpected results. The tumor was connected to the laryngeal nerve and they had to remove the nerve along with the tumor. Crenna recalls, "It paralyzed my left vocal cord so I essentially had no voice. I was little more than a whisper.'" This was devastating for an actor who was basically defined by his voice. Although he was dismayed at having lost his voice, he rebounded quickly. Crenna explains, "The one thing you have to do in terms of fighting this or any illness is to remain positive and not think Oh, my God, I've lost my voice, but rather Oh, my God, I'm alive! Thank God I'm alive."
With this renewed hope and positive outlook, Crenna continued with radioactive iodine - his follow-up therapy, which he calls "the Atomic Bomb." For Crenna this was a simple but frightening procedure. "A man came walking down the hall with this lead vault - he was also in a lead suit. They slid the food to me through the door, and I had to take the pill and be held incommunicado for about 48 hours because my radioactive count was so high. Everything I brought with me - my toothbrush, magazines, and books - were all nuclear waste and had to be thrown away." He was fortunate to have no side effects from the iodine.
After his treatment was over, Crenna recalls, "The thing that was most frustrating for me was having lost my voice and not knowing what to do with the rest of my life." Facing his unknown future, Crenna found courage through the support of his family. His wife, Penni, and three children, Seana, Richard and Maria, were instrumental in helping him stay positive and proactive. With this encouragement from his family, Crenna found Dr. Gerald Berke at University of California Los Angeles and scheduled a visit. After Dr. Berke examined Crenna, the doctor told him that he would get his voice back. Surprised, Crenna asked "When? In six months, a year, two years?" Dr. Berke astonished Crenna with the reply, "When you get off the operating table."
Having nothing to lose and his voice to gain, Crenna scheduled the surgery. Crenna remembers with a laugh, "One of the brightest days of my life was to awaken in the recovery room and look up to see my family standing there and say 'I'm fine.' I really could say it. I still have a paralyzed left vocal cord and what you're hearing is my right vocal cord working its tail off. I have almost what I would consider my normal voice back. I used to do a lot of cartoon voices and some of those things I can't do, but the fact that I can communicate and we can sit here having this interview is a triumph of modem medicine."
In a twist of fate, Crenna was the spokesperson for the American Cancer Society in 1965, having lost his mother and several friends to cancer. "I felt that if it was something I could do to make a contribution I was more than willing to be helpful, never thinking that 30 years later I'd be the recipient of some of the advances that were made in cancer research."
Crenna believes that one of the things that has helped him through many difficult situations is his sense of humor. He has the ability to find humor and a positive side to just about anything. Crenna adds with a laugh, "When people would question me about how it was to not have my voice, I told them it was very upsetting because living here in southern California, it's very difficult to have road rage when you can't lean out the window to yell at somebody."
One phenomenon Crenna experienced while having cancer was the different reactions he got from friends. "Some people who were very close friends were not able to deal with it and almost disappeared," Crenna remembers, explaining that many people see their own mortality in a friend who has cancer and it frightens them. "Other friends that were only casual friends were very solicitous. You do have different kinds of support and you have to understand that it's very difficult for people to face this. One of the things you have to do as a survivor is to understand this about other people. And forgive them for it. Then when you do regain your ability to associate with them again, they all come back to you with a stronger bond somehow."
When I ask Crenna if he would do anything differently, he quickly responds, "I don't believe so. I was very confident in my physicians." He suggests that everyone with a cancer diagnosis should not take it lightly. "Get more than one opinion. Get two, three, or four opinions before you have any surgical procedure to comfort yourself that you are in the best possible hands. It's very important to go in with confidence and with a survivor's attitude."
Crenna has always been fortunate and appreciates everything he has, which helped him in dealing with his cancer. He never took anything for granted and always counted his blessings. He explains "It's not just a question of success in business; look at your children and when you see that smile on your little girl's face, think to yourself, How did I get so lucky?"
Now that Crenna is in complete remission, he can concentrate on the future. In addition to his recurring character on Judging Amy, he just finished his role in The Day Reagan Was Shot, in which he plays President Reagan and co-stars with Richard Dreyfuss. It is the story of the 24 hours in history when the attempt was made on Reagan's life. The Day Reagan Was Shot is scheduled for release later this year.
Crenna advises other cancer survivors to maintain the outlook "this is not going to beat me." He explains that many people wonder, Why me? Why not someone else? Although these feelings are common and normal, it is important not to succumb to them. He stresses the most important thing you can do is to "reach out to others and talk about it. Allow people to share your grief. It helps the healing to know that you're not fighting it alone and that there are survivors like me who are there at your side. So many people have come forward and said 'I've had it and I'm living, I'm healthy and I encourage you and pray for you to be the same.'"
Crenna believes the most important lesson to be learned from cancer is "to appreciate life. That's the story I get from most people who have gone through a cancer experience of any kind. To appreciate day-to-day life." In his familiar voice that I remember from his multitude of films, Crenna adds with a chuckle, "You've got to have a good attitude and say, 'This morning I got up on the right side of the grass.'"
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This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2001.