I’ve always maintained that you should never be afraid to strike up a conversation with someone on the ferry. You just never know the story you’re going to get. Take John Washbrook, if you were to pigeonhole him as someone who just retired after 35 years of banking, you’d only be getting half the story.
That’s because prior to retiring from the Edgartown National Bank, Washbrook had another 35-year career that was most unbankerly — he was an actor. If two 35-year careers don’t add up for a man who is only 73 years old (in all fairness, there was a four-year overlap in his careers), it’s mostly because Washbrook started his first career when he was 7.
But first let me tell you how I even came to know John Washbrook.
On August 9, the Vineyard Haven Band honored its 150-year anniversary with a concert at the Tabernacle. Buried in a press release was the fact that the Gettysburg Address would be read by John Washbrook, “a former child star from ‘My Friend Flicka.’” Probably no one under the age of 50 has ever even heard of “My Friend Flicka,” but as a baby boomer who watched more than his share of TV in the 50s, it got my attention.
I emailed Jeri Larson, a friend of Washbrook’s, to get his contact information, and she simply said, “He’s an interesting guy with a good backstory. I’ll let him tell it!”
And tell it he did. Washbrook is a dapper, gregarious fellow and seated in his comfortable dining room off Coffin’s Field Road in West Tisbury, I listened as he told a tale that seemed to span several lifetimes. To begin with, I wanted to know how he came to read the Gettysburg Address at the town band anniversary.
“My neighbor, Jeri Larson, is member of the band and helped organize the event, and she asked me if I’d be interested,” said Washbrook. “She knew I had a background in the theater.”
Washbrook said that he was taken aback and honored, he had memorized the Address as a schoolboy and never forgotten it. But then when Washbrook was a boy, he did a lot of memorization. He started acting professionally when he was 7 years old, and had a career that spanned 35 years.
Washbrook was from Toronto, and found a lot of work in television and commercials when he was young. But his big break came at the ripe old age of 10, when he and his family visited friends in New York who were in show business. The family’s daughter went to an audition, and Washbrook tagged along. He was introduced to the casting director, and Washbrook ended up getting the lead role in a drama for a United States Steel Hour show.
And then, as an act of even greater serendipity, the casting director of 20th Century Fox, who had seen Washbrook in the Steel Hour show, wanted him to audition for a series they were developing, “My Friend Flicka.”
What happened next was right out of a B movie plot. Washbrook and his mom dashed off to Hollywood for about a week. Washbrook auditioned for the part, spent some quality time with Flicka (for those under 50, Flicka was a horse), and on Washbrook mom’s birthday, he got the part.
Next it was back to Canada to pack up the whole family for the move to California. Washbrook had a two-year contract; “Flicka” would run for a season only, to be replaced by “Rin Tin Tin.” But for Washbrook, it was a kid’s dream. “I loved Flicka,” he said. “My trainer and I were the only ones allowed to ride her. I’d just think about what we had to do and she sensed it.”
Washbrook mom and dad wanted him to appreciate the good fortune that he had, and if he ever got a swelled ego, he would have had to stop acting. But Washbrook said he managed to keep a level head, even though at the height of his fame, he couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized. After “Flicka” was canceled, Washbrook was still under contract, so there were still some acting gigs for the studio, but he then had to make the decision of whether to continue on at the professional school for child actors or go to a regular public school. Washbrook immersed himself in Van Nuys Junior and Senior High School, and upon graduation he went to Cal State University.
After graduating from college he was still doing some acting, occasional spots on “Hazel,” “Perry Mason,” and “My Three Sons,” to name a few, but the work was tapering off. He next got involved in a theater group in L.A., which he found rewarding, so in 1970 he decided to go to New York, where the theater scene was flourishing. He spent five years in New York, both working in the city and doing summer stock and regional theater.
Believing that theater was his calling, Washbrook decided to take a sabbatical and study classics in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Following that, he spent another year studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.
At the end of the year, Washbrook and his wife Joy decided to stay in London, get an agent and pursue acting jobs in TV, film, and the theater, but at the end of the second year, Joy became pregnant, and they decided to go back to New York.
The last movie Washbrook did in England was with David Niven and Elke Sommer, called “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” It was about a very famous bank robbery, and Washbrook played the role of a bank manager. Interestingly enough, this was a case of art foreshadowing life; in the not too distant future Washbrook would indeed work for a bank.
The Washbrooks moved back to New York and then back out to Hollywood, where John wanted to give acting another shot. Unfortunately the roles proved to be not that gratifying, and the business courses he took in college began to come in handy. Washbrook reluctantly started working temp jobs in accounting, and eventually worked for a bank in the accounting department for a couple of years. But when he was offered permanent jobs he would politely turn them down, saying, “I’m an actor.”
However, there was something very appealing about having a regular job: He was after all a family man, and the regular paycheck came in handy.
So at the age of 42, Washbrook called his agent and “cut the umbilical cord,” as he put it, and “accepted his first earth job” at the bank. And with that the chapter closed on Washbrook’s first career.
Washbrook’s second career as a banker commenced in 1983, and five years later the family moved to the Vineyard, where John worked first for the Martha’s VIneyard National Bank and then for the Edgartown National Bank.
So returning to my original premise, next time you’re sitting next to a stranger on the ferry, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation. The wonderful thing about people from the Vineyard, there’s always a great backstory.