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Log roll
Rusty DeWees may be the toast of Vermont, but will his Logger make the cut in Boston?


CHANCES ARE, IF you own a TV set, you’ve seen Rusty DeWees. You may have seen him chowing down on a Wendy’s burger or a bowl of Kellogg’s corn flakes. You may have seen him manhandling a Chevy truck or zipping along in a Renault. You may have seen him flashing his baby blues on any number of television soaps. Even if you’re not a big fan of As the World Turns, All My Children, and One Life to Live, Rusty DeWees has one of those faces you’d swear you’ve seen before. The name, however, is another matter.

An informal survey conducted on the eve of the Boston opening of DeWees’s one-man show — The Logger: A Play in 2 Ax — gleaned an unvarying response: "Rusty DeWho?" The show (which is running at the ICA, in Boston, through December 2) drew a grand total of eight audience members on its first night. For the second performance, 15 people showed up.

"I don’t care, man," DeWees says. "I would do it for a single person, for half a person — I would."

IN HIS native Vermont, Rusty DeWees does not have to worry about playing to a single person. Up there, he is hot. By his own estimate, 70,000 people have seen his show since he launched it three years ago. Forty thousand people have bought items from his line of merchandise — calendars, videos, T-shirts, CDs, tapes, tank tops, and hats. Kids here dress up as DeWees for Halloween. Fans stop him in the street and beg for autographs. Groupies send him amorous e-mail. High-school principals ask him to come speak to graduating classes.

The source of this communal pride is not the 30 national TV ads in which DeWees has starred, nor the dozens of film, stage, and television credits he’s chalked up, but the character he created back in 1997: an eccentric, yarn-spinning backwoodsman (or, in Green Mountain vernacular, a "woodchuck") he calls the Logger. "I perform," DeWees says, "in deference to the Vermonter." And don’t they know it. In 1999, the Vermont Senate adopted a joint resolution "honoring Rusty DeWees for his contribution to Vermont’s cultural heritage."

"He is about as big a celebrity — a homegrown celebrity — as we have in Vermont," says Marialisa Calta, a Calais, Vermont–based freelance writer. "He has a large and loyal following. He packs them in."

The Logger: A Play in 2 Ax is a weird show — a hybrid of stand-up comedy, down-home storytelling, and performance art. One moment DeWees will be doing an impersonation of a chainsaw; the next he’ll be saying things like, "A real woodchuck will give you the hair off her back." A large chunk of the show is made up of anecdotes, featuring the exploits of oddball locals such as Marshall Buker, who made a fortune selling boulders to "Flatlanders" — non-Vermonters — "who’re moving upcountry and want to fancy-dancy-up their properties."

All the while, clad in a tattered shirt, grubby jeans, and a pair of work boots that look as though they’ve gone through a wood chipper, DeWees crouches and clatters and flails about the stage in what amounts to a shit-kicker version of Stomp. Watching him, you often don’t know whether to slap your knee or scratch your head. Still, it’s a compelling, funny, and sometimes touching show. It’s also unlike anything you’ve seen before — not least because you’ve never seen anyone quite like Rusty DeWees.

DEWEES DESCRIBES himself as "ugly," and he is, in a ruggedly handsome kind of way. "Women swoon at the mention of his name," says Calta. "Well, my friends do. As a middle-aged woman, I can say he at least has middle-aged groupies. He was in a French car commercial; as a friend of mine says, he cleans up nice."

Otherwise, DeWees has a look that might best be described as "outdoorsy." At six-foot-four, his build is an odd mix of rangy and muscular. He has unruly straw-colored hair, close-set blue eyes that narrow into a cold, manly stare, gaunt cheeks etched by new-moon lines, and a chin that could break down a door. "I’ve got a certain look," he says. "I’ve got a look; you know what I mean? And that’s all you need. Jennifer Love Hewitt, she’s got tits — thank God for her — and that’s her look. I understand that I’ve got mine."

He also has his own particular sound. On stage and off, DeWees speaks in a breathy, syrup-thick accent — road becomes "reauwd," pursuit becomes "persoowit," hours becomes "eouwahs." He punctuates his speech with all manner of vocal pops and wheezes. His Logger is an odd, decidedly unsophisticated character. And so, in many respects, is DeWees. "I’m not an actor’s actor," he says. "I couldn’t tell you about the ins and outs of Waiting For Godot. I could talk to you about movies that I like."

The truly odd thing about DeWees is that he has managed to make an art form out of artlessness. His Logger is interesting in part because the character is uncannily authentic. Yet it turns out there’s nothing uncanny about this at all. Indeed, the accuracy of DeWees’s portrayal speaks less about his acting skills than it does about his upbringing. As DeWees tells it, he’s not acting. "The Logger is me," he says. "I lived that life. I did logging. This is me."

"Who knows," asks Calta, "what is an act and what isn’t?" Either way, DeWees is clearly doing something right. "Audiences up here love him," Calta says. "Vermont audiences in my experience are incredibly restrained. We hardly clap for our own children on stage at a school play, so for anyone to get such an enthusiastic and vocal response is a major achievement."

There’s no doubt that DeWees’s Logger has tapped into something that resonates with Vermonters. This success, however, also points to a potential pitfall when he decides to take his act on the road (as he is doing in Boston this month, his first foray south of Brattleboro). "I’m one of them," DeWees says, meaning Vermonters. "There they are, through me. And it works, it works."

Sure, but will the act work in Boston? For that matter, will it work in Omaha, Savannah, or Amarillo? Can a small-town Vermont boy playing a small-town Vermont boy make it big on a national level?

"Am I spending every hour of every day hoping that’s going to happen?" DeWees says. "No. For me, coming to Boston is a good thing because it’s not like playing Danville, Vermont. There could be someone in the audience here who sees me and says, ‘I want you to play at the E.F. Hutton Christmas dinner.’ It’s just another step in this Logger thing."

ALREADY, DEWEES has gotten further in his acting career than he ever imagined he would. He was raised in the resort town of Stowe — not exactly a hotbed of theater arts. Nonetheless, young Rusty quickly distinguished himself from his peers by betraying a knack for the stage, performing in local plays while his buddies were off hunting and fishing.

By his early 20s, DeWees appeared regularly in Vermont community theater. Meanwhile, he made his living as a manual laborer, logging and pouring concrete. "I loved it," he says, "but there was something in me that knew I wouldn’t always be doing that." Sure enough, in his mid 20s, DeWees decided to try his hand at professional acting. To do this, he would have to leave his beloved Vermont behind.

"My dad was a Greyhound bus driver," he says. "When I was a kid he took me to New York on his bus, so I always had this romantic thing about the city. When I got to be 27, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I could landscape. I could log. I could go to computer school. But acting, I didn’t know if I could do it. So I thought, ‘Let’s try this actor stuff down there.’ It was a challenge, to see if I could make a go of it."

New York City, of course, has a way of eating people like Rusty DeWees alive. Acting work came to him in dribs and drabs, but in essence DeWees went from being a Vermont concrete pourer to a New York truck driver. His personal life also left a lot to be desired. "Boy, it was lonely down there," DeWees remembers. "The nights I spent in New York doing nothing, going to movies alone. I drove home almost every weekend. In my heart and in my mind, I never really left Vermont. I missed it wicked."

Oddly, it was during one of these trips home that DeWees got his first break in show business. "A buddy of mine came up to me and said, ‘I’m shoveling snow for a soap-opera star tonight, you should come,’ " DeWees recalls. "I said, ‘Aw, all right.’ So I go up there and who is it? It’s Benjamin Hendrickson — he’s a regular on As the World Turns. So my buddy says, ‘See that guy there shoveling snow, he wants to be an actor.’ Benjamin says, ‘Man, come and see me when you go back to New York. You’ve got a great look for commercials.’ "

What Hendrickson meant is that DeWees was built to portray a man — a manly man — vigorously enjoying a bowl of Dinty Moore beef stew. Many actors might consider such an appraisal a slap in the face. But DeWees, as befits a one-time logger, has a pragmatic approach to his craft. "People say, ‘Are you afraid of getting typecast?’ " he says. "If that means playing a rugged outdoor guy for 15 years, then please, typecast me."

Thus began DeWees’s long and lucrative career as a rugged outdoor guy. Before long, he landed a small role in the Vermont-based movie Where the River Flows North. "They had me come up and do a scene where I fight Rip Torn," he says. "A picture of me made it into the frickin’ New York Times. That was a trip, man." DeWees was able to parlay this exposure into a number of TV roles: The Cosby Mysteries, Law & Order (twice), and "basically all of the soaps." Once again, fate offered DeWees a helping hand.

"When I was in Law & Order the first time," he says, "I played a guy who kidnapped a woman. You don’t see me much, like two scenes, but they talk about me through the whole thing — and you see composites of me. I had to fall after I got shot. I had to fall just right and have my arm lying there. The stunt coordinator said, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good at that.’ I said, you know, ‘Thanks.’ And he says, ‘Look, here’s my card. Sometimes I have to cast actors who can fall.’ Five months later I get a call from one of the top stunt coordinators in Hollywood, doing this movie called Devil’s Own with Brad Pitt. I was there a whole week and they never shot a single inch of film of me.

"I’m still getting the residuals from it."

FOR DEWEES, acting is work — work that beats freezing your ass off in three feet of snow. Over the next few years, he scored more and more he-man roles — most notably as a truck driver in the Patrick Swayze vehicle Black Dog. He very nearly got a major part in John Madden’s Ethan Frome, but the filmmakers, he says, didn’t want to cast anyone who was as tall as Liam Neeson. Setbacks aside, he was still making some serious cash. And then, one night in 1997, just as his movie career was taking off, it came to an abrupt and intentional halt.

"I went to a local party and it was freezing rain outside," DeWees explains. "I got in the car and I wrote this story in my head, a story about freezing the wife. It just came to me. I got up the next day and said, ‘That shit was funny, write it down.’ I wrote it down and I sort of had a story. Then — boom — one of the local guys got caught deer-jacking, and I thought how funny would it be if you shoot a deer and it doesn’t go down — boom. That one came out and I had these two stories."

Shortly afterward, DeWees compiled a short act around the two stories he had written, and performed it before a small Vermont audience. "Boy," he says, "People went nuts. They were shitting Twinkies." And so the Logger was born. "I quit New York. I quit everything."

Today, DeWees describes the Logger as his "ace in the hole." "It’s my own," he says. "I own it." Nonetheless, he seems a little bemused by his journey from bit-part actor to esteemed monologist. "I’m not a writer. I’m not an educated guy," he says. "It’s not like I’ve got to do this play because I’m a play-writing son of a bitch. I don’t know why I did this, man. I just thought it could be fun."

But it’s more than just fun. DeWees has invested considerable time and money bringing his show to Boston. With any luck, he’ll take the show even further afield in the future. He may one day reach the Holy Grail of one-man-show performers: the HBO special. DeWees insists, though, that he’s not booking himself a flight to Hollywood just yet. He’s also not hinging his future success on how well he does in Boston.

"Some people are going to walk away going, ‘He’s a dick. He wasn’t funny at all,’ " DeWees says. "When I get on that stage, I have no idea if they’re going to laugh. But I do some stuff and it’s pretty entertaining. I’m funny. It’s not goddamn brain surgery and it’s not earth shattering or earth moving. It’s just me. But a lot of them are going to like it. And they are going to tell their friends, and by the 20th show it could be a full house."

ON THE 10th night of the ICA run, 20 people came to watch DeWees: an improvement on the first couple of nights, but still a long, long way from the hundreds of eager beavers who clamor for tickets when he performs in Vermont. At press time, no one from HBO had contacted DeWees about doing a Logger special. Neither, for that matter, had he been approached by anyone from E.F. Hutton.

As much as she admires DeWees, Marialisa Calta has her reservations about The Logger’s ability to travel. "I’m not sure that this particular show, with those characters, will translate," she says. "On the other hand, something that really strikes a chord can play to any audience. I just don’t know if he’s there yet." Though one audience member at a recent Logger show complained about it being "parochial," there was still a good deal of laughter in the theater — as much as could be expected from so few people.

Even if fame and fortune fail to materialize, DeWees insists he has no plans to lay the Logger to rest in the immediate future. "There’s never going to be no Logger," he says, "because the Logger is in here. It’s a part of me. And it’s given me so much — not just a good living. I’m in Boston, driving down frickin’ Brookline Avenue. That’s an interesting life. This has brought me that. This Logger thing is unbelievable."

Chris Wright can be reached at cwright[a]

Issue Date: November 15 - 22, 2001

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