His father asked him, when he was about 5 years old, what he wanted to be when he grew up. The little boy Walter Roberts replied, “I want to be an actor.”
“Father chuckled at that,” Roberts said. At least he prepared his parents early on for his future. Both his father and his mother in Nebraska were pianists and music teachers. His brother became a professional jazz trombonist and band leader. It was not out of the way for Roberts to turn to both music and the stage.
At the instance of his parents, he began learning to play the cello when he was 10, and for three years took part in the Nebraska Summer Music Festival. At school, he said, he was very much influenced by the acting coach.
“He wanted our productions to be of very high quality. I sat with the orchestra, and as a teenage musician observed actors on the stage. I thought I could do better than those guys up there. Our acting coach made me wonder ‘music or theater?’ I chose theater,” Roberts said.
He attended the Webster School of Performing Arts in St. Louis, Mo., and completed his study of acting and directing at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago.
Immediately after graduation, Roberts joined the National Shakespeare Company of New York, and as one of its cast toured with its classic productions. He appeared in “King Lear,” “As You Like It,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” On return to Chicago, he said, “I intended pursuing my career as an actor. But insecurity is the nature of the beast, and taking jobs to pay the rent is something most young actors have to do. Eventually, as a cellist I joined the Classical Symphony Orchestra of Chicago.” This affiliation brought him to Japan on his first international Asian tour.
Aged 34 then and impressionable, Roberts remembers with enthusiasm many highlights of the Asian experience. “When we arrived in Kumamoto, we joined in the concert with the city orchestra on Mount Aso. Unforgettable,” he said.
His interest quickened at everything that was unusual to him. “I visited Tokyo for a few months and returned to Chicago. Then I resolved to come back here,” he said.
He found openings in many Tokyo stage productions, and pays tribute to the Japanese attitudes he encountered. As a cellist he performed in a one-man show of Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac.” That production starred Ken Ogata and went on tour.
Roberts said, “It was a life-changing experience for me to be involved with such a quality production. Again, as cellist and actor touring with Takako Matsu in Bertolt Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle” I found the performance level high from the very first reading. There was a large cast of talented Japanese actors and I observed how they approached their parts, ready from the first rehearsal. They were very creative.”
Roberts continues to perform in Tokyo with orchestras and chamber ensembles. He makes recordings with Tokyo pop groups, undertakes TV concerts, voice-over work and films, and teaches cello and acting classes. “I like the personal connections with beginners,” he said. “They can be rewarding to the teacher.” He enjoys directing. “It’s draining, but I always get something out of it. It’s a psychologist’s job, as well as a director’s.”
Roberts has acted in productions of Tokyo International Players, appearing as Oberon the Fairy King in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and as Officer Welch in “Rumors.” He directed Sam Shepard’s black comedy “A Lie of the Mind” for the group. He said, “My dream job is anything in the world of acting, stage, film, directing. The actor has the illusion of doing something truthful, of being truthful.
“If he can connect with the audience, he has a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Without doubt the process is valuable, and the actor always hopes from it to emerge a better actor.”
Roberts is now in rehearsal for the forthcoming production of Arthur Miller’s American classic “Death of a Salesman,” in which he plays the part of Willy Loman. He said, “When I heard about the show, I had no doubt that I would audition for the role of Willy Loman.
“He is the most challenging character I have ever attempted. I’m suffering sleepless nights as I’m working very hard to define this part. It’s an uphill struggle. If the end result cancels out my anxieties, I’ll get close to what I want to achieve.”