The hotel elevator opened to reveal Conan O’Brien on one side and Sean Penn on the other. August Schellenberg stepped in between the two men, and the lanky O’Brien peered down at his fellow passengers.
“You’re a great actor,” said O’Brien, breaking the silence.
“Are you talking to him?” Schellenberg asked, meaning Penn, “Or are you talking to me?”
“You,” O’Brien told him.
“Thanks,” Schellenberg said, accepting the compliment. “So why am I never on your show?”
The late night talk show host chuckled. Schellenberg had meant to be amusing, but it was also a valid question.
The elevator conversation took place during the 2007 Emmy Awards celebration, which Schellenberg attended as a nominee. His portrayal of Sitting Bull in the HBO miniseries “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” garnered critical attention, and Schellenberg was in contention for an outstanding supporting actor statuette.
The miniseries chronicling the plight of the Sioux had given Schellenberg his third opportunity to step into the moccasins of the proud Lakota chief. The first was a play called “Walsh”, which told the story of Sitting Bull’s exile in Canada and the Mounties’ commander, Major James Walsh, who welcomed the chief. It premiered in 1973 at Theatre Calgary in Alberta, Canada.
Schellenberg reprised the role in the 1996 TV miniseries “Crazy Horse”, and when director Yves Simoneau began casting “Bury My Heart”, he remembered Schellenberg’s work. Simoneau, who hails from Schellenberg’s home province of Quebec, asked the actor to fly out to Los Angeles to meet with him and the producer.
It was only after Schellenberg had been hired that he learned the meeting was not an interview.
“[Simoneau] had said, ‘If you do not get August Schellenberg to do Sitting Bull, I will not do the movie,” Schellenberg says. “That doesn’t happen often.”
Anyone who has run into Schellenberg around our neighborhood could vouch for what Simoneau saw in him. Between the genes passed down from his Mohawk mother and his classical theater training in Montreal, Schellenberg exudes a chief-like presence. Even in a casual place such as Barbec’s, where his family comes together most Sunday mornings (“You should see us — six adults and two babies ordering eggs and beer biscuits,” says the proud grandfather), there’s no mistaking who Schellenberg is.
“The waitress who usually serves us sent me an e-mail through my website. She said, ‘You’re a wonderful actor, and I enjoy serving your family,’” Schellenberg says.
Schellenberg and his wife, actress Joan Karasevich, moved to a home near White Rock Lake in 1994, around the time Schellenberg was cast as Billy Gray Wolf in a couple of “Walker, Texas Ranger” episodes. Dallas is like Winnipeg, Karasevich says — without the harsh winters. Unlike Los Angeles, New York or even Toronto, where the two were staples on theater stages for nearly three decades, Dallas provides the couple with relative anonymity.
“I know there’s a lot of money we will never be associated with here,” Karasevich says. “In the supermarket, I have no hesitation. I know all my clerks, know my pharmacist. In the moment, you feel like you can be connected. A woman across the street made a wreath for our door.”
“That wouldn’t have happened in Toronto,” Schellenberg chimes in.
People still recognize him, of course, even if his identity doesn’t dawn on them immediately. One neighbor Schellenberg has known for eight years recently stopped by his house to tell him: “I just figured out who you were. I saw you on television last week.”
Though Sitting Bull was Schellenberg’s most critically acclaimed role, it’s not the part for which most people recognize him. It’s more likely that he will hear a child scream, “Randolph! Randolph!” — the character Schellenberg played in the “Free Willy” movies.
“We just had a clerk at Macy’s who thanked us for babysitting her children,” Karasevich says.
The role of Randolph came about following the 1991 Canadian movie “Black Robe” for which Schellenberg won a Genie, the Canadian equivalent of an Oscar. After that, he traveled to Los Angeles and met with an agent.
“He had a script on the desk and said, ‘There’s no name for this movie yet, but I don’t think you want to audition for it,’” Schellenberg says. When he asked his agent why, the agent responded: “It’s about a kid and a whale. You know what they say about children and animals — you get lost.”
Schellenberg decided to ignore his agent’s warning, and the rest is history. The movie was his big American break. He still receives fan mail from admirers of the “Free Willy” movies.
“Having worked with horses, dogs, wolves, bears — this was the most intelligent and gentle animal I have had the pleasure of working with,” Schellenberg says of the star of the film, the orca whale Keiko.
“Next to me,” Karasevich says.
She calls her husband of 44 years “Augie”. The pair met at the National Theatre School of Canada and during their stage days often played opposite each other in such shows as “Funny Girl” or “The King and I”.
“At that point in time, there weren’t that many Asian actors around, so we faked it with the eyes, and he wore his ponytail,” Karasevich says.
There weren’t many Native American actors around either, Schellenberg says, and a quick glance at his filmography shows that playing Native American roles has been a recurring theme in his career. Being “pigeonholed,” as he calls it, has been both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, directors have passed on Schellenberg for parts that didn’t fit the Native American mold— parts that, they later admitted to him, he could have played better than the actors selected.
On the other hand, Schellenberg is proud of his heritage, and eager to give Native American children a fighting chance.
“Young Native kids don’t have too many role models to look at,” Schellenberg says. “When you read the history of Native people, they’re all on welfare, or they’re drunks or drug addicts, or they wind up in jail.
“When you tell people for 200 years that you’re nothing but a lazy drunk on welfare, they’re going to believe it.”
It pains Schellenberg that TV networks often bury the proud stories of Native Americans. One example was “DreamKeeper”, a Hallmark miniseries in which he played a 90-year-old grandfather — “He knew what he spoke of,” Schellenberg notes of the character — and that featured more than 80 Native American speaking roles representing multiple tribes. Schellenberg calls it “one of the best-written screenplays” on which he has ever worked, but says “ABC didn’t trust it.” The network gave it a timeslot between Christmas and New Year’s, and no one watched, he says.
HBO, still the maverick in what it can produce, Karasevich says, was extremely generous both on and off the production of “Bury My Heart”. But again, the network feared people wouldn’t tune in to a four- or six-hour miniseries, she says, so the film became a roughly two-hour movie.
“Wounded Knee’ could have been a ‘Roots’ and should have been. There was enough story to run at least six hours,” Karasevich says. “They had the writer to do it; they had the right director to do it; they had HBO behind it. It won an Emmy for best picture and in five other categories.”
Not to mention it garnered 11 other nominations, including Schellenberg’s. He didn’t win that night; instead, a native Texan, Thomas Haden Church, took home the Emmy for “Broken Trail”.
At least in the minds of “The Sopranos” cast, Schellenberg was robbed.
“One of the guys said, ‘Hey, man, you shoulda won. That fadget shouldn’ta got it.’ They talk like that in real life,” Schellenberg recalls. “‘F*** a**’ this and that, smoking cigars … I tried to speak Italian to them, and one of them said, ‘I don’t speak Italian. I’m an American.’”
Perhaps not even an Emmy statuette could add up to some of the gifts he has been given on film sets over the years. The descendant of Big Foot, another Sioux leader killed just two weeks after Sitting Bull, found Schellenberg on the set of the second “Free Willy” movie in Washington’s San Juan Islands and presented him with a sculpture he had crafted of an orca whale. And the great-great-nephew of Sitting Bull approached Schellenberg during the filming of “Crazy Horse” when the entire cast and crew was living in a tent village neat Hot Springs, S.D.
“He says, ‘I want to put up a teepee up for you,’” Schellenberg recalls. “Within an hour, he put a teepee up for me on the site, which I slept in. Two nights later we had such a windstorm that all the tents were blown away, and the only thing left standing was the teepee that man had built for me. So it says something about that first mobile home.”
In retrospect, Schellenberg is most thankful for the opportunities to perform with his wife and two of his three daughters on stage. Their youngest, Joanna, still acts regularly in shows around Dallas. He knows he likely will be best remembered for his role in the “Free Willy” movies, and that’s perfectly fine with him.
“I figured if you’re going to be remembered for something, forget it — this is the way to be remembered,” Schellenberg says.
But the most important work he has done just may be the dozens of roles through which he has helped preserve the narrative of Native Americans.
In the mid-’70s, the theater department at Toronto’s York University asked Schellenberg to speak to its 300 students. He ended his speech by telling them to read historian Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”. That book, he told the students, would be their best teacher of the Native American experience.
Three decades later, Schellenberg found himself in the middle of Brown’s story. The irony wasn’t lost on him, and neither was the significance of the mantle.
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