Stephen Lang '73
Stephen Lang, you are a brilliant and accomplished actor known for strong, dynamic, and riveting performances in the many plays, films, and television productions that define your career. Your commitment to making art both for entertainment and social value is evident in many of the roles you've played, most notably in Beyond Glory, the one-man play based on the war experiences of seven Medal of Honor recipients.
President Chopp's full introduction.
President Chopp, distinguished trustees, venerable faculty, proud parents and families, and, most of all, graduating seniors — Class of 2010! I am honored and grateful to be here. I have played many roles in my career but today's may be the most unlikely, and, is for sure, the most unlooked for.
As a rule, it is wise to heed the words of Abraham Lincoln, who advises that, "it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt."
My goodness, what would Commencement speakers do without Abe Lincoln? I suppose we would be forced to lean even more heavily on Mark Twain who confessed that, "It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech." Well, open-mouthed fool that I may be, I have already broken a cardinal rule of pinocle players and speechifyers, impromptu or otherwise: I've led with my aces — Lincoln and Twain. Where to go from here? Fortunately, I have a highly quotable wild card by the name of Colonel Quaritch — you knew I had to bring him up!
For those of you who are not familiar with the name, I can tell you that Colonel Miles Quaritch is the head of security at Hellsgate, the mining compound on the distant moon called Pandora in the movie Avatar. And if Colonel Quaritch were addressing you on the topic of your future, which I suppose in a sense, he is, he would say, "Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to survive you need to cultivate a strong mental attitude."
Now, this theme of survival is both noteworthy and remarkable to me, because it is a constant. It is with us daily and is never guaranteed. Whether we are talking survival on a global basis, a national basis, or because I am an actor — and in the end, of course, everything is about me, survival on a personal basis.
Being on this beautiful campus brings me back to my own days here, in the olden days, the era of the 1960s, a fractious and fervent time when our nation was at such odds with itself that it wasn't clear how or even if we would carry on. An era of demonstrations, confrontations, and, tragically, assassinations. And it went on for more than a decade — the 1960s didn't really end until around 1974, that's how messy an era it was.
And when the dust had settled from a million marching feet — some in combat boots, some in sandals; when the shouting died down from hoarse and angry and passionate voices; when the hymns of mourning and the drums of lamentation for our slain leaders and soldiers and students stilled, what exactly emerged? Having endured the push and shove of flower power and Black Panthers and National Guardsmen; having withstood the iciness of the Cold War, the torrential rains of Woodstock, the terrifying fire of Vietnam, and the sordid grime of Watergate; having been alternately lambasted, thrilled, shocked, perplexed, inspired, horrified, and awed by Lyndon Johnson, Jimmi Hendrix, Richard Nixon, The Beatles, J. Edgar Hoover, and Mohamed Ali, what had been achieved or found? Or lost? It was as if America had fought a 15-round heavyweight bout with itself — and fought itself to a standstill. Which is to say, America was still standing. And this gives me comfort and, more importantly, hope, when I feel concern about the terribly difficult times our nation, our world have recently endured, continues to endure. We came through the 1960s bloodied and chastened but still standing, just as we must withstand and overcome the anxiety and fractiousness of the present day.
And you know, essentially what I have done for the last three decades since I left this place is survive. It is as if I have fought my own heavy-weight bout, landing some punches and taking more then a few body shots. I've sidestepped and backpedaled; I've bobbed and weaved and ducked and slipped. I've leaned on the ropes to catch my breath. I've lain in the weeds, and I've played possum. And somewhere in the late rounds, maybe the ninth or 10th round of this bout I call my career, my life, I was presented with the big glass jaw of success and invited to deliver a haymaker. The jaw of success is a film called Avatar, and the haymaker is character called Colonel Quaritch. Now the Colonel has many admirable qualities: He is brave, he is committed to his mission, he is a man of his word, he is loyal to his own, he is charismatic in his way, and he is a truly dynamic leader. Still, even I have to admit that he has a dark side. Basically, his soul is in pretty ragged and tattered condition
Youthful idealism has long been scorched away by the atrocities of a hundred dirty wars. What remains is pure, cynical function. No remorse, no shame, no questions — no nothing. And, of course, I love him. For if I don't, who will? And I am thankful to the colonel and to be part of the Avatar phenomenon — a phenomenon that provides inspiration to a lot of people all over the world. Avatar has struck a chord because it tells a story about a person, a tribe, a planet itself taking responsibility for its own survival. Perhaps more fantasy than allegory, still it has tapped into a worldwide yearning for inspiration and proactive hope.
And for me, the heavyweight bout continues. Again, it was Lincoln who said, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I'll spend the first four sharpening the axe." I have worked hard at becoming the best actor I can be and figure to continue working on it for at least another three decades. At that point, you will have fought your own fights, learned to survive through times of turbulence and peace-and who knows may well be delivering Commencement addresses of your own. But I wonder if you will have one of these? This is the Colonel Quaritch Action Figure! Yes, the colonel has been immortalized in molded plastic, priced at a mere 11 bucks and guarantees hours of fun in the tub going "Pow! Pow! Pow!" He stands at a ramrod 8.5 inches and weighs in at a trim 1.6 ounces. He has a "highly articulated body" and is sure to be a "collectors favorite." He is fully accessorized and conforms to the safety requirements of ASTM F963 — whatever that means — and his head rotates a full 360 degrees, much as my own does. President Chopp, this is for you. I suggest you display him prominently in your office. He is sure to intimidate both staff and students and will keep that pesky faculty at bay!
And as for you, graduating seniors, Twain would say to you, "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest." Lincoln would say to you, "Don't worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition." Colonel Quaritch would say to you, "Out there, beyond College Avenue, every living thing that crawls, flies, or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubees. So keep your head on a swivel." And I say to you, work hard at something you love. Keep your axe sharp, drink water between rounds, and always be on time! You do that and not only will you survive — you may well thrive!
Congratulations — and thank you!