He earned an Oscar nomination as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night and Good Luck.”
Now, David Strathairn stars as a Holocaust witness and Georgetown University professor in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” at Shakespeare Theatre from Oct. 6-17.
“He was a courier during the war for the Polish underground, carrying messages mostly on foot from the theater of war to the government in exile in France,” Strathairn told WTOP. “He carried messages of the Polish situation and the Jewish people … to the western world, to London and ultimately to the halls of government in the United States.”
He met with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“He is reputed to be the man who told of the annihilation of the Jewish people while there was still time to stop it,” Strathairn said. “He visited Warsaw Ghetto twice, in disguise he went to a Nazi transit camp … the first to get to the upper levels of the allied nations.”
He chronicled his experiences in the 1944 novel “Story of a Secret State.”
“He was a bellwether,” Strathairn said. “He lived a life that today people would think, ‘That could only be written by Ian Fleming, that’s a James Bond experience, escaping several times, tortured within inches of his life, surviving a suicide attempt and covering miles of territory on foot over the Pyrenees in the snow of France, Germany and Poland.”
“He spent 40 years at Georgetown University,” Strathairn said. “People who had him as a teacher remember him being a very demonstrative, dramatic, entertaining professor who bought things to life. The conception of the show is we’re not really pushing the envelope that much in how he shared and taught and expressed his experiences.”
The one-man show is quite the acting challenge.
“I impersonate the people he comes into contact with,” Strathairn said. “The way Clark Young scripted it and Derek Goldman directed, we’ve put together a very visceral experience, very true to what Karski said throughout his life. … A central figure in the documentary ‘Shoah’ that Claude Lanzmann made a 9-hour documentary about.”
It’s just the latest role in a prolific, underrated career:
“It had some pretty heavy hitters in there: Cher, Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols the director, a lot of people who had more mileage than I did,” Strathairn said.
‘Eight Men Out’ (1988)
“Just getting out there to wear those old pajama uniforms, those baggy wool uniforms and play baseball all day — what could be better?” Strathairn said.
‘A League of Their Own’ (1992)
“I’ve been fortunate to be part of some wonderfully received films, enjoyable films and stories that are true — I like being part of the storytellers of history,” Strathairn said. “A deep bench [of actors] and I had a good vision of it from the bleachers. Tom [Hanks] is a wonderful guy.”
‘The River Wild’ (1994)
“The family ‘Deliverance,'” Strathairn said. “A challenging film to make. The recipe for disaster is ‘just add water.’ When you add water of that power, you’ve gotta know what you’re doing. Fortunately, we had a safety crew of renowned kayakers who helped us get through without anybody taking any dangerous swims. We all took a swim, but they were there to teach us how.”
‘L.A. Confidential’ (1997)
“I think ‘L.A. Confidential’ really should go into the Hall [of Fame] as being one of the more beautiful realizations of that time and telling an adventure story but also with cultural insight,” Strathairn said. “Curtis Hanson really did a beautiful job with that film.”
‘Good Night and Good Luck’ (2004)
“When I got past the smoking situation, it was one of those roles which I always felt I was behind the eight ball because of the reputation of the man,” Strathairn said. “The relevancy of the film giving viewers a window into what broadcast journalism was like. … What I believe should be the standards. That’s why Edward R. Murrow is held high.”
‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ (2007)
“Very exciting to shoot,” Strathairn said. “The pacing of the film, the editing of the film, which I think is the real genius of the film, as well as the cinematography, but the editing; how once the ball starts rolling, you can’t stop it. It’s very engaging.”
‘Lincoln’ (2012) and ‘Darkest Hour’ (2017)
“I’m not going to take any credit for contributing to those extraordinary [Oscar-winning] performances [by Daniel Day-Lewis and Gary Oldman],” Strathairn said.
“People were feeling unsettled in their lives: foreclosures, lives being compromised not only by COVID but economic situations and ideologies crashing,” Strathairn said. “It’s a subculture in America that is quite pervasive. The road itself has become a mythic part of the American experience. It rang the bell on several levels: loss, recouping yourself, finding a way back.”
We ended the interview with Murrow’s signature sign-off:
“Good night and good luck,” Strathairn said.