I got to know Mike Burke when I was in a play with him (The Language Archive) toward the end of his valiant fight against cancer. As an actor, he knew what he was doing, and I could tell there was a lot more to this impressive native Athenian than I had seen in our brief strut on the stage. His beloved longtime friend, Terrell Austin, steps in here to tell us who he was. (Friends will gather for a farewell to Mike 6–7:30 p.m. at the Morton Theatre this Friday, July 5, with a potluck reception at Town & Gown afterward.)
“The playwright Sarah Ruhl once said: ‘The theater is one of the few places left in the bright and noisy world where we sit in the quiet dark together, to be awake.’
“If you casually met Mike Burke, you would never guess he was an actor. Quiet, wry and unassuming was his game, with a lot of wicked commentary thrown in. As the youngest of six children in a lively Catholic family, with a father who taught drama at UGA, Mike had to bide his time and make the most of the space allotted to him. And he did that. Where others looked for the large, dramatic gestures, Mike was a connoisseur of the small moments.
“He was a close observer of human beings, their intricacies and idiosyncrasies. This made him not just a great actor, able to embody characters at a micro-level so believably, but a great friend as well—one who cared about the small stuff, who asked about your children and your pets.
“Although all our animals loved him, we called him the ‘tortoise whisperer’ the past few years. He stayed with our dogs and cats regularly, but a couple of years ago, a little add-on was our new, very antsy tortoise, Herb. We had had Herb for two weeks, and he was on a hunger strike and always trying to escape his outdoor enclosure. We planted hibiscus and offered strawberries and cherry tomatoes. Herb was having none of it. Then Mike came and stayed for two weeks. That turtle calmed down and ate and burrowed and reconciled himself.
“Mike’s calm humor in the frenzy of any situation was his defining feature, onstage and off. He worked with European Repertory Company and Steppenwolf in Chicago and at the Gainesville Theater Alliance. He worked as a waiter as well, as most actors do. He had a promising future as a struggling actor in Chi-town, home of some of the best theater in the world.
“But when his elderly parents began to need care, Mike returned to Athens in 2009 to attend to their needs. And that he did, lovingly and with a lot of curse words thrown in. Jack and Paula died within months of each other in 2011.
“Mike worked at WUGA for several years, doing the afternoon show. I loved hearing his voice, although I was frustrated that he never took the liberty of saying, ‘I’m Michael Burke, and you are listening to WUGA.’ Always self-effacing, always finely tuned in.
“When Mike had moved back to Athens and was in the throes of daily care for his parents, I convinced him to be in a play I was directing at Town & Gown: Night School, by Harold Pinter. He played a ne’er-do-well nephew, living with his two old maid aunties—played by Gay McCommons and Betsy Dorminey—who menaces their new tenant, a school teacher who moonlights as a scantily clad ‘hostess’ at a club.
“Mike had not done any Athens theater in many years. He was back in town, but no one knew him. After people saw the show, the chorus was, ‘Who is this guy?’ He was lovable and so dark and menacing at the same time.
“I met Michael when we were cast in the ACT production of Oliver! in 1984. He was Bill Sykes, and I was Nancy. He was 15, with a wonderful, deep, gravelly voice. Our scenes together were carefully choreographed depictions of domestic violence. Bill murders Nancy by strangling her at the end of the show. His last line is: ‘It’s a dark night, my love, but light enough for what I’ve got to do.’ Cue the strangling. We loved every minute of those rehearsals.
“A song in that show resonates now in the dark night of Mike’s departure. It’s called, ‘I’d Do Anything For You.’ That is how Mike lived his life.
“I am determined, for all of us who will miss him so, that there will, indeed, be light enough for what we’ve all got to do now.” [Catherine Terrell Austin]
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.