The Making of J.K. Simmons

Before building an accomplished career and winning an Oscar, a young actor got his start in Bigfork

By Dillon Tabish

And the Oscar went to J.K. Simmons.

As the announcement sunk in, he leaned over and kissed his wife, Michelle Schumacher, who he met almost 25 years ago when they were both performing in the Broadway production of “Peter Pan.” Back then, as two working actors trying to make a go of it, he played the dastardly Captain Hook and she was Tiger Lily.

All these years later, Simmons walked onstage at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, finally arriving at the summit of his profession. The 60-year-old journeyman actor, known for his baritone voice and versatility and beloved for his workman-like approach, received raucous applause and a standing ovation from much of the star-studded crowd as he accepted the award for best actor in a supporting role.

On the biggest stage of his life, in front of over 37 million viewers around the world, he took the brief opportunity to thank and compliment his wife and two kids, Joe and Olivia. In closing, he offered heartfelt words of encouragement to everyone.

“If you’re lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call them. Don’t text. Don’t email. Call them on the phone. Tell them you love them and thank them and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you,” he said.

Then, patting his heart with glassy eyes, he said, “Thank you Mom and Dad.”

The crowd erupted with more applause. Grasping the gold statue, he walked offstage.

As is the customary next step, he met reporters backstage and answered questions about his impressive run of success leading up to that night.

In just the last year, Simmons’ film credits included nine movie roles, including his critically acclaimed and award-winning performance in “Whiplash,” and others that he has finished or continues to film, such as a new thriller with Ben Affleck and the upcoming “Terminator” blockbuster. He garnered a whopping total of 40 acting awards in 2014, including a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award. Viewers also saw him in a variety of commercials or likely recognized his voice as the Yellow M&M. His triumphant rise to Hollywood stardom even included hosting Saturday Night Live in late January.

In the overwhelming moment of trying to grasp how he arrived here, Simmons reflected on how it all began.

As he told ABC News, “I began with no real training as an actor. It was just because I could sing and they needed somebody to be the lead in a musical at the Bigfork Summer Playhouse up by Flathead Lake, Montana.”

It all began in Bigfork.

LEFT: Patrons of the Bigfork Summer Playhouse file out of the building in downtown Bigfork before its recent renovation.
Patrons of the Bigfork Summer Playhouse file out of the building in downtown Bigfork before its recent renovation. Beacon File Photo

It was the spring of 1977. Don Thomson was commuting back and forth from Great Falls – where he was a teacher helping to build a set for an opera performance – and Bigfork, where he and his wife, Jude, owned and operated the Bigfork Summer Playhouse, a seasonal repertory theater.

While working on the set in Great Falls, Don met a young man with a noticeable voice who was a guest baritone in the opera.

Jonathan Kimble Simmons, known to many as Kim, was a music student at the University of Montana. Born in Detroit, the middle child of Don and Pat Simmons grew up in Michigan and Ohio. After a year of college at Ohio State University, Kim moved to Montana to rejoin his family, which had uprooted to Missoula after Don accepted a teaching position at UM in 1972. Don took over as the chair of the UM music department and also served as a choral conductor and music educator. His passion for music transferred to his kids, and Kim began following in his father’s footsteps, starting with guitar performances in coffee houses before transitioning to classical music. At UM, he studied voice acting, composing and conducting, which, as fate would have it, was how he crossed paths with Thomson.

The two hit it off immediately and Thomson encouraged Simmons to follow him to Bigfork and join the theater company by Flathead Lake.

Although Simmons had no real training as an actor, he agreed to try it out.

The Playhouse cast — smaller than the 20-member group it is today — performed four main plays in the summer of 1977: “Brigadoon,” “The Bat,” “Where’s Charley?” and “Bye Bye Birdie.”

As is customary today, the Playhouse required a lot from cast members. Singing. Dancing. Acting. Helping create sets. Sound production. It’s a whirlwind summer for the cast and crew, which produces unique performances every night, from early May through September.

“It’s a different show every night,” said Jude Thomson. “It requires a lot of talent to be a cast member.”

For Simmons, it didn’t come easy.

“I was horrible,” he said.

“Up until then he was a great musician singer. He had no idea the range he had,” Jude Thomson said. “But the Playhouse gave him different off-the-wall characters to play and he totally rose to the occasion.”

Simmons landed his first major role in “Brigadoon,” playing Tommy Albright, the star of the well-known Broadway musical.

His fierce work ethic buoyed him along and he began improving from one performance to the next as a budding actor, whether it was playing Sir Evelyn in “Anything Goes” or Petruchio in “Kiss Me Kate.”

Dwayne Ague, a Great Falls native, was a first-year cast member alongside Simmons in 1977. He became close friends with Simmons right away as the two young men worked together that first summer, acting at night and painting sets or swimming in Flathead Lake during the day.

“He could sing so well. He knows everything about music. That was his first passion. But even then he was just starting,” Ague said. “He was just like the rest of us. We were all just trying to figure out what we were good at and what direction we wanted to go in.”

Another aspect that made Simmons stand out was his willingness to do it all.

“He wants to work. He did everything, even if it was just a cameo or a bit walk-on part,” Ague said. “That’s one of the things that sets him above a lot of people. He just wants to get involved.”

The possibility of acting beyond Bigfork presented itself and after Simmons graduated from UM in 1978 he moved to Seattle in search of larger stage roles. While trying to establish a career in theater, he stayed connected to Bigfork and returned for six seasons at the Playhouse, which he describes as formative.

“It was a lot of things but I think the main thing is the environment that Don and Jude Thomson created there, just getting a bunch of kids that had some talent and were willing to work really hard and had some real commitment and passion for what they were doing and also having a great time enjoying northwestern Montana at the same time,” Simmons told the Beacon.

J.K. Simmons became the first University of Montana alum to win an Academy Award for acting. The 1978 music graduate won best supporting actor for his role in “Whiplash.” Courtesy Todd Goodrich, UM File Photo
J.K. Simmons became the first University of Montana alum to win an Academy Award for acting. The 1978 music graduate won best supporting actor for his role in “Whiplash.” Courtesy Todd Goodrich, UM File Photo

Simmons said the Playhouse forced him to grow as a well-rounded performer in front of live audiences, a training ground that was pivotal for him.

“That helped me learn and become a versatile actor. But I think more importantly, for myself and for everybody who worked there, it gave us an appreciation for all the different crafts of theater,” he said. “When we weren’t on stage rehearsing, we were pounding nails or painting flats or people were sewing in the seam shop. It was a real team effort.

“Theater and movie making and TV, most things that people do in life — unless you’re just a novelist sitting in your cabin in the woods somewhere — it’s usually a collaborative kind of thing. And that’s one of the real big things we all learned at Bigfork. There was no room for any divas there. Everybody was working. Everybody worked long, hard days for the first six to seven weeks of the summer to put the shows on their feet and then the second half of the summer we got to go play in the lake all day and just do our shows at night.”

When they weren’t acting or setting up a production, the cast was enjoying the community surroundings, or as Simmons recalls, “Mostly drinking beer and acting like an idiot.”

“We didn’t do a lot of hunting or fishing or any of that kind of Montana activities but we’d go for some hikes. We spent a lot of time swimming around Flathead Lake,” Simmons said. “Now when I go back there I have a lot of friends who have boats, so we do that. We did some water skiing on Flathead and over on Swan Lake once we got to get to know some of the locals.”

Simmons and other cast members launched an annual softball tournament in 1979 — the Townies versus the Playhouse — and the lively event has taken place every summer since. Simmons makes a point of returning every year to see friends and participate in the event, which is entering its 36th year.

“We were all in our 20s and we all thought we were pretty big stud athletes. Now we still keep dragging our butts out there even though we’re a little aged,” he said.

“I sure try to make it. I’m keeping my fingers crossed this year. I’m shooting a movie that will be taking us to some exotic locations this summer. I’m still hoping I’ll make it back.”

After five years in Seattle and six seasons at the Playhouse, Simmons pursued an even larger stage, driving cross-country to New York City where he tried catching a break on Broadway at age 28. As he told the University of Montana alumni magazine, The Montanan, “I had a Fiat convertible with everything I owned inside and $400 to my name.”

Simmons waited tables and took any part he could land in regional theaters in New York. The variety of skills he learned in Bigfork proved helpful, as Simmons’ wide range of abilities earned him roles in comedies, dramas and musicals.

But again, nothing came easy.

“He fought hard in New York,” Ague recalls. “It’s hard to hang on in that world. It was one of those things that didn’t come easy for J.K. It’s a battle. You have to just keep fighting, keep auditioning and hope you get that right role that sets you up a level. He did all the right things. He kept fighting for it and getting little parts.”

His persistence paid off and Broadway auditions slowly turned into roles. One performance in particular changed everything — a stellar turn as Benny Southstreet in the 1992 Broadway revival of “Guys and Dolls.” In softball terms, Simmons knocked it out of the park.

The momentum carried him to an agent and from there he became a regular on prominent Broadway stages before he transitioned to television. He made brief appearances in shows like “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” “Spin City” and “New York Undercover.”

Programs spanning the history of the Bigfork Summer Playhouse will be on display in the center's renovated lobby downtown Bigfork. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
Programs spanning the history of the Bigfork Summer Playhouse. Beacon File Photo

Again, his ability to play any and all types of characters stood out, and by the mid-1990s and early-2000s he had landed keys roles in the HBO series “Oz” and the hit shows “Law & Order” and “The Closer.” Around this same time he got his big break in movies thanks to standout performances such as J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man trilogy.

Today he is regarded as one of the top character actors working in television and movies; “The man of a thousand roles,” People magazine declared.

“He has all the great tools of a great actor,” said Stephen Kalm, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at UM.

“The Bigfork Summer Playhouse is certainly a wonderful training ground for great actors,” Kalm added.

Since becoming a successful Hollywood actor, Simmons has remained tied to Montana, frequently returning to Missoula and Bigfork. He has helped support musical and theater programs and students and provided his talents to a variety of community projects.

His strong connection to Montana has a lot to do with his parents, who became well-respected community icons after moving there in the 1970s.

“His family comes first. Then his friends and then his work,” said Ague, who remains a close friend to Simmons. “He’s always shined as a friend.”

Don Simmons passed away in Missoula in 2012 and Pat passed in 2014.

Their profound impact on their son’s life could be felt during his Oscar speech.

“That was something that was very important to him and he shared that with the world,” said Ague, who is now the stage manager at the Playhouse and watched Simmons’ Oscar speech alongside Don and Jude Thomson at a bar out of town during a recent talent-scouting trip for the upcoming season.

“That speech was totally JK. It showed how real he is.”

below: J. K. Simmons conducts the Griz Marching Band during UM’s 2012 Homecoming football game. Simmons became the first University of Montana alum to win an Academy Award for acting. The 1978 music graduate won best supporting actor for his role in “Whiplash.” Courtesy Todd Goodrich, UM File Photo
J. K. Simmons conducts the Griz Marching Band during UM’s 2012 Homecoming football game. Simmons became the first University of Montana alum to win an Academy Award for acting. The 1978 music graduate won best supporting actor for his role in “Whiplash.” Courtesy Todd Goodrich, UM File Photo

Talking to reporters after winning the Oscar, Simmons was both humble and grateful. But the way he described it, his appreciation was not necessarily centered on the end result — achieving this great award — but instead his consciousness was focused elsewhere, like the theater by the bay.

“For me, the lean times were a wonderful, beautiful time of my life, struggling for many years in regional theater all over the country for not much money,” he told reporters backstage.

“I look back on those times with great fondness.”


Hollywood Ties to Montana

J.K. Simmons is the latest Hollywood star to have a connection to Montana. Here are a few others with varying degrees of ties to Big Sky Country:

Gary_cooper_promo_imageGary Cooper

Considered one of Hollywood’s top stars in the golden age of cinema, Cooper was renowned for being a character actor who embodied the stoic American hero. The American Film Institute in 1999 ranked Cooper 11th on its list of the 50 Greatest Male Screen Legends.

Born Frank Cooper and raised in Helena, the tall, taciturn young man moved to Hollywood in the 1920s hoping to find work as an illustrator. Instead, he used the horse riding skills he learned on his family’s ranch in Montana and became a stunt rider in westerns.

Turns out, he was a natural in front of the camera.

Cooper appeared in 84 feature films between 1925 and 1961, including “A Farewell to Arms,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Sergeant York,” “The Pride of the Yankees” and “High Noon.” He was a five-time Academy Award nominee for best actor and won twice, for his performances in “Sergeant York” (1941) and “High Noon” (1952).

Fellow Hollywood legend and close friend John Wayne accepted the 1952 Oscar for “High Noon” in Cooper’s absence, saying, “I’m glad to see they’re giving this to a man who’s not only most deserving but who has conducted himself throughout his years in our business in a manner that we can all be proud of.” Cooper received an honorary Oscar in 1961 for his lifetime achievement in cinema. Cooper, stricken with cancer, was too ill to attend the ceremony and his close friend Jimmy Stewart accepted it on his behalf. Cooper died a month later — May 12, 1961 — six days after his 60th birthday.

BradBirdBrad Bird

Born in Kalispell in 1957, Bird grew up in Oregon and received a scholarship from Disney to attend California Institute of the Arts, where he studied animation as a young man alongside Pixar co-founder and director John Lassetter. Bird went on to write and direct several hit animated features, including “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille.” He also directed “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” starring Tom Cruise in 2011. He has won two Oscars, for best animated feature film for “The Incredibles” and best original screenplay for “Ratatouille.”

Carrol_O'Connor_as_Archie_BunkerCarroll O’Connor

Before he became the iconic Archie Bunker, star of the groundbreaking CBS television series “All in the Family,” O’Connor was a budding actor earning a master’s degree in speech at the University of Montana in Missoula. He graduated in 1956 and went on to become a television star in the 1970s and 1980s. His defining role was Bunker, the bigoted, conservative patriarch grappling with a changing era in “All in the Family.” He later starred as Chief William Gillespie in the hit TV series “In the Heat of the Night” from 1988-1995. He was nominated for 10 Golden Globe awards in his career and won for best TV actor for his turn as Bunker in 1972. He also won five Emmy Awards. He returned to Missoula in the later years of his life and taught a screen writing class at UM before passing away in 2001.

shutterstock_147293123Dana Carvey

This future Saturday Night Live star was born in Missoula in 1955 and graduated from high school there. Within a decade, he was a member of the famed comedy cast in New York City performing well-known roles, including George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot, “The Church Lady” and Garth Algar in the Wayne’s World sketches. He later starred in movie adaptations of “Wayne’s World,” along with other Hollywood films. His work with SNL won an Emmy Award in 1993 for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program. He has a total of six Emmy nominations.

MichelleWilliamsMichelle Williams

Williams, who transitioned from a starring role in “Dawson’s Creek” to a critically acclaimed career as a film actress, was born in Kalispell in 1980. She attended Montessori School as a young child before her family moved to San Diego when Williams was 9. She landed her first major role at 16, playing troubled teenager Jen Lindley on the hit show “Dawson’s Creek” from 1998-2003. Since then she has regularly starred in major motion pictures, including “Brokeback Mountain,” “Shutter Island” and “My Week with Marilyn.” She has been nominated for three Oscars, including best actress for “My Week with Marilyn” in 2012. Her next role will reportedly bring her back to Montana, where she will appear in an untitled indie drama based on short stories by Helena native Maile Meloy.

shutterstock_104575625John Lithgow

A two-time Tony-award winning actor who was recently seen on the big screen in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “Interstellar,” Lithgow has lived part-time on Flathead Lake for years. His wife, Mary, was born and raised in Conrad, and the pair frequently returns to the Flathead, where Lithgow has been known to give an impromptu performance at a local stage. Every once in awhile he also lends his talents to local charities. Last year he donated to the Flathead Lake Biological Station during its recent fundraising campaign. Lithgow has appeared in several popular shows and films over the last 30 years, including “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “Dexter.” He’s been nominated for two Oscars and won two Golden Globes.

shutterstock_97406432Peter Fonda

The son of legendary screen star Henry Fonda, Peter was born in New York City and went on to enjoy his own acclaimed movie career as an actor, director, producer and screenwriter. Nearly 40 years ago, he moved to Montana and remains a familiar face in the Paradise Valley. Among his lengthy film resume, he starred in “Easy Rider” and “The Wild Angels” and has been nominated for two Oscars, including best actor for “Ulee’s Gold” in 1997. He’s also been nominated for four Golden Globes and won twice.

shutterstock_72327145Jeff Bridges

The Dude is a neighbor of Peter Fonda’s in the Paradise Valley. He made a few of his early movies in Montana, including “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” in 1974, “Rancho Deluxe” in 1975 and “Heaven’s Gate,” which included production in Glacier National Park in the late 1970s. Most recently, the Oscar-winning actor was rallied around by Montanans who wanted him to run for U.S. Senate as a Democratic candidate in 2012. The star of “Big Lebowski” told Howard Stern that he jokingly lobbed the idea over to his wife, who quickly shot it down.

shutterstock_251011183Michael Keaton

Another regular in the Bozeman area, Keaton is a longtime part-time resident in Big Sky Country. The star of Tim Burton’s “Batman” has had a ranch in the Paradise Valley for a few decades and frequently cites the quiet countryside as his preferred getaway. He has enjoyed a lengthy film career that recently experienced a renaissance following the Oscar-winning “Birdman,” which stars Keaton. He was nominated for a best actor Oscar and won a Golden Globe.

shutterstock_187220951Kiefer Sutherland

In his earlier, wilder days, Sutherland raised horses on a ranch west of Columbia Falls in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Although the acclaimed film and television star sold the ranch (after Julia Roberts broke off their engagement), Sutherland kept part of Montana with him, naming his production company Still Water Films after the river on his property. As the “24” star recalled his adventurous youth in a Men’s Journal interview in 2003, “There was one fight, up in Montana, where I took a good licking. I still have part of a beer bottle stuck in my elbow.”