Alan Alda and Jon Voight have found success on screens big and small, but on Saturday the award-winning actors will be back where it began for them, at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, to honor their drama teacher, Rev. Bernard McMahon.
“It’s important for me to give him a proper salute,” says Voight, a native of Yonkers who graduated from Stepinac in 1956 and won the Oscar for “Coming Home.”
“With any of my successes, there was a collaboration with the director,” Voight says. “And it goes back to the collaborative spirit that came from my work with Bernie. He’s as good as anyone I ever worked with. Because of his taste, his enthusiasm and his talent.”
Alda says McMahon “should be held up as a model for all teachers.”
“I don’t know if I ever had a teacher who quietly inspired me the way he did,” says Alda, a multiple Emmy-winner and star of “M*A*S*H.”
“His goodness as a person and his acute intelligence made him an extremely good teacher and an exemplary mentor.”
Saturday’s honor, the bestowing of the Major Bowes Theater Award, will be followed by a performance of Stepinac’s spring musical, “Curtains,” written by Nyack native and Scarsdale resident Rupert Holmes. The evening, a benefit for the school’s theater program begins with a cocktail reception with Alda, Voight and their honoree.
McMahon taught dramatics and literature at Stepinac, a Catholic boys’ school in White Plains, from 1951 to 1971. He moderated the Drama Club and directed several of its productions, chaired the English Department and oversaw the yearbook and the literary magazine.
When McMahon left Stepinac, it was to teach and serve as chaplain at the College of New Rochelle, where he taught Mercedes Ruehl, who went on to win the Tony for “Lost in Yonkers” in 1991 and the Oscar for “The Fisher King” in 1992.
Now retired, McMahon lives in Manhattan, but will be on hand for Saturday’s festivities, an opportunity to reconnnect with his former students.
Alda credits McMahon with nurturing his love of writing.
“He was constructively devious about the way he got me to develop my writing skills,” Alda says. “You could either do this boring book report or you could write a 15-minute sketch for the Thanksgiving show.”
Which did Alda choose?
“I chose the one that was fun,” he says with a laugh. “And that also got me further along in my ability to write than the book report would have. You can write something and stick it in a drawer for 50 years, but it won’t do you as much good as putting it in front of an audience once.”
At Stepinac, McMahon directed the original musical “Love’s the Ticket,” for which Alda, a senior then, wrote the book and collaborated on some of the songs.
“What we never knew until it was all over was that he had put up his own money to get the show off,” Alda says. “If the show didn’t make any money, he would be out. He did it because he had faith in us.”
Alda says one of the great lessons he learned, the hard way, on “That’s the Ticket” was that writers shouldn’t write parts — leading parts — for themselves.
“You don’t always learn the lesson you think you’re going to learn,” he says with a laugh. “But I learned about the structure of a play by doing it. We wrote all summer and we did the play in the fall.”
Voight recalls being enlisted to paint sets for McMahon’s shows and, eventually, being cast in plays at the school’s Major Bowes Theater. McMahon, he says, would sit in the theater and chat with him while Voight painted. They’d talk about the character Voight was to play and the young actor would bounce ideas off his director.
“He encouraged people to really go and they found a collaborative spirit with him,” Voight says. “There was a special glow in those productions because of his personality and his talent.”
“It was not like working with an amateur,” he says. “He never insisted. He would say, ‘What about this?’ and ‘Let’s try this.’”
Voight likens McMahon’s talents to those of Hal Ashby, who directed Voight’s Oscar-winning turn in “Coming Home,” and his style to that of Jose Quintero.
“They stay way back and encourage and make small suggestions that become the answers,” he says.
Both men spoke of McMahon’s gentleness.
“His spirit would never allow him to be aggressive about any suggestion he had to make,” Ald recalls. “It was always a question and let us come up with the answer.”
Major Bowes Theatre Award
Where: Archbishop Stepinac High School, 950 Mamaroneck Ave., White Plains.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $200 includes a pre-performance cocktail reception (at 6 p.m.), a personalized copy of Alan Alda’s book or a DVD from Jon Voight, and premiere seating for “Curtains,” by the Stepinac Drama Club; $100 includes a personalized book or DVD and premiere seating; $50 includes premiere seating.
Call: 914-946-4800, ext. 245.