by Chris Davis
My introduction to Hatley came by way of a phone call. I was scheduled to direct Tennessee Williams' lost prison drama Not About Nightingales for the McCoy Theater at Rhodes College in the fall of 2001, and he wanted permission to try out for a part. "Mr. Davis," he asked, in a gruff but gregarious voice. "I was calling to find out if you'd ever consider working with a non-actor." I told him what I'd tell anybody, "We're all performers of some kind or another. Come to auditions, let's see what you've got."
Ralph undersold himself. He'd taken some classes and had had appeared in a student production of David Mamet's Oleanna directed by his son. He may not have had much experience but the retired police officer and Rhodes College security chief was a born actor. What his resume lacked he made up in raw talent, commitment, energy, curiosity, and an eagerness to learn and try new things. He was a natural team player, but with a rare personal magnetism that made him stand out in any ensemble. I cast him in the role of Butch O'Fallen, a hardened criminal with a sentimental side who leads a justifiable revolt against a sadistic prison warden. Bald, bearded, and rugged as an old sea captain, with a stare that could cut through steel, and biceps like cannon balls, his Butch is still the most real, dangerous, and unpredictable character I've ever seen on any stage. The judges for the Ostranders—Memphis's answer to the Tonys— agreed and his first main stage appearance also netted his first award for "best supporting actor." The judges got it wrong though. Ralph may not have had the most lines, but in our production he was clearly the lead.
9/11 happened while we were rehearsing Not About Nightingales, an eerily prescient show about despotism, abuse of power, and torture. There had been some talk of canceling rehearsal that night, an idea that I resisted. That's the night I remember best, as Hatley—a neophyte even compared to many of the students in the cast—lead by example, showing everyone in the room how to channel their anger and confusion into something productive. It's not surprising that the revenge sequences in our production, although abstracted and bloodless, were so intense and shocking that the theater department asked for a signed artist's statement to share with any potential protesters. To my knowledge there were no complaints.
Ralph went on to appear in productions of Carousel, Our Town, It's a Wonderful Life, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, and the 9/11 drama The Guys. He also tried his hand at acting for the camera, taking on roles in a variety of commercials and independent films like Rookie Bookie, and A Cowboy's Silver Lining which earned him a nomination for best actor in a drama at Oklahoma's Bare Bones Film Festival. Ralph is probably best known to Memphians as an especially happy gambler in ads for Horseshoe Casino.
When I think of Ralph Hatley the first word that springs to mind is generosity. He was as good a friend as a person could ask for. He approached everything he did onstage with an uncommon humbleness and gave so much of himself that he improved the performances of anybody fortunate enough to be in a scene with him.
Rest in peace Ralph. You came to the theater too late and left us way too early. I am incredibly honored that, while you were here, you shared a little of your talent with me.