Scratch an Actor and Underneath You’ll Find Another Actor

Laurence Olivier? Homer Fickett? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The acclaimed actor Laurence Olivier performed many different roles during his long career. He said something like:

Scratch an actor, and you’ll find an actor.

Would you please help me to find a citation? Did he originate this statement?

Quote Investigator: Laurence Olivier did help to popularize this saying, but he did not craft it. In 1986 he published “On Acting” which included the following. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

We actors stand by our present performance, not by our past. We are as immediate as the moment. We give you our feelings and hope you will return yours. We ask for acceptance; we are your servants.

Scratch an actor and underneath you’ll find another actor.

Olivier also stated that true actors felt “at any moment the laughter will stop and the rain of tomatoes will begin”. Thus, his desire to please an audience and inhabit a role erased his identity. He became an actor nested within an actor.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1928 “The New Yorker” magazine published a short piece in the “The Talk of the Town” section containing two comical anecdotes of actors who treated the expression of personal grief as a performance. The piece concluded with these words: 2

While on this stock subject of actors we will put down the latest—at the moment of writing—epigram. It was coined by one of our younger playwrights near the conclusion of the rehearsal period of his latest show and was uttered sincerely: “Scratch an actor and you’ll find an actor.”

Thus, the creator of the expression was anonymous. Variant statements highlighted the discovery of a dancer, an author, a practical joker, and a director beneath a thespian exterior.

In 1929 a piece in the “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York credited the notable dancer Helen Tamiris with this alternative remark: 3

“To paraphrase an old adage,” said Tamiris, “Scratch an actor and you should find a dancer. A great actor is able to express an emotion or project a mood as easily through body movement as through words.”

In 1935 columnist Don O’Malley wrote the following in a Texas newspaper. Ellipses were in the original text: 4

Who says the movies haven’t got educated people? . . . For that matter, scratch an actor and you’ll find a writer. . . Allen Vincent, now appearing in “Poit Valame,” is completing a novel of stage life.

In September 1940 powerful columnist Walter Winchell attributed an expression in this family to author Dorothy Parker: 5

Don’t use “Scratch an actor and you’ll find an actress!” It’s an oldie of Dorothy Parker’s

A separate article about the above saying is available here.

In October 1940 the weekly “Movie-Radio Guide” printed the following variant: 6

Scratch an actor and you will find a practical joker.

The town is loaded with boys who will give you a hot foot, girls who will give you sneeze-powder, and old men who will hire themselves out by the hour to embarrass anybody you care to name.

In 1942 “The New Yorker” repeated the adage from 1928 within an article about a Japanese actor who portrayed villains in photographic illustrations for wartime magazine stories: 7

Yoshiwara would seem to be an actor first and a Japanese second, if at all. Or maybe it’s as one of our sharp-spoken contemporaries once said, “Scratch an actor and you find an actor.”

In 1946 an Associated Press story stated that directorial aspirations were common: 8

Scratch an actor and a director will yell “ouch.” That’s an axiom in this town where every Thespian yearns to direct pictures. Robert Montgomery is one of the few to achieve that desire.

In 1948 radio show director Homer Fickett employed the saying under examination: 9

His general observations on players are benign. “Scratch an actor and you’ll find an actor,” he’s fond of quoting. That is about as harsh a stricture as he permits himself.

In 1959 a famous comedian was used to illustrate an instance of the adage: 10

Scratch an actor and you’ll find an author these days. Latest to succumb to the writing dodge is Groucho Marx. His book, “Groucho and Me,” is billed as “The autobiography of Groucho Marx by (of all people!) Groucho Marx.”

In 2007 “The New Yorker” revisited the expression and printed the version Olivier gave in his 1986 memoir and instruction book “On Acting”: 11

No one ever accused Olivier of playing himself, or presumed even to know who that person was. (“Scratch an actor,” Olivier said, “and underneath you will find another actor.”) Range and continual change were all.

In conclusion, in 1928 an anonymous young playwright received credit for this adage in the pages of “The New Yorker”. It has circulated for decades, and may have been reinvented on occasion. The top actor Laurence Olivier aided its popularization with his 1986 book.

Notes:

  1. 1986, On Acting by Laurence Olivier, Part One: Before the Curtain, Chapter 1: Beginnings, Quote Page 33 and 34, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1928 January 14, The New Yorker, The Talk of the Town: Between Performances, Start Page 11, Quote Page 12, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (New Yorker digital scans; accessed archives.newyorker.com on May 15, 2018)
  3. 1929 October 6, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Drama and the Dance, Quote Page 4E, Column 6, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1935 February 5, McAllen Daily Monitor, New York Inside Out by Don O’Malley, Quote Page 4, Column 4, McAllen, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1940 September 6, Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Bradford, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1940 October 5, Movie-Radio Guide for the Week of October 5 to 11 of 1940, Volume 9, Number 52, Never a Dull Moment: Here’s the Hollywood nobody knows — a Jokester’s Paradise by Gladys Hall, Start Page 5, Quote Page 5, Cecelia Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link
  7. 1942 December 26, The New Yorker, The Talk of the Town: Busy, Start Page 11, Quote Page 12, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (New Yorker digital scans; accessed archives.newyorker.com on May 15, 2018)
  8. 1946 April 19, Harrisburg Telegraph, Hollywood Comment: Robert Montgomery Will Direct, Star in ‘The Lady in the Lake’ by Bob Thomas (Associated Press), Quote Page 8, Column 1, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1948 September 19, The Indianapolis Star How to Bully a Star by Louis Berg, Start Page 32, Quote Page 33, Column 2, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1959 October 5, Asbury Park Evening Press, Ink Can’t Dilute Groucho’s Humor by Bob Thomas (Associated Press), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Asbury Park, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 2007 November 19, The New Yorker, The Player Kings: How the rivalry of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier made Shakespeare modern by Claudia Roth Pierpont, Start Page 70, Quote Page 78, Published by Condé Nast, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans; accessed May 15, 2018)