It’s always a questionable choice to date your subject and yourself by saying, “I remember you from watching _________ when I was growing up,” but that’s just how I started my interview with veteran actor, Robert Pine: telling him that I grew up watching him play “Sarge” on CHiPs back in the late ’70s. Pine, being as sweet a fellow as you’d ever hope to encounter, took it in stride and laughed saying, “I still get that a lot.”
Pine and I delved into his work on Five Days at Memorial as Dr. Horace Balz, the real life physician who took issue with Anna Pou’s (played by the great Vera Farmiga) decision to euthanize critically ill and/or soon to be abandoned patients at a hospital left bereft of power and supplies after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans. Pine relayed to me what an incredible experience working on the show was and how proud he is to be a part of such an important series.
Awards Daily: How did you become a part of this project?
Robert Pine: Well the way we all do our auditions these days is you’ve gotta tape it. So I sent my audition in for it and John Ridley called me and said, you got it. And I was just delighted. And he said something at the time that became very, very true. He said, you’re gonna like all the people on the project, because I don’t hire anybody who I don’t think is a team player and a likable person. And he was so right. I mean, this group… I have to say that it is the best professional experience I’ve had in 57 years of doing this. That is saying a lot. It was just a wonderful time. It was very unique in the fact that we shot it in Toronto. We were up there from May 3rd until the first week of September. And because of the pandemic they couldn’t send you home if you had a week off or not. So we became incredibly tight, the eight of us that were sort of the core cast, and we just had a wonderful time. They’re wonderful individuals as human beings and, obviously, incredibly talented. It was a pleasure and a real honor to work with them all.
Awards Daily: You’re the third person that I’ve spoken to from the show so far, and the other two folks said the same thing that the set was unusually harmonious.
Robert Pine: Whenever you have a production like this, it all comes from the top – if you have producers who can make it all happen, which they did. As a matter of fact, the first time we met one another was on a Zoom call because we were in quarantine for two weeks. John Ridley said I just want to tell you how we work here. Nobody, no actor, whatever, is gonna be treated any better than anybody else. Everybody’s to be treated with respect and that goes for the crew, top to bottom, side to side. And he was good to his word. I remember after we started working the first weekend, Carlton Cuse had us to his house that he’d rented. We had a wonderful time, and he set the tone in the fact that he was just one of the group. He wasn’t this superior being, the producer, looking down. He was just great, as was John Ridley. Every weekend we’d get together and have a great old time at somebody’s place. Julie Ann (Emery) was sort of our den mother. She was just great.
Awards Daily: I’m talking to Julie Ann tomorrow actually.
Robert Pine: You give her my best. We all love her. I think she’s in New York now. Her husband, Kevin Earley, is a Broadway actor and he was with her up there. He was the most supportive spouse I have ever seen. He’s just a wonderful guy. We had the Earley taxi service, because he had a car that he rented. Whenever we were going someplace for the weekend, he’d come and pick us up like strays all around Toronto because we were staying in different places.
It was just great. It was just a wonderful experience working with wonderful people, working with wonderful dialogue. I mean, the scripts were so good. And the directors, Carlton and John and Wendy, were just wonderful. You just couldn’t ask for a better time. I told all of them, because I was the sort of senior cast member by 15 years, I said, “enjoy this because I don’t know how many times this happens again; this is the first time it’s happened to me in 57 years. So, hold on to it and I hope you have it again.” I’ll be lucky if I ever do, but it was a great time.
Awards Daily: Let’s talk about your character, Horace. Is there like a second level of responsibility you feel to your part when you know you’re playing a real person?
Robert Pine: Well, of course. Of course you do. But in this case, when we started working, Horace Baltz had passed on three years prior. Everybody else’s characters I think were alive and kicking. I got a lot of help from Sheri Fink, who liked him immensely. She had said: he was my favorite person out of everybody that I interviewed. She gave me some hints about him and she said she was very pleased with my performance. When she talked to Horace’s widow, she told her that she thought she would appreciate my performance. You can’t get better praise than that. The other characters’ challenges were greater than mine really, because I went to college as a pre-med. I wanted to be a doctor, and in many, many ways, he’s the doctor I wanted to be. Of course, I went to college, and I had a very solid C plus average. [Laughs.] You ain’t going to med school with C pluses. If you look back at what I wanted to be, I wanted to be a general practitioner in Vermont. When you think about Vermont, it’s rural and I love Vermont. I’m from back east. But if you really look into it, I wanted to be the doctor carrying the bag out at midnight to go to somebody’s house delivering a baby or something like that. And if you think about it, it really is more like a thirties MGM movie. It’s not reality.
Awards Daily: It’s like Burt Lancaster’s character from Field of Dreams.
Robert Pine: Right. I went back to New York after college, my roommate and I were both from Scarsdale, New York. We’d gone to grade school together and went to college together. And, I went back. I still was going to pursue it. So he was going to Columbia Grad School and you could go to Columbia and take courses. I remember I thought I’d take a few chemistry courses and a zoology course to improve my grades, to again try this fruitless attempt to go to medical school. Within two weeks, I thought I don’t want to do this. I mean, I’m done. I got my college degree and everything like that. Then I said to my friend, I said, Jeff, what the fuck am I gonna do? With a pre-med education, I can go be a pharmaceutical rep, which I wasn’t gonna do, go see all these people who’ve made it. And he said, why don’t you act? You always liked that.
In high school, I acted in plays in 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade where I always got the lead, and I really enjoyed it, but I never, ever, ever thought of it as a career. It never even occurred to me as a dream that I would have. And because I’m from Scarsdale, everybody’s a doctor, lawyer, business executive, I just never thought of it. But when he said that, I went… Yeah. For the first time I realized that that was really something that I wanted to do. Being a doctor, I loved all of the ideas about being an altruist and taking care of people, and that really suited me. But really it’s when you went up and picked up your girlfriend—and you know, your girlfriend was never ready, you had to wait downstairs and talk to the dad—and his first question would be what do you wanna do when you grow up? And I said, I want to be a doctor. Oh, you want to be a doctor? Oh, that’s wonderful! I never realized until I had a daughter myself, how uncomfortable he was sitting and talking to this teenager. I thought, this seems to work, so I’ll be a doctor.
Awards Daily: I imagine going on a first date and saying, I want to be an actor, you don’t get the same response.
Robert Pine: No, no, it’s not. [Laughs.] He’d say don’t you ever see this boy again! You’re gonna be waiting tables with him! But I must say it was a great fit. I said I was gonna be an actor in February, in New York. I got an agent in March. In April, I got an opportunity to go out to California. They flew me out to California for a screen test, and by May they said show up at Universal Studios, you’re under contract, and that’s where I was for three years. I thought, what’s so fucking hard about getting into this business? [Laughs’] Of course, it got harder after that.
Awards Daily: Well, if I can disagree with you ever so sweetly, because I do see your point about having a medical background giving you a leg up in this role. I actually think you have the hardest part on the show because Horace is a little bit of a square in a way, right? Down to the bow tie, which is like its own personality, almost like a second character in the show. You have to play the person who has nothing but integrity and belief in their position. That can be really, well, dull in the wrong hands.
Robert Pine: Well, I found it actually fitted in very easily to me. The choice I did have was, do I use an accent? I thought I would try to fit this. The character is very much who I am, which made it easier. Now, I don’t want to say I didn’t have to pay attention—I really had to pay attention to what I was doing. I couldn’t just play me but, I really do feel, I had the easier part in this. And I wasn’t going to use an accent, as I told John Ridley. I said, I’m making the choice because I didn’t want it to be all about the accent. And I didn’t think that made a difference. I’m playing Horace as if he came from Scarsdale, New York and went to Tulane for medical school and he stayed, so that I don’t have that burden of that. It’s funny, I’m doing another part now where I have to do a Manchester England accent. Which is really challenging. I’m happy to do it cause it’s a whole different kind of deal. But I wanted to make it as approachable as possible. You put these other layers on it. I’ve done southern accents before and I’m happy to do it. Sometimes it’s fun to do it, but that’s not the personality that I wanted this person to rely on. And you said the bow tie. My other friend that went to college with me was my best friend since the fourth grade.. We went to college together and he said what’s your major? I said you know my major, I’m pre-med. Well, I guess I’ll be a pre-med too. He just retired as an orthopedic surgeon, and he always wears a bow tie. So I came into the costumer and said, what if I wear a bowtie? They said, oh, that’s a great idea. And so that’s why I wore the bow tie. And anytime I play a doctor, if the part can handle it, I wear a bow tie as a tribute to my friend.
Awards Daily: That’s so fascinating. And it fits Horace perfectly.
Robert Pine: Oh, it fits him perfectly, I think. And yes, he is an idealist, but he also takes the Hippocratic Oath seriously, which I would’ve done as well. “Do no harm.” It gave me a little chill when I said that because that is the crux of his argument when things go south. Listen, there’s no reason we couldn’t have stayed there. Yes, they wanted to rush people out, but I’m the doctor and I’m staying with these people. You can’t leave these people alone, and the people who can’t leave need somebody to stay there and take care of them. There’s nothing that prevented us from doing that.
Awards Daily: I think you’re the moral counter to Anna Pou, right. Anna’s argument is if we have to leave these people, and knowing that they’re gonna die in their own flop sweat and soil themselves and all of that, how could we do that to other human beings? It’s not an illogical argument in and of itself. This show very much lives in the world of no good choices. So I’m sure you were very aware that you are countering Vera’s Anna as you’re playing Horace, that he is the other side.
Robert Pine: Yes, absolutely. And that’s the way I played it. Of course I didn’t see Vera a lot of the time when she was doing this, but when I watched it all back I so appreciated her performance. Because she wasn’t played as a villain at all. And you saw how the story evolved, and that is what this thing was meant to do—that after you finish eight episodes, the question that just looms large is, what would you have done under similar circumstances? I’ve asked, and I’ve told every Doctor I know—and at my age I got a number of doctors—about this project. I say, you should see this because it is a wonderful project that demonstrates the pressure that doctors and nurses are under at any given time to make life and death decisions. It’s a wonderful thing for that. But I’ve talked to nurses who said I don’t know what I would’ve done in that position, and who might have gone in either direction, which I think is a fascinating thing. But I think the one person who really brings home my view, for me, was Emmett. And, that’s the argument in my opinion. That guy, God bless him. He died because he was heavy. That’s what sells it, and I think that’s why they really featured that patient.
Awards Daily: The show really dramatizes the natural disaster created by Katrina at both large scale, and at the level of human cost.
Robert Pine: To work on this show that has so much depth to it, in what it’s talking about, and the expertise in putting it together. I don’t know how much this thing costs, but it’s all up there on the screen. You know, it’s funny, when you first read the scripts you open the page and it says, “New Orleans, under the hurricane.” Then you get to my dialogue, which is the first dialogue. It’s like on the first page. Then I see it and have all this hurricane stuff going on and the special effects and the green screen. I’m just so honored to be a part of something as good as what our business does and can do so well when they put their mind to it.
Awards Daily: Even just the ladder up to the helipad, that alone was just one of the most extraordinary things. Not just in showing it from a distance, but showing the grueling nature of getting up and down with patients in tow.
Robert Pine: And that was all done in Toronto against the screen. They built this thing and then the ramp outside the hospital. They built a three million gallon tank, five foot deep with water in front of there to do that. And Sheri Fink was up there once. She hadn’t been out yet and she wanted to see these sets. She said, this is exactly like it was. There was just one thing, one hallway was going the wrong direction, but big deal. Every aspect of it, the attention to detail, the wardrobe, the special effects, all of it was just so well done.
Awards Daily: Well, and the commitment to authenticity because, especially for the folks who were acting in the hospital, you don’t get to look very nice for very long.
Robert Pine: I’ve never cared about that. I feel sorry for the women because they have to care about that. I could care less. But, more people have commented to me, saying, was it really that hot? And then I said, no. That’s makeup, that’s what we do. I’m glad you were fooled and you feel badly for me, but it wasn’t a bad deal at all. When you work with people like Vera and Cherry Jones, and Earl Brown who’s just wonderful as the heavy. There’s just wonderful people involved in it. I felt sorry for Michael Gaston and Molly (Hager) because boy, when episode six comes, it’s just this dramatic halt. And they gotta build it up again, which is hard to do. I’m so privileged to have worked with such wonderful people.
Awards Daily: There’s a couple of scenes with your character I’d like to talk about in particular. One is when you are semi-forced to leave the hospital. It almost feels like you’re tricked into leaving. Your face as the boat is pulling away, it’s like you go into survivor’s guilt before the normal person would go into survivor’s guilt. You just see it on your face immediately. Was that what you were trying to project or were you just in the moment?
Robert Pine: Yeah, I was trying to project that I didn’t want to go. I’m trying to figure it out, because I know something’s afoot that they don’t want me around to see. But it’s interesting, you see, there are poetic licenses that were taken in this. In reality, if you read the book, which is a wonderful book I must say, which I tell everybody to read even if you’ve seen the show. The book just has many, many more layers than you’re able to do in a movie. But we did have some poetic license because I think Dr. Baltz left on his own because his sister and niece were there, and he wanted to get them away safely. But the reason for it is to show the intent of the other characters. So I was used, so to speak, as a sacrificial lamb if you will: to go away from this. I had the opportunity later, when I’m at a party talking to Earl and another guy, saying we didn’t have to leave. We could have stayed there.
Awards Daily: You’re heading in the direction I was gonna go with the other scene I want to talk about, where Anna Pou gives the speech at the conference, and then you confront her afterwards in that gentlemanly way that Horace would. That scene has a bit of a Rashomon quality to it, where she has a memory of how things went down. You have a memory of how things went down. You’re trying to correct her memory. And when I’m looking at it, I think is Anna lying or is this a fog of war kind of thing? It made me think about when you’re in an extraordinarily high level of crisis and it lasts for five days, which is just an interminable amount of time to go through what these folks went through, how do you remember things? Were you right about that? I thought that was a fascinating conversation.
Robert Pine: Yes, it does. And because that again is a way to leave the audience to say, what would I have done? I think she’s chosen things to believe. Because she knows on a deeper level, she did take an oath. She did make decisions that cost people lives. And, her husband may have said the Coast Guard can’t fly at night to make her feel better. Who knows? If she did just lie, it makes her more of a criminal. And if she hangs on to these beliefs, it’s like what goes on in our government sometimes now for people. I don’t know what your political views are. I just finished watching the final thing with the January 6th committee. And when you’ve chosen the wrong path, you’ll grip at anything to say I’m right. I’m right. I’m right. To the point of where you’re in Looney Tunes then.
Awards Daily: There are times that we have to tell ourselves certain things so we can sleep.
Robert Pine: Yep, that’s absolutely right. I think when the pressure’s on, when you know the cops are coming or they’re there and they’ve been there and you’re grasping at straws. You may say some things that were proved wrong before, but you’ve forgotten and you go back to the original thing that they didn’t fly at night. What were we to do? Come on. And I’m saying they did fly at night, and she doesn’t want to hear it. And we leave her very lonely all by herself when we pull away.
Awards Daily: What you’re alluding to here is something that I think is really important about the show as a whole. It does not actually manipulate you and try to make you take sides.
Robert Pine: No. And that was all intentionally done that way. I didn’t realize how well it was done until I saw it on the screen, because I hadn’t seen enough of Vera’s scenes. But she modulated that thing very, very well. And she’s not a person you can dislike or hate, which is a lot of times the way it goes. There are many people that make terrible choices and you know they’re not bad human beings. They just were thrown into a situation where they, as you say, had no good choices.
Awards Daily: I can only imagine that once you got a chance to watch it back that you must feel incredibly proud to have worked on Five Days. Not just because of the people that you clearly loved working with and the experience that you had, but also there’s this amazingly brave and artistic show you were a part of, and it’s out there in the world now forever.
Robert Pine: That’s exactly the way I feel. I think of it often and I wish more people would see it. But it’s on Apple TV+ and some people say it’s too expensive for them. If they’re friends and if I know them well enough, I say just buy it for a month and then quit! [Laughs.} I don’t know how much it is for a month, but at most it’s like going to the movies or something like that. I don’t think many of these people take my recommendation, but it probably will be seen more as time goes on.
I know the publicity people are doing a lot of work on it because they want to for awards. The SAG-AFTRA event is gonna come up in January, it would be the first event I think that we would be eligible for. I got the SAG-AFTRA magazine and it’s filled with all these other show’s advertising, and ours isn’t in there! What a dumb thing that is, because these are the people that are gonna vote! And I thought, well, that’s not good. I don’t have any aspirations of any awards myself, because I think there are other actors in the show that have more dramatic roles, but the Ensemble Award is given in the major awards and I think we should be right there for that.