By Richard S. Gubbe
Joe Coots looks more like he belongs in a football locker room rather than a dressing room of a national touring company. The Winnebago native is an unlikely choice to find a career in theater and television much less the role in the popular English drag fest “Kinky Boots.”
Coots was an unlikely choice to be in theater at all. He was a football player whose post-college jobs included development at William and Mary, marketing for the Northern Illinois University Convocation Center when it first opened, and a football coach.
He had no shot and no inclination of using an employee entrance at any New York theater.
Now his cities for calls include the Cadillac Palace in Chicago, where he appears in “Kinky Boots” in the famed Loop iconic venue until July 26.
“It blows my mind every day,” Coots said to The Rock River Times on Monday. “I think about it every day and say, ‘what the hell happened? Where did this come from.'”
When Coots was sent to the Rock Valley College theater department by his football coach to help build sets in the early ’90s, he thought to himself, “This looks like a lot of fun.”
He decided to be a football player and then a coach at Benedictine College in Lisle. He also managed a role in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
Coots then went to work in development at William and Mary, then helped open the NIU Convocations Center in the marketing department.
He was content with his position there while dabbling in theater roles at RVC in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “My Fair Lady” and “Evita” in 1994, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in 1995, and “Grease” and “Rebels” in 2001. All were headed by current Starlight Director Michael P. Webb.
“Mike’s a good guy,” Coots says with a thankful look. “I loved working out there.”
“Rebels 1775” is a musical that brings Boston of the 1770s and a host of famous and forgotten historic figures back to life. Rebels became a world premiere at RVC and stemmed from a book by John Allen, Mana Allen and William Squier with music by Jeffrey Lodin and lyrics by Squier. Webb brought in Squier and Lodin for a symposium and Lodin saw Coots perform in “Rebels,” liked him and set up a tryout for “Rebels” in New York. Coots caught the biggest “Totally lucky” break ever. He was sent to a tryout for “Rebels” in New York and offered a part.
Coots, 6-foot-2 and more the middle linebacker type, was told by Lodin he was a rarity in theater, “A big man who could sing and act and you’re a guy’s guy. You’re a type.”
Off he went to scout his new city. “It was a huge risk, but a calculated risk, and then I was hooked. If you don’t try, you’ll beat yourself up. But I went out there to see it first. You have to enjoy where you live first … seeing how the lifestyle is. Up until then I was satisfied doing shows here and there. Once you get into it, it’s super competitive.”
Coots now lives in Los Angeles in North Hollywood. To audition for “Kinky Boots,” all he had to do was send a video from his cell phone. He got a callback in New York and got the large role of Don a couple days later.
The original production of “Kinky Boots” premiered at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago in October 2012, with both direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell. The Broadway debut occurred at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in April 2013. The musical began its first U.S. tour, this tour, in 2014.
“In that part of England they make the best quality of shoes,” Coots says. “They make $800 pairs of shoes. Don is a traditional worker but eventually things change. It’s a story about inclusion and accepting people for who they are. We’re all here together. Nothing more beautiful than that, man.”
The show is a constant sellout.
“We rehearsed for a month a year ago and opened with three weeks at the Smith Center in Vegas,” he said. “This show is great and I love doing theater.”
This isn’t Coots’ first national tour, taking part in “The Full Monty” tour. He prefers TV appearances, however.
Coots played Jack Taylor, a cop in the high school reunion episode on Person of Interest who gets to flirt with Shaw. He also appeared in Blue Bloods, Bones, Castle, 30 Rock, five episodes for Inside Amy Shumer and the FX hit series, Rescue Me.
Coots landed the coveted role in the series finale of Rescue Me of the firefighter Denis Leary passes along the show’s legacy, the firefighter legacy of New York and the legacy of Leary’s recently deceased friend Lou. He scored big with the second-to-last scene.
“We improved the whole scene,” Coots revealed.
TV is an equal if not bigger passion now.
“My agents get mad at me because I never say no to roles,” Coots laughed. “I say yes.”
The failure rate for TV and theater auditions is high and he learned that lesson during his eight years in New York.
“The average is, who knows. You’ll get one out of 30,” Coots says. “Luck only happens with opportunity and hard work. If you can live without it and satisfy yourself locally, then do that. You’ve got to want it more than you could possibly want anything else.”
Coots appeared regionally in theaters like the Paper Mill Playhouse, Ogunquit Playhouse, Arden Theater, Marriott Lincolnshire, Riverside Theater and North Carolina Theater.
“It is the hardest business you could ever be in,” he says. “Rejection after rejection. I worked for peanuts, then the bump to $700 or $800 a week after taxes. Then you get into shows like this where it’s cake. But you have to pay your dues and go up the ranks.”
When rejection comes, “You gotta shake it off,” Coots says. “Don’t quit. Go out for something and finish. Commit to it and finish it. Don’t quit in the middle of something. If you can look yourself in the face and say you can handle it, then you can handle it. If I would have been still bouncing in a bar on Bleecker Street 10 years later, then I’d know I gave it my all.”
No big awards, yet. He did win a spotlight award for outstanding actor at RVC.
“If you want a trophy join a bowling league,” he quipped.
“Kinky Boots” has won many trophies with songs by Grammy and Tony winning Cyndi Lauper. With direction and choreography by two-time Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell (“Legally Blonde,” “Hairspray”), the script is taken from the book by Broadway legend and four-time Tony winner Harvey Fierstein, The show has won six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Choreography.
Based on the 2005 film Kinky Boots by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth, which was inspired by true events, the musical tells the story of Charlie Price, who inherits a shoe factory from his father. To save the business, Charlie forms an unlikely partnership with cabaret performer and drag queen, Lola. Soon, this unlikely duo creates the most sensational footwear that’s ever rocked the runways of Milan, giving the factory and its hardworking family a new future with Lola’s help, Charlie develops a plan to produce a line of high-heeled boots. In the process, he and Lola discover that they are not so different.
Coots said there are 80 members of this touring production company and 26 in the cast.
“There are so many people that make it go,” Coots said. “It’s a big production.”
He will be leaving the show in November after 500 appearances and has a goal of someday being featured in his own sitcom.
Kinky Boots boasts that “when you change your mind, you can change the world.” And the show is billed as “An exuberant story about finding friendship, inspiration and passion where you least expect.”
And so is the life of Joe Coots.