Entertainment

He roots for a friend this Oscar night

In one sense, it's a trivial thing. Almost 40 years ago, a Charlotte man spent a summer working for an actor who's up for an Oscar tonight.

But that's just the frame. Sometimes a brush with another world gives texture to your life in a way that lasts for years. Here's the story of Dale and Janet Sarjeant and their friend, Christopher Plummer.

Plummer is best known as Capt. von Trapp in "The Sound of Music." He had key roles in "The Insider" and "A Beautiful Mind." He voiced the villain in "Up." He's the uncle of the missing child in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

He's nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor in "Beginners," in which he plays a 75-year-old who comes out of the closet after a long marriage and faces death with courage and humor.

That's a nice collection of film roles. But Plummer has spent most of his acting life in plays. In May 1973, he started a run as the title character in the musical "Cyrano" on Broadway.

Right about that time, Dale Sarjeant (pronounced sergeant) had come back home to Darien, Conn., from a year at Roanoke College. He put an ad in the paper offering himself for odd jobs. He got a call from Plummer's agent. The actor needed a driver.

Every day there was a show, Dale would pick up Plummer at the house he was renting on Long Island Sound. They'd leave about 2 p.m., except on Wednesdays - matinee days. They talked about movies, books, cars, Watergate. By 3 or 3:30, they'd pull up to the Palace Theatre. Then Dale would go to his sister's place in the city for a nap.

Most nights he'd come back, park the car and watch the end of the play from the wings. Often he'd sit next to a guy named Harry who worked on costumes. The sooner the play ended, the sooner Harry could go home. As Plummer stretched out his death at the climax, Harry would watch and mutter, Die, (bleep), die.

Janet, Dale's girlfriend, was down in Virginia and hoped to make it to New York to see the play. But it closed after just 49 performances (although Plummer still won a Tony). At the end of the summer, Dale left. He and Janet got married in 1974, and after a year in Oregon, they moved to Charlotte, where Dale sells dental equipment and Janet teaches English at CPCC.

But that summer with Plummer lingered.

Plummer hired Dale's sister, Debbie, as his next driver. The families stayed friends. When Plummer was in a new play on Broadway, Dale and Janet would go up to see him. They have a photo of Janet in his dressing room, with Plummer in his chair, dressed as King Lear.

The families still swap Christmas cards. Every so often, the Sarjeants will get a call from Plummer's wife, Elaine Taylor. Plummer mentioned Dale (and Dale's sister) in his 2008 memoir, "In Spite of Myself."

That summer of '73, Dale and Janet were in their 20s, and Plummer was 43. Now they're 61, and he's 82. He dies a long, slow death in "Beginners," and Dale says it was hard to watch, even though he and Janet knew it was just a movie.

"I want him to win the Oscar more than I thought I would," Janet says. "We've seen him grow and change over the years."

"Some of our friends don't know we know him," Dale says. "It's like our little connection to that whole world, with all those talented people."

Dale remembers one last story. One day in that summer of '73, they were driving in the city and a cab cut them off. Plummer jumped out of the car and ran up to the cabbie's window, cursing at the top of his lungs, arms waving, spit flying. Dale had never seen him that angry.

Plummer got back in the car. Paused, for dramatic effect. Then looked over at Dale.

"That was pretty good, wasn't it?"

"You were acting," Dale said.

Plummer smiled.

"I was just warming up."

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