Raised in the small farming town of Oskaloosa, Kansas, James Reynolds enjoyed reading as a youngster — so much, in fact, that he won several reading contests and read more than 100 books every summer.
“I loved to read, and that enhanced a real big desire to dream,” Reynolds — the Emmy-winning actor from the NBC soap opera “Days of Our Lives’’ — told the Review at the Fremont Centre Theatre, which he and his wife Lissa, both South Pasadena residents, own.
“I battled asthma and almost died from it as a baby, so that kept me in a lot, which is why I turned to books. Books brought the outside world to me. Whenever I have a spare minute, I read.”
After high school, Reynolds joined the Marines and was assigned to the Information Service Office, where he had the chance to hone his writing skills for The Windward Marine newspaper at his first duty station in Hawaii. He was later sent to Vietnam, where he added battlefield reporting to his duties.
“I had to develop a good memory of events that happened and literally write a story in minutes, often under really horrific conditions,” Reynolds, 73, recalled. “It gave me a perspective on life and the world that I probably would not have had otherwise, particularly at such a young age. Naivety has worked for me a lot throughout my life, so being in that situation had its value to me later in life.”
After returning home from Vietnam and using his GI Bill to attend Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, Reynolds auditioned for his first play, “The Mad Woman of Chaillot,” at the suggestion of a friend. He landed the role of the police sergeant and described the experience as “love at first sight.”
Encouraged by the positive response he received from those around him, Reynolds began to pursue more acting opportunities, appearing in both campus musicals and play productions, as well as local theater groups.
To make ends meet, Reynolds wrote about theater, film and music for the Topeka Daily Capital newspaper for several years, and later on the Colorado Springs Sun after relocating to be a part of a new repertory. While in Colorado, he landed his first television commercial, in addition to a featured role in the movie “Mr. Majestyk,’’ starring Charles Bronson.
“It turned out to be this kismet — everything always seemed to dovetail and work out perfectly,” said Reynolds. “When I moved to Los Angeles, I was lucky enough to start working right away. I got a lot of television and movie roles, including the show “Time Express” with Vincent Price. A good friend of mine, Charles Shaughnessy, said that we’re among those people that seem to have their lives sprinkled with fairy dust.”
Reynolds’ world changed forever when he was cast as Abe Carver on “Days of Our Lives” — a character that he has played for the past 38 years. After receiving several nominations over the years for his work, Reynolds won the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 2018.
“It was an extraordinary feeling,” he said. “When they call your name, it’s an out-of-body experience — a dream come true. The gratitude of being able to be that person at that moment just kind of overwhelms you, and there are so many people to be grateful for that have lent a hand and helped along the way. It made me think of how wonderful my life has been and that I’d been given those few seconds of wonder.”
Having begun his career during the golden age of soap operas, Reynolds has seen a lot of changes in the industry over the years, with only a handful of daytime shows remaining. When asked what his show’s secret to longevity is, Reynolds pointed out that family is key.
“Soap operas are like sports, in that a family will sit and watch their favorite team together, and as the kids grow up, they will continue to watch and be fans,” said Reynolds. “One of the advantages to soaps for an audience is that you watch your favorite characters move through life with you and you see their struggles in life mirroring your own. We’re there five days a week in viewers’ living rooms and they take pride as if we are members of their own family.”
A resident of South Pasadena since 1986, Reynolds and his wife Lissa opened the Fremont Centre Theatre in 1997. Over the years they’ve produced, directed and performed in numerous critically acclaimed shows, including “National Pastime,” about Jackie Robinson, which starred their son Jed. Currently, Young Stars Theatre is producing shows in the space that feature actors between the ages of 8 and 18.
“As a theater we’ve always been committed to diversity, and we love the way the program founders, Jack and Gloria Bennett, are working with the kids,” said Reynolds. “We need to keep bringing the youth into the theater so that they can experience what live entertainment is all about.”
Reynolds also is on the Board of Directors for the South Pasadena Arts Council (SPARC), which Lissa founded 10 years ago. On Sept. 28, they will be hosting SPARC’s second annual Sparc’Tacular Benefit, a celebration of the arts for adults featuring entertainment, activities and awards.
“Arts are key to our lives and carry us through,” said Reynolds. “The one thing you will do throughout your life is take part in the arts in one way or another, no matter what you do for a career. When you’re in your 20s, you’ll go to movies, plays, art galleries, museums, and when you’re in your 80s, you’ll do the same. When our society is gone, all that people will remember is what we left behind and created — the sculptures, the art, the theater, the music and all of that. The arts will serve us extremely well as we go through life.”