College of Fine Arts, School of Theatre, Film & Television

One of Craig T. Nelson’s first acting gigs, during his time as a University of Arizona drama student in the 1960s, went off the rails when his two front teeth flew from his mouth.

Nelson’s actual teeth were missing, and a prosthetic took their place. It came dislodged as his character hit just the right consonants during his performance, Nelson told graduates in Arizona Stadium on Friday night during his address at the university’s 160th Commencement.

“They landed in the second row in some guy’s lap,” Nelson said as the crowd erupted with laughter. “I improvised and grabbed them from him, and yelled, ‘Give me back my teeth!'”

Actor and UArizona alumnus Craig T. Nelson urged students to share their stories of struggle amid moments of achievement. “I think we all share the deep desire that we want to make a difference, that we want to affect change,” Nelson said. “And I think we do that by sharing our hearts, our hopes and our aspirations with each other in a deeply personal way.” Photo by Chris Richards/University Communications

“So, anyway, that’s how it all started,” he added. “It really hasn’t changed much.”

Nelson’s career, of course, has changed – much – as the crowd of about 4,700 students and 33,000 guests already knew by the time they heard the flying teeth story. A video reel highlighting Nelson’s career played before he took the Commencement stage, showing him in his iconic Emmy-winning role as Hayden Fox in “Coach,” as Zeek Braverman in the TV show “Parenthood,” in his starring role in the 1982 film “Poltergeist” and – prompting cheers from graduates – as the voice of Mr. Incredible in the animated film “The Incredibles.”

All of those roles came after Nelson’s time on campus, where he learned from Peter R. Marroney, the legendary former director of the theater department for whom the university’s Marroney Theatre is named. After a couple years at the university, Nelson left for Hollywood before graduating to pursue a professional acting opportunity.

Years later, his name now finally appears on a University of Arizona diploma – Nelson was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts.

“It’s extraordinary to be a guy that’s now got a robe – I’m not sure I can get on a plane like this, but what the heck?” he joked. “And I can write prescriptions now!”

Craig T. Nelson speaks to the audience of “Sweeney Todd” on the newly named Craig T. Nelson Stage with School of Theatre, Film & Television Interim Director Brant Pope and Vice President of the Arts Andy Schulz looking on.

“Having my name associated with the theatre named for an early mentor of mine, Peter Marroney, is a humbling honor,” said Nelson. “I am incredibly grateful to “Murph” and her husband whose gift to the College of Fine Arts at the University of Arizona named the stage in my honor – thank you. To the students who will benefit from this renewed facility – follow your heart and dreams as you embark on a wonderful vocation that has given me so much.”
Photo by Chris Richards, University Communications.

‘Talk to just one’

Losing his teeth live onstage during his time as a student was just one experience in a series that led Nelson to become one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood. 

“What I received here was a love for words, a feeling of being accepted, a feeling of being encouraged, a feeling – even though I failed – that I could get up, I could do this, I could make something of myself,” he said. “I had this dream, this vision, of celebrity and stardom and making a living by doing that and being something when inside I really felt like not much.”

There were other challenges along the way. A film producer led Nelson and his family to Hollywood on a false promise of the stardom he sought. Years later, he worked to overcome drug and alcohol addiction.

Nelson’s career tells the rest of the story.

“A life that had become a disaster had been transformed, and at least I’m able to communicate on a level I never thought possible, which is to tell you in the language of my heart how deeply moved I am by what you have accomplished and how important you are,” Nelson said, emphasizing the pandemic and other challenges the class of 2024 has faced in the last four years.

In telling his stories of struggle, Nelson had a message for graduates – to share their own stories, especially as they mark moments of achievement like graduation.

“I urge you, from the bottom of my heart, to take what you’ve learned and to do for one what you would do for many, and that is sit down, take the time as you’re pursuing your dreams, as you achieve your goals, to talk to just one. Share your experience, strength and hope with them, and plant a seed that one day may become a life worth living and not a destiny,” Nelson said. 

“I think we all share the deep desire that we want to make a difference, that we want to affect change,” he added. “And I think we do that by sharing our hearts, our hopes and our aspirations with each other in a deeply personal way.”

This is an excerpt from a story that originally appeared on the University of Arizona news site. Go here to read the full story.