Daniel Noel survived missed opportunities and life-altering events to prepare for the role of Ernie Donahue in “Papermaker” at Portland Stage.

He’s flirted on the fringe of Broadway, turned down a national tour of “Les Miserables” and acted alongside Academy Award winners. He’s been mugged on the streets of Portland, lost his possessions in an apartment flood that left him near-penniless and suffered a heart attack while acting in Colorado.

Bad luck and bad timing, perhaps.

But Noel, 61, says it adds up to the role of his life in the new play by Maine writer Monica Wood, running through May 24. It is set in fictional Abbott Falls, Maine, in the late 1980s during a nasty strike at the local paper mill. Noel plays a union man whose wife is dying of cancer and whose son is considering crossing the picket line, an act that will shame his father and his family forever.

If Ernie Donahue feels bitten by bad luck, he’s not showing it. He’s stoic, stubborn

and single-minded, firm in his belief that his way is the right way. Whatever ill comes his way stresses his foundational beliefs, but doesn’t shake them.

Noel calls Ernie Donahue a role he was destined to play. It’s his Willy Loman moment, the chance to personalize a tragic hero in a contemporary play about family, loyalty and loss. But it’s more personal than that. The son of a firefighter from a union town in Wisconsin, Noel channels his father each time he steps into the role.

He has spent his professional life working toward something he’s never been able to attain, but thinks he’s found in this play.

“For the first time, I’m actually 100 percent happy,” Noel said over lunch at Congress Street Bar and Grill, his favorite Portland hangout. “It’s strange at this point in my life to finally be living my dream. I still have no money. I live paycheck to paycheck. But I’m a genuinely happy guy.”

He’s happy because he feels he’s doing the best work of his career in this play, and people are paying attention. The cast is earning standing ovations every night from houses that are nearly full. “The engagement seems to be almost total,” he said. “Folks are feeling the need to talk to us, the actors, after the show. The men, white-collar and blue-collar alike, are feeling the need to talk to me and the other actors in numbers that are rare to see after a show.”

People share stories about their working lives and their families. They talk about their husbands, dads, grandpas, brothers and sons, and thank him for bringing Ernie Donahue to life. It’s the most gratifying feeling he’s ever known, made all the more satisfying because he’s doing the work in his adopted hometown, in a cast of his peers.


Noel is among Portland’s most-recognized actors, with a resume that includes stage, screen and TV. He acts regularly at Portland Stage. His most visible role is that of the narrator in the Portland Stage holiday show “A Christmas Carol.” This year, he will appear in two independent films, including the long-awaited “Anatomy of the Tide,” Joel Strunk’s coming-of-age island drama filmed in Maine. Among others, it stars Robbie Amell and Gabriel Basso. Noel plays a pedophile priest.

He’s been acting here since 1998, when he showed up at an audition at Portland Stage and stunned artistic director Anita Stewart with his booming voice and presence.

“Where the hell have you been?” she asked him.

By then, Noel had put acting aside. He had lived a doozy of a life in showbiz, serving as Rock Hudson’s private bartender, working as a model and, briefly, collaborating with Fred Schneider of the B-52s on a music project. He’s had tea with Cary Grant and shared a hottub with the dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

His adventures in New York and on the West Coast gave him a lifetime of stories, but they didn’t sustain a career. “I was always the best man, never the groom,” he said. He turned down the chance to tour with “Les Miserables” because he didn’t want to be away from his young daughter for an extended period.

He and his now ex-wife moved to Maine in 1987 because they felt Maine was a better place to raise a child than Manhattan. His wife landed a marketing job for adventurer Richard Branson, who used Sugarloaf as the launch site for his historic attempt to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon.

He did administrative work for an arts group in western Maine, then moved to Portland, where he sold clothes, ran an art gallery and waited tables. He picked up acting here and there, mostly local TV commercials.

Otherwise, he kept his acting quiet, until he missed it too much.


Portland Stage gave him the chance to act again. In the 17 years he’s been associated with the theater, he’s filled dozens of roles and become, in his words, “the grand old man of Portland theater.” His success in Portland has led to acting jobs around the country. Like other actors who make their home in Portland, Noel travels for his work.

He was acting in the play “Other Desert Cities” in Colorado Springs in March 2013, when he awoke with a back ache. When the pain got worse, an acting colleague took him to the emergency room, where doctors told Noel he had suffered a heart attack.

Noel quit smoking and lost nearly 60 pounds, thanks to his daily walks around Portland’s Back Cove.

The heart attack was the third in a series of personal setbacks. In 2009, pipes burst in the apartment where he was living. He was house-sitting a few blocks away, and it wasn’t until three days after the water began flowing that a neighbor detected a funky odor and alerted Noel. An avid reader and music collector, Noel lost the possessions that mattered most to him.

He had $1.32 to his name and faced the prospect of being homeless.

Friends arranged a benefit at Portland Stage and raised $3,400. It was enough for Noel to find an apartment and pay the security deposit.

A year later he was mugged in Portland. He dressed up for an evening out and was walking down Congress Street when he saw three guys by an alley near the corner of State and Congress. He thought about crossing to the other side. But he was too late.

One of them threw him against a building, knocking him out. He suffered a broken nose and a damaged mouth. The attackers took his wallet and the $10 bill that was in it.

“Life,” Noel said, shrugging his shoulders. “I still feel safe in Portland.”

Toward the end of “Papermaker,” Ernie Donahue confronts his grown son, Jake, who almost crossed the picket line at the mill. He came so close, he’s earned the dishonor of being called a scab. Strikers throw a brick through the window at the Donahue home. Jake arrives in the middle of the crisis.

“You think it makes a difference to anyone in this town that you almost crossed? That my son almost spit in our faces,” Ernie screams. “That my son almost called us fools for waiting? For holding out? For closing ranks? You think it matters that my son almost called solidarity a load of crap? My only son?”

Director Sally Wood (no relation to the playwright), who has worked with Noel many times, told Noel to think of his own father. A Marine, Noel’s dad worked on the railroad and later became a firefighter. Each night, Noel moves one step closer to becoming his father. He’s not just playing Ernie. He’s playing his dad.

Noel’s father is 87 and lives in LaCrosse. He’d like to see the show, but the trip would be too much.


Joel Strunk directed Noel in the movie “Anatomy of the Tides.” Noel reminded him of the Barber in the Clint Eastwood movie “High Plains Drifter.”

“He’s got a wonderful physical texture to him that gives him such great character. At this stage of his life with his silver hair, it’s too bad he wasn’t around when they were shooting that movie. He’d be a perfect character in that town. That’s how I see him,” Strunk said.

In “Anatomy of the Tide,” Noel plays an island priest. He earns the trust of families, and turns on island boys when they are most vulnerable. Noel was perfect for the role, Strunk said, because he was able to hide his fangs under the ambiguity of friendliness.

The movie will be released this year, Strunk said. It’s had a series of post-production delays, which may prove beneficial. Since the filming, Amell and Basso have established solid movie careers, and their name recognition should bring attention to the movie, Strunk said.

If only for Noel’s benefit, he hopes that’s the case. “Dan deserves the opportunity to have a larger audience,” he said.

Noel enjoys film work and hopes to do more of it. He signed on as art director for Maine-based Bonfire Films, working with director Corey Norman to make each project look good. Norman directed Noel in “The Hanover House,” a horror film that was released locally last year and is due for wider distributed in 2015.

The response to “Papermaker” has left Noel feeling overwhelmed – or, as he said, “whelmed to the brim. I am not really sure why folks are liking my work as Ernie on a different level than I am used to. I really don’t know. I am just grateful for this amazing ensemble, and this role just seems right to me and for me.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.