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Johnson County actors play key roles in KU basketball film

Special to The Star

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Kip Niven has played a diverse array of characters in his 40-plus years as an actor. From Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” to the sultan in “Aladdin,” the Leawood man has found each of them fulfilling in some way.

However, Niven said the latest role — this one on the silver screen — is the best so far.

Niven portrays legendary University of Kansas basketball coach Forrest “Phog” Allen in the film “Jayhawkers,” which was written, produced and directed by KU film professor Kevin Willmott. The film premiered last weekend in Lawrence, where the story unfolds, with several sold-out screenings. “The Jayhawkers” will have additional showings at Liberty Hall in Lawrence beginning Friday, while producers continue to look for a national distributor for a wider release in theaters.

“It’s the largest film role I’ve ever had and easily the most pleasant experience,” Niven said. “The look of the film is sensational. I had the feeling it was an important project. It was an honor to be a part of it.”

The black and white film centers on the arrival of Wilt Chamberlain, who came to KU as a freshman in the fall of 1955. The story focuses on Allen and then Chancellor Franklin Murphy, who worked in tandem to bring Chamberlain to Lawrence, which was still largely segregated. Film notes explain that Allen and Murphy enlisted help from the African-American community in Kansas City. Current KU basketball player Justin Wesley portrays Chamberlain.

Niven, a KU theater graduate himself, knew filmmaker Willmott through university connections.

“I auditioned for him for a film he did called ‘The Only Good Indian’ and I got a small part in that,” Niven said. “I had a great time.”

However, this film was different.

“He called me and I didn’t even have to audition for it,” Niven said. “There is enough physical likeness of me to Dr. Allen.”

Filming took place in and around Lawrence during the summer of 2012.

Niven did his homework to prepare for playing the renowned KU coach for whom the university’s field house is named.

“I read a book by Blair Kerhkoff about Phog Allen...and it was full of a lot of information,” he said. “The screenplay by Kevin and Scott Richardson was such a great piece. It’s so full of the humanity of the man.”

Niven also had the opportunity to talk with members of Allen’s family to get a sense of the man.

“It’s kind of a weighty deal to play him,” he said. “His granddaughter Judy was wonderful to me. She even allowed me to wear some of his lapel pins in the film. She actually gave me one, too.”

Then there was working with Wesley, a member of KU’s team.

“That all happened through coach Self,” Niven said. “He’s a great kid.”

Niven, who is 6 feet tall, almost appears short next to Wesley’s 6-foot, 9-inch frame.

“It wasn’t an issue,” Niven said.

Niven was joined in “The Jayhawkers” by fellow actor, KU grad and Overland Park resident Kathleen Warfel, who plays Allen’s wife, Bess. Warfel said it was Niven who recommended her to the director.

“They just called and offered me the job,” she said.

Warfel has appeared on numerous stages in the Kansas City area playing everything from Shakespeare to “Charlotte’s Web.” In “The Jayhawkers,” Warfel appears in just a handful of scenes, but she enjoyed the work.

“It was such a rewarding shoot,” she said. “They were very respectful and great. I’ve never worked in quite as respectful surroundings.”

Like Niven, Warfel had the opportunity to chat with Allen’s granddaughter to get a sense of the woman she was to portray.

“She told me she (Bess Allen) wasn’t quite as friendly as I had made her out to be, so the next day I adjusted and made her a little more strict.”

Although Warfel and Niven have known each other for a number of years, “The Jayhawkers” marked the first time the pair played opposite each other.

“I trust Kip implicitly,” Warfel said. “He’s a good soul, and a wonderful professional.”

As KU alums and basketball fans, making “The Jayhawkers” had special significance for the two actors.

“It wasn’t like coming home but it had a very familiar feel to me,” Warfel said.

For Niven, he felt the special connection at the film’s premiere.

“It was fantastic,” Niven said. “”I sat in a row with current KU basketball players and I got to meet coach Self.”

Both actors have now moved on to other things. Niven is involved in a handful of other projects. He started Equity Actors Readers Theatre, which gives periodic performances around the metro area. Warfel has been an EARTh participant on a few occasions.

“We get together with pals and read great plays with only a few hours’ rehearsal,” Niven said. In addition, Niven is in his 19th season with Right Between the Ears, a radio comedy show broadcast on public radio.

“It’s Saturday Night Live meets old-time comedy,” said Niven in describing the show. “It’s the most fun I’ve had as a performer.”

This summer, Niven will reprise the role of Gad, a Holocaust survivor who had been to a concentration camp because he was gay, in the Seattle Men’s Chorus production of “For A Look or a Touch.” The production will have a performance in Seattle in June before traveling to Germany.

Warfel is auditioning and waiting for her next great role.

Niven is excited about becoming a grandfather for the fifth time earlier this week. He’s also pleased “The Jayhawkers” is having additional showings in the area.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the film,” Niven said. “If I never work again, this will be a nice one to sign off on. I feel good about the work and the movie.

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