Daniel Vaughn Manasia got the acting itch as a senior at Bemidji High School 40 years ago. But he didn’t scratch it until he was in his early 50s.

Next week, the BHS student who played Friar Laurence in “Romeo and Juliet” and Lieutenant Brannigan in “Guys and Dolls” will be a guest star on one of television’s most popular series.

Vaughn Manasia has a role in the Wednesday, Oct. 27, episode of NBC’s “Chicago Fire,” which airs at 8 p.m. He is not permitted to talk about the episode until after it airs. But he did disclose that it’s more than a bit part.

“I’m in a decent amount of a scene,” he said in an interview from his Chicago home, “and I have a decent amount of lines. For some co-stars, it’s a one-line thing or two, which is still an honor because you’re there as a professional. But they gave me a good chunk of lines.”

Daniel grew up in Nymore, a block from his elementary school, old Lincoln. His father Jean and uncle Lowell owned the Sveden House restaurant in the Markham Hotel. His father died in 2015, but his mother, Edith, still lives in Bemidji.

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This photo of Daniel Vaughn Manasia was taken behind the scenes of an independent film he was in. Contributed
This photo of Daniel Vaughn Manasia was taken behind the scenes of an independent film he was in. Contributed

Pondering his future

After graduating from BHS in 1982, Daniel attended North Central University in Minneapolis, majoring in psychology. He was in a few plays in the Twin Cities but didn’t consider acting a viable career path. He moved to Chicago, finished his psychology degree, and then pondered his future career.

“I was looking at either getting my master’s or Ph.D., because with psych that’s kind of what you do,” Vaughn Manasia said. “I sat down and looked at how many student loans I was going to have by the time I was done, and somebody suggested because I am a dog lover, that I consider dog grooming.”

He said at the time the upper range salary for a dog groomer was close to the median range for a master’s in psych, without any student loans.

“So I spent 25 years as a certified master groomer,” Vaughn Manasia said. “I loved it to death. At the beginning of my career I did a lot of competitive grooming, where we went into a ring against other groomers. I won some nice ribbons. But it was too much. I owned my own business, and the amount of time that it took to compete and run a business was too much. Something had to give. So I only competed for about five years.”

Behind the scenes of a commercial Daniel Vaughn Manasi shot for a Build your Kingdom app. Contributed
Behind the scenes of a commercial Daniel Vaughn Manasi shot for a Build your Kingdom app. Contributed

Though he still grooms dogs part-time, Daniel started thinking about a career change about seven years ago. Blessed with a strong, deep voice, he had long been encouraged to consider voiceover work. So he decided to take a class to learn more about that.

“I thought I might as well at least take a class and see what it’s about and if it’s even a viable possibility,” he said. “They loved my voice in the class but said I needed to learn how to use it. So I took an acting class, and that led to another acting class, which led to another acting class. Something happened during one of the scenes we were doing, and I knew at that moment that this was going to be one of my revenue streams.”

It also took him back to his Bemidji High School experiences.

“I always remembered the feeling, especially with Romeo and Juliet, of being on stage,” he said. “Whatever happened in that scene, I knew this was something I wanted to pursue. Once I figured that out, I had a lot of years to make up. I was 53. So I took three and four classes at a time while working full time.”

Acting it out

He had a few small parts in one-act plays. In 2019 he landed a lead role in a full play called “Dex and Abby.”

“Very appropriate, because after 25 years as a professional groomer, I played a geriatric dog,” Daniel said. “It was like almost a shoo-in because I know a lot of the mannerisms of a dog. The dogs got to talk. It was a very physical job. The first two weeks of rehearsal I lost 15 pounds because even a geriatric dog moves a lot.”

Unfortunately, the play was shut down after a three-week run in 2020 because of the coronavirus.

After more than two decades as a certified dog groomer, Daniel Vaughn Manasia (on floor at left) was suited for a role as one of the talking dogs in the Chicago play "Dex and Abby" that was cut short by the pandemic in 2020. (Contributed / Ray Manasia)
After more than two decades as a certified dog groomer, Daniel Vaughn Manasia (on floor at left) was suited for a role as one of the talking dogs in the Chicago play "Dex and Abby" that was cut short by the pandemic in 2020. (Contributed / Ray Manasia)

“We were going to bring it back,” he said, “but when we realized everything was going to be closed for a minimum of a year, they decided not to. At the beginning of quarantine, because I already felt like I was starting late in life and I couldn’t afford to lose a year, there was a point where I decided I was just going to hang it up. But that only lasted for three days.”

He started taking classes and doing productions over Zoom, working with directors and teachers all over the country. Then he started auditioning for films and television in April 2021, eventually landing the “Chicago Fire” role.

The episode, titled “Dead Zone,” was filmed in Chicago, close to where Daniel and husband Ray Manasia live. In the Oct. 27 show, a major security breach in the city’s computer networks forces Firehouse 51’s senior leaders to take matters into their own hands.

“It was a great experience,” Daniel said. “Everybody there has been doing it together for so long that it’s a well-oiled machine.”

He hopes the experience is a springboard for his acting career.

Daniel Vaughn Manasia acted in two plays as a Bemidji High School student, but did not get back into acting until he was in his early 50s. Contributed
Daniel Vaughn Manasia acted in two plays as a Bemidji High School student, but did not get back into acting until he was in his early 50s. Contributed

“It’s a huge stepping stone because once it airs I can actually pull my scene out and use it as part of my clip and my marketing,” he said. “It also means the casting directors have seen me enough, somebody has proven that I’m reliable to perform.”

Meanwhile, Daniel has reconnected on social media with some of his friends from Bemidji.

“All of them say that they saw this coming even when I was in high school,” he said. “I wish I had seen some of that, too. But I don’t know if I would change anything. I don’t know if I would have been able to do it at 18. I feel like I found a new passion when I was 53, and that’s awesome.”