Spotlight on Len Cariou

by Alan Gomberg        

Page 3 ...

LC:  That's right. Hal Prince had called my agent and said, "I want him to come in for the Count." So I said, "Well, can I read a script?" They sent me a script, and it was really wonderful; it was like an Anouilh play. No lyrics had been written yet; it was just Hugh Wheeler's book, adapting Smiles of a Summer Night. I had never seen the film at that point.

Anyway, I read it and ... I didn't want to play Carl-Magnus. I had played that role in five or six different forms. But I did want to sing for Sondheim. So I went in and sang for Stephen, and Hal said to me, "Thanks very much. Have you seen the new script?" I said no. So they gave me a copy. He said, "Take it home and read it," he said, "and let's talk tomorrow. Because now there are some lyrics in there, and you'll see what we've done."

I took it home and read it that night. I had to go back to Minneapolis to rehearse, but I had like three days off. So I called him the next day and I said, "The lyrics are just sensational. If the music's anything like the lyrics, it's gonna be outrageously good. I wish you all the best with it." And he said, "Well, we would like you to play Fredrik." I said, "What?" I mean, on the phone he tells me this.

AG:  You hadn't actually read for Fredrik?

LC:  No, I read for the Count. Fredrik was 50 years old, I was 32 or something. So I go back to the Guthrie on a cloud. I walk in to see Michael Langham, and I say, "This is the deal. I went for this thing." And he said, "How did it go?" I told him the story. Michael said, "That's wonderful. When does this happen?" And I said, "They're going into rehearsal in like a month." We were in rehearsal for Oedipus, and he went, "Oh! I don't think that can work." I said, "We have to make it work somehow, we'll figure it out." He said, "There's no point in your rehearsing this role, playing it for a couple of weeks, and then we having to replace you." I said, "Well ... This is an opportunity I don't think I can turn down." And he said, "Yeah, but what about us?" Of course, this was right on the heels of Frank Langella having quit. He said, "Well, you know what that did around here."

So I had a real issue to face. I talked it over with two different people and looked at it from I thought every angle, and decided he was right. So I called Hal Prince, who was in Majorca, because I didn't want him to hear it from an agent. I called him, and I told him this decision I'd come to. And he said, "Well, that is the most wonderful thing I've ever heard from an actor. That you have so much integrity that you would turn this down. I'm proud to know you."

I said, "Thank you. It's very difficult for me to do. I realize what I'm giving up here. Have a great time with it. I'll come and see it."

A Little Night Music
With Glynis Johns in
A Little Night Music

Photo: Martha Swope
A month later, I get a phone call from my agent, and he says, "Are you sitting down?" And I said, "Why?" And he said, "They've postponed the dates for Night Music. They're now gonna do it in December, and they've come back to us." So I went back to Michael and said, "We've got to figure out how to do this." Since Oedipus was the last show to enter the repertory and the other stuff had been seen by most people, we figured that the best time to do it was on the weekends, when we were getting the most audience. So we would do Oedipus Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Saturday. I called my agent and said, "Well, this is what it is. I'm sure the guy is gonna laugh in our face." So my agent has a meeting with Hal, and he says, "You're not gonna like this." Hal looks at it and says, "Yeah, OK, we'll do that."

So then started the greatest commute in the history of the American theatre. I would get the first flight out of Minneapolis Monday morning, go to LaGuardia, get in a cab, and go to rehearsal. Thursday, three o'clock, I'd go to LaGuardia, get on a plane, go to Minneapolis, get in a cab, go to the theatre, get into makeup, and go on. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Saturday. Sunday I would have off. Monday morning I would get up ... I did that for a month. Unbelievable, but true.

AG:  So you play Night Music for a year. What came next?

LC:  I went back to the Guthrie. That's when I did my first King Lear.

AG:  That was with Michael Langham directing, yes?

LC:  I think he got the idea from listening to the recording of Night Music. (Singing a little) "Me as King Lear." I swear to God. He went, "What a good idea! It's about time you started playing those character parts."

AG:  It's always good to do your first Lear when you're young, they say.

LC:  There were two guys in our company who were in the Lear category. Michael said, "It's physically too tough for them. You're strong as a bull, you'll be able to do it."

AG:  I know it's one of your favorite roles. You played it again in 1982.

LC:  I'd like to do it one more time.

AG:  That's something I'd like to see. And you directed The Crucible at the Guthrie during that period.

LC:  And Of Mice and Men.

AG:  Then you ran the Manitoba Theatre Center for a year and you directed some there.

LC:  Yup. 1975 is when I was artistic director there.

AG:  Did you like doing that? You obviously decided that running a theatre wasn't what you wanted to do forever ...

LC:  No. I wasn't ready to do that.

AG:  And you don't direct much anymore. Which is too bad, I'd love to see you direct again.

LC:  I still do. The difference is that ... I love to act, it makes me go. So if somebody calls me on the phone and says, "Len, I'm doing a production of Richard III. I need you in a week. Can you be here?" I say, "Damn right. Send me the ticket. I'll be there." But if you call me and say, "Len, I want you to direct Richard III. You have a week to prepare." I say, "What? Are you out of your mind?" You can't do that because you have to know the play backwards and forwards, you have to know it from everybody's point of view if you're gonna direct it. Somebody's always saying "Would you like to act in this play?" And I go, "Oh, sure." I never really set apart time to sit down and say, "OK, I'm not gonna act for a while. I'm gonna direct."

AG:  Not long after Manitoba you did Cold Storage on Broadway. Was it fun to work with Martin Balsam?

LC:  Yeah, we had great fun. A really good play, too.

AG:  And the two of you also did it for television. I wish BroadwayArchive would pick that up. Then after Sweeney, you did Alan Alda's movie The Four Seasons.

LC:  Yeah, right after that.

AG:  You've done a good deal of television and film. Do you find the approach you take has to be significantly different?

LC:  I think the acting instinct is the same. All these theatre actors are nailed with, "Oh, it's too big for the screen." That's not really true. It never was really true. You could never really get anybody to define what that meant. I said, "Well, what about Jerry Lewis? He seems to have done all right. I can't possibly do anything bigger than that."

It's all trial and error. When I first started making films, I would watch the dailies simply to see if what I was doing translated - whether, in fact, it was too big or it wasn't big enough. And if it was too big, I'd say to them, "Well, that was too big. Can we reshoot?" And they'd say no. So I'd say, "Well, then, what is the point of this exercise? If I'm gonna come here, look at this stuff, see that it's wrong and know that I can make it right, but you won't let me, then what the fuck am I doing here?" And they kind of looked at me and said, "You have a point." I said, "Yeah. That's why I'm not coming anymore."

You just have to realize what the camera does. It's a real asset to you for the most part. You can be really subtle, and that can be pretty thrilling when you see it on the big screen. A tiny look can speak volumes. If I want to make that effect on a stage, I just have to make it a little sharper.

Taming of the Shrew
As Petruchio, with Sherry Flett as Kate, in The Taming of the Shrew, at Stratford, Ontario, in 1981
AG:  So after Four Seasons, you go back up to Stratford, Ontario, for the first time in a while.

LC:  John Hirsch came back into my life. He had taken over Stratford, and asked me to play Petruchio and Coriolanus.

AG:  You also did Prospero.

LC:  Yeah, that was the next year, when I also did Brutus and Sergius in Arms and the Man. John and I didn't work together the first year. It was his first year, he didn't direct that year, he just got the lay of the land because it's a monster of a place. Brian Bedford directed Coriolanus.

AG:  Had he directed much at that time?

LC:  No, but he's directed quite a lot since. He's a good director. And then the next year we did The Tempest, and John directed it. And I played Prospero. Which is another role I want to do again.

AG:  Several critics wrote that that was the best Tempest they'd ever seen. And John Hirsch, in a book of interviews with directors called The Director's Voice, talked about how much that production meant to him. He said things about your performance that sounded fascinating.

LC:  He had an absolutely spectacular take on the play. Not unlike, from what I understand, what Patrick Stewart did in the park. Patrick Stewart and that production apparently took a similar tack to the one we took. The Stratford production had the most beautiful costumes I've ever seen in my life. By Desmond Heeley. It was just breathtakingly beautiful.

AG:  You've played a lot of real people: Teddy Roosevelt, Dean Acheson, Ernest Hemingway, Stalin ...

LC:  William O. Douglas.

AG:  Do you do a lot of research when you play someone who actually lived?

LC:  I do a fair amount. I think that too much of it can get in your way. There's never enough time. Maybe if you know a year in advance that you're gonna do something, but that never really happens in the theatre. Very seldom, anyway. Unless you're trying to do an impersonation of somebody, all you have to do is have some kind of general idea of what he looked like and maybe watch some film or listen to some recordings. I mean Hemingway and William O. Douglas had terrible voices. If I'd done an impersonation of their voices, you'd have left the theatre screaming, "Get off the stage."

With Mariette Hartley in Copenhagen
Photo: Joan Marcus
There's a certain amount of research that one does, just to know historically what was going on at the time, because obviously those characters are being impacted by what's going on in the world. And that stuff can be really fascinating. But too much of it just gets in your way, it's counterproductive. I wanted to do more research about Niels Bohr when we were doing Copenhagen. But most of the stuff that's been written about him was written by people who are in his milieu. It's written in science-speak, and it really was like "I need a translator here." So it became counterproductive. I learned what I absolutely needed to know, and beyond that I thought I'll wing it, I'll make it up.

AG:  Was Copenhagen a fun experience?

LC:  It was really tough to learn, but it was great fun to play. And I think we really did the definitive production of it.

AG:  I wish I had seen it. I was talking recently with someone who saw the tour in D.C. and he was telling me how terrific the three of you were together. [Cariou's fellow cast members were Mariette Hartley and Hank Stratton.]

LC:  Michael Blakemore was very happy with what we did. The only way to make the play work, it seemed to me, was to be extraordinarily passionate about it. There was an awful lot at stake there. Heisenberg was like a son to Bohr, there was great bonding, and then they became enemies. Bohr really thought of Heisenberg as a son. And Heisenberg really thought of Bohr as a father, because he lost his father when he was very young. So Heisenberg was in a pretty tough position. And it was too bad they were never able to resolve it because they loved one another.

We had a five-and-a-half-week rehearsal period. We rehearsed three weeks without Michael because he said it will take you all of that to learn this stuff because the syntax in which it's written is unknown to us. We don't know anybody who talks like this. So to understand it innately, to get it into the computer, just took forever. It had to come from the gut, it had to be informed that way. Everything has to be informed that way, otherwise it's dull, boring as bat shit. It had to be about passion. And, of course, it took on a whole other life because of that.

AG:  You've played solo shows a couple of times. You did Papa, about Hemingway, and some years back you did a stage version of A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Peter Handke's memoir about his mother. What's it like to do a solo play? Do you miss not having other actors around?

LC:  Yeah, you do. But, you know, it's really about a shared experience.

I especially found that with the Handke play, because the subject matter was so brutal. As wonderful as the piece was, it was really hard for people to take. I remember the first time we did it at the Marymount, on the East Side. It's a very small theatre, and in the middle of it, when I started to get down to the nitty-gritty about what my mother was up to and they started to show photographs of the camps, it's a very, very delicate area of the piece. And a man and a woman in the first row got up in the middle of this. It was all I could do not to scream at them, "Sit the fuck down." And I stopped, closed my eyes, and I listened till they were gone. I looked, I saw them going out, collected myself, and went on. I was really pissed off, really upset.

I came out after it was over, and there they were, the two of them, standing there. I stopped in my tracks, and I wanted to say something, but I knew immediately. They came up to me and they apologized. They said, "We thought it was wonderful, and we thought you were wonderful, but we couldn't take it. That's what happened to my father, and that's what happened to my wife's mother." They had waited an hour to tell me this. That was an education for me. I just went "Oh, my God." It never occurred to me. How insensitive could I have been?

AG:  Speaking of audience response, how does that affect performances?

LC:  There's a funny equation that happens. You know, you rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. Then the audience comes and you go, "What the fuck are you doing here? Who asked you? What are you laughing for?" You forget that's what it's all about. Then you go, "Now wait a minute. This is why we're doing this, right?" So they become the final part of the puzzle. They inform you how they're going to respond. And you tell them how to respond. You say, "We're going for this." So you're the one who's telling them when to laugh.

Sometimes they surprise you. But for the most part, you're up there and you're going, "OK, this is when you're gonna laugh, this is when you're gonna cry, and this is when you're gonna go, 'Oh, my God.' "

AG:  A couple of years ago you did Neil Simon's The Dinner Party. And just a few months ago you did his newest play, Rose and Walsh, in Los Angeles. Did you ever expect that you and Neil Simon - ?

LC:  Well, I didn't, only because the early body of his work was mostly about here [meaning New York]. I wasn't from here. Most of it was ethnically ...

AG:  Jewish.

LC:  Jewish. I'm not Jewish, obviously. I would love to do The Odd Couple someday, because it's a riot of a play. At one point in our lives we shared the same business manager, and that's how I met him. And I said to him, "When are you gonna write me a play?" And he never has. But I guess the closest that he came to it was Rose and Walsh

AG:  Any roles that you're dying to do still? We've talked about Lear and Prospero ...

LC:  I would love to do Richard III. And I think it's my turn to do Long Day's Journey.

AG:  I agree. Maybe you and Roberta Maxwell.

LC:  Yeah, we've talked about that.

AG:  Of course, you played Jamie back in 1977.

LC:  When Joe Ferrer did it. And Kate Reid as Mary.

AG:  Another incredible cast. Well, thank you so much. This has been fascinating.

LC:  Thanks.

The Persians
Photo: Carol Rosegg
The Persians is being presented by the National Actors Theatre at The Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University (in NYC at Spruce St. between Park Row and Gold). The show has been extended through June 29.

Tickets are $45.00; Student seats are $12.00 (cash only at the box office with valid ID). Performance schedule: Tuesday - Saturday @ 8pm; Saturday and Sunday @ 3pm. Exceptions: Special Sunday evening performances on 5/25 and 6/15 @ 6:30pm. Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge.

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