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A Born Comic Is Having Fun Playing The Heavy

August 23, 1985|HILLIARD HARPER | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Paxton Whitehead glides like a desiccated, malevolent slug through the part of Shakespeare's vile, comic monster, "Richard III" at the Old Globe Theatre (through Sept. 22).

With understated cunning, Whitehead and his character make us loathe and laugh at the mordant humor of this "rudely stampt, unfinisht" creature that ascends the English throne in the course of a raw string of cold-blooded assassinations.

It seems the kind of part Whitehead was born to play. But only in San Diego, Whitehead says, has he been typecast as a heavy. "I always thought of myself as a sort of avuncular Wilfrid Hyde-White type. Those are the sort of parts I've played elsewhere. Here they see me as a paragon of evil, the personification of the seven deadly sins. I've never played villains until San Diego."

The fact is that Whitehead, English-born-and-raised, though an American citizen by his mother, has earned a sizable reputation as a comic actor and also hordes an array of talents. He is known as a successful director and was artistic director of the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, for 12 seasons.

Los Angelenos saw the tall, rangy actor most recently at the Ahmanson Theatre when he played Freddy, a well-meaning, busybody actor in "Noises Off." Before that he was in London and New York productions of George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House," in the role of Hector.

But in San Diego his talent for comedy has been used in more slimy assignments: Cast in the title role of Moliere's "The Miser," Whitehead conjured a tightfisted Harpagon, groaning pathologically at the thought of losing even a penny. For Sheridan's conniving, would-be romantic, Sir Anthony Absolute in "The Rivals," Whitehead fashioned a dictatorial old lecher.

But humor is the man's stock in trade. Comedy, Whitehead believes, is more hereditary than learned. Away from the stage, the actor carries his height and angular features with understated dignity. But the richly cavernous resonance of his voice is more likely to slide into levity than pomposity.

"I think there are certain things you can't learn," he muses, his accent giving a clue to his natal origins in Kent, south of London. "Comedy is not just timing as people most often say. It's everything. The way you walk, The way you look."

Although Whitehead began acting shortly after high school, he didn't really connect with his innate comic abilities until the age of 25. He replaced Jonathan Miller in the comic revue, "Beyond the Fringe." Whitehead joined the allstar original cast of comedians--Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Peter Cook--who, with Miller developed the revue.

"Until 'Beyond the Fringe' I was a rather stiff, inhibited actor, who played things straight--not many risks--and probably was quite dull," Whitehead said. Until then he tended to hide inside his deep voice.

But playing in a revue was a bit like playing naked--no characterization, no makeup, no masks, no impersonations to hide behind. Eventually he learned to make it work with his own personality. "It was a wonderfully freeing thing. But it didn't do much for my career."

That was in 1963. His career took a leap forward when he was asked in 1966 to become artistic director of the fledgling Shaw Festival. "I was foolish enough to accept the offer. I was 28, had no family or a set theater job."

Whitehead helped expand the festival from a one-theater, nine-week season to a three-theater complex with a six-month season. He learned to work with budgets and selected the plays and directors. When money wasn't available to hire an outsider, he directed the show himself. In 12 seasons he produced 21 different pieces from the Shavian canon plus works by others of the period, including Maugham, Feydeau and Wilde.

The last play he directed was "Misalliance" at the Globe in 1982. "I prefer acting to directing. The good directors seem to really enjoy the process of rehearsing, of exploring the play. I know you have to do it but I would rather not rehearse."

He moved to San Diego with his family three years ago. At the time, he said he chose San Diego as "a clean city and neighborhood for my kids to grow up." It was also close to Los Angeles where he hoped to land a movie part. So far Whitehead's made exactly zero films, but has appeared in such television series as "Magnum P.I." and "Hart to Hart."

Unlike many actors, Whitehead thanks his parents for his theatrical career. "We went to theater fairly regularly and I had enjoyed theater immensely as a child but never thought about it until high school. At about 15 I had an interview with my parents concerning my future.

"They said, 'We don't mind what you do so long as you don't go on the stage.' I thought about it for several weeks, came back and said, 'I think I'll go on the stage.' They were smarter than I gave them credit. They knew that's what I should do, but they just wanted me to think about it."

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