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Conversation With A Non-curmudgeon

November 17, 1985|DAN SULLIVAN

DENVER — "If you're looking for something to do tonight," said the man in the hotel elevator, "Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy are in a very good play across the street--'Foxfire.' "

"You've seen it?"

"No, but we're going Saturday."

Like most of us, he had taken it on faith that a play with the Cronyns would be very good. Perhaps that's why Hume Cronyn continues to scout out scripts that mean something, even if he has to write them himself.

He did just that with "Foxfire," opening Friday at the Ahmanson. It is a dramatization of themes from the Appalachia-based "Foxfire" books. Cronyn and his collaborator Susan Cooper had first thought of it as an evening of readings.

"But eventually we decided we had to get brave and turn it into a play."

It was the day after "Foxfire" opened in Denver, and Cronyn was nursing a mild case of the post-opening blues. (Tandy was out scouting the local art museums.) Not that the reviews hadn't been glorious, particularly for Tandy as the old mountain woman, Annie Nations. It had won her a Tony on Broadway, and the Denver press could see why.

But there was that word again, in relation to his role as Annie's late departed husband. Curmudgeon. They'd used the same word about his character in "The Gin Game." Neither description was strictly accurate, but you knew what they meant. And he didn't want to get stuck playing old coots for the rest of his life.

"I want a change," he told his visitor. "That was one reason I did 'Cocoon.' I don't know how you'd describe that character--a case of arrested development, maybe--but he wasn't a curmudgeon."

You have played many a mean man in your time.

Yes. Although not nearly so many as people think. I get comments like: "Oh, you're the fellow who played all those Nazis." I never played a Nazi in my life.

How about the prison guard in "Brute Force"?

Oh, I was a sadistic son of a bitch in that one. Wonderful part! But for a year afterwards I didn't get offered anything in which I didn't push Granny over the banister.

Your Harpagon in "The Miser" wasn't Mr. Warmth either. Or your Captain Queeg. How do you approach a role like that?

Whether you're playing what we call a good man--meaning a sympathetic one--or a bad man, a villainous one, the actor has to see that character as virtuous. I mean, none of us thinks of himself as a real scoundrel. If we have lapses, we attribute them to indigestion or a bad night. We don't stop and say, "I am, essentially, a bastard." We're more likely to say, "I'm a very kind, sweet, but rather misunderstood man." Harpagon wouldn't admit to being a miser. He'd say: "I'm thrifty. I look ahead."

You've said that you're doing "Foxfire" because it's a positive piece. Yet you've also said that the actor has to open himself up to the negative side of life.

I have a little maxim about this. There's a law in physics called Kirchhoff's Law of Radiation. It states that the best absorbers are the best emitters. Well, actors are in the business of emitting. You can't give out what you haven't taken in.

So it behooves us as actors to open ourselves up to every experience, with a particular awareness of what other people are feeling. Good actors should have very long antennae. They should sense what is going on behind the words.

For instance, to some extent right now I'm playing a part with you. I'm trying to say simply and without sounding too pompous something I feel deeply . . . but which I don't much enjoy talking about. I begin to shift my feet and get uncomfortable when I start talking about the craft of acting. My definition of "technique" is "That personal and private means by which an actor gets the best out of himself."

Jonathan Miller says that the actor accused of being too technical hasn't been technical enough.

Right. He hasn't covered his tracks.

You seem to be a highly organized actor, someone who's always gone out and found projects for yourself. Am I overestimating your orderliness?

No. It's compulsive. I've always felt that it wasn't good enough to wait for the telephone to ring, that you had to do something about making your own opportunities. I started that way back in the '30s, when I got the rights to Tennessee Williams' one-act plays. And to some degree that kind of planning has served me well.

But as an actor it's been a stumbling block. I plan too carefully. I'll lock myself into a preconceived pattern that has been very nicely thought out and quite often put down on paper, and that leaves no room at all for spontaneity or for the interaction of other actors or for the contributions of the director.

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