"I'm now a little wary of seeing the words 'A True Story' before a television program," said Frank Langella. "There are enough problems to get through in life without seeing them dramatized on the screen. I think I'd rather see: 'This is a fictitious but entertaining piece of make-believe.' "
Others, no doubt, feel the same way. But, as it happens, in two months time Langella will appear in one of those true stories--NBC's "Liberty," a re-creation of how French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi designed the Statue of Liberty (it airs June 30). Langella, who stars with Claire Bloom, Carrie Fisher and Chris Sarandon, plays Bartholdi.
"I know it's customary to say one wanted to be part of some great historical event," Langella said the other day. "Because my grandparents came here from Italy and sailed past the statue--you know the sort of thing. But the truth is, I love playing obsessive characters, and when you see 'Liberty' you'll realize Bartholdi was one.
"I knew nothing about him before, like many Americans, and I was fascinated to discover that for the statue he used the body of his mistress (Jeanne Baheau, who later became his wife) and the face of his mother. After all, there you have the kind of emotional conflict that has sent thousands of men to analysis over the years.
"I don't think I'll ever be able to look at the statue in the same way. And did you know that one would-be backer, who Bartholdi turned down, wanted her to hold a rifle instead of a torch, symbolizing how she would fight for freedom?"
Langella, the tall (6 feet 4) and versatile actor who made his mark on stage as an extraordinary "Dracula" (a role he later repeated, with less success, on screen), has not made any films recently; during the past 3 1/2 years, he has appeared in plays by Arthur Miller, David Rabe, Noel Coward, Peter Shaffer and Peter Nichols--an impressive lineup of playwrights.
It's not that he hasn't had movie offers, but he makes no secret of the fact that he was less than pleased with his last film, "Sphinx."
"I wasn't good in that," he said. "On the third day of shooting, I realized it was going to be a rough go and the only thing was to concentrate on getting through it. I remember being on a hill in Egypt one day and thinking to myself, 'So I'm in one of those movies,' the kind I had so often seen and felt great sympathy for the actor involved.
"But unlike Paul Newman, who they say tried to buy back 'The Silver Chalice,' which he hated, I had no desire to buy back 'Sphinx.' Though while we were making it, I several times hoped a sandstorm would come up and blow everything away."
Later this summer, Langella plans to produce and star in Charles Marowitz's play "Sherlock's Last Case," which ran here (during the Olympic Arts Festival and at the Mayfair Theatre) for some time.
"I didn't see it here," Langella said. "Charles just sent it to me, and after I'd read three pages I knew it was magic. So now I'm going to produce and act in it."
Staging the play in New York, he says, will cost $850,000.
"Raising the money is never easy," he said. "It's hard to ask people to come up with thousands of dollars that they could lose in 24 hours. But already we've got two-thirds of the money. Fortunately, it's a small cast with just one set."
Langella developed a taste for producing, he says, when he staged Arthur Miller's play "After the Fall" some years ago.
"Producing a play is hard work," he went on, "but infinitely rewarding. You see a work through from the first phone call to the closing night. In the process, I've learned to be more humble when I'm dealing with producers. For years, they've had to listen to my demands as an actor. Now I'm much more tolerant."
Langella also has a new movie due shortly--"The Men's Club"--in which he stars with Roy Scheider, Harvey Keitel, David Dukes and Treat Williams. It concerns a group of men who get together at a friend's house for a rowdy night of drinking and storytelling and then wind up in a brothel.
"It's rare to find a script which has seven equal parts for men," said Langella. "Also to find one where you only want to play the part you've been sent. But that's what happened in this instance." (Langella plays the role of a lawyer who represents the madam of the establishment.)
Langella called the film, directed by Peter Medak, "like no other I can remember . . . certainly the most interesting thing I've been offered in a long time. After 'Sphinx,' I determined I would never again do anything for which I didn't feel some affinity. After all, an actor has only so much in his bag of tricks and he doesn't want to spill too much of it too often."
Although in the past Langella has made some interesting movies (his second film was "Diary of a Mad Housewife"), it's clear that his heart really belongs to the theater.
"For one thing," he said, "audiences do seem to have longer memories for someone's stage work. When I'm stopped in the street, it's usually by people who recall something they've seen me do in the theater.
"But when we were making 'Liberty' in Paris, Claire Bloom (who plays Langella's mother) asked me: 'Have you done much television?' 'Hardly any,' I said. 'Well,' she said, 'you'll see. You'll be so famous for 24 hours.' I suppose that's something."