The role of Ebenezer Scrooge, the world's most adorable--and quotable--petty tyrant, provides a field day for any actor.
Just ask South Coast Repertory Theatre's Hal Landon Jr., who knows every sneer, cackle, howl, wail--and profoundly nasty maxim--associated with this most Dickensian of curmudgeons.
Along with assorted ghosts and all those gallant little Cratchits, Landon is back this week as the lord of the humbugs in SCR's eighth annual production of "A Christmas Carol" (previews are tonight and Wednesday; and the regular 2 1/2-week run starts Thursday at SCR's Mainstage in Costa Mesa).
No one in his right mind is about to tamper much with "A Christmas Carol." As beloved stories go, this Charles Dickens fable is as sacrosanct as any in the English language. But SCR's version--staged by John-David Keller from Jerry Patch's adaptation--attempts to give it a bit more adult edge and a little less child's play.
"We play it somewhat darker, bleaker in certain scenes. There's less of the broad-stroke approach," said Landon, 46, who has been SCR's Scrooge since the first production in 1980. "We also try for a bit more of the social environment of his era."
But, Landon quickly pointed out, these are "just a few dramatic touches" to what remains an overwhelmingly amusing, chilling and sentimental paean to kinship, hearth and charity.
"Don't worry, the traditional essentials are still there. This is still a very warm, fun show for the whole family."
It's proof you want? "My 4-year-old daughter saw it last year," Landon said, "and she loved it."
While Landon may be best known for his annual Scrooge, he has played all sorts of characters during his long affiliation with South Coast Repertory--he's been a member of the acting company since SCR's founding in 1964.
At SCR, he has played a saloon philosopher in "The Time of Your Life," a lumbering suitor in "Fool for Love," a CIA agent in "The Highest Standard of Living," an inquisitor in "Galileo" and, just recently, a by-the-book office manager in 'Glengarry Glen Ross."
Away from SCR, Landon has been with several other theater groups--including the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles--and he's acted in movies and in such TV sitcoms as "Newhart" and "Cheers."
Even so, Scrooge stands out in his repertoire--a virtuoso part not quite like any other Landon has played.
He likes to joke about how he got the Dickens part in 1980: "I was one of the oldest (of the SCR resident actors) and certainly the baldest."
Actually, there's something to that. Off stage, Landon has the appearance of a youngish, more kindly Scrooge: a tall, spare figure; a strongly angular face and deep-set, vividly expressive eyes under heavy eyebrows. It doesn't take much to see in him the bony, gnarled, gimlet-eyed portrayal of the Great Humbugger on stage.
Ironically, unlike thousands of other schoolchildren who grew up knowing every line and image in the Dickens fable, Landon wasn't always a big fan of "A Christmas Carol."
"I know that sounds almost irreverent, but I don't remember much being into that story as a kid," he said, although he recollects seeing the 1951 British movie version with Alistair Sim.
Landon does, however, remember fondly "It's a Wonderful Life," Hollywood's famed variation of the Dickens Christmas story. One reason is familial: his actor-father, Hal Sr., played Donna Reed's brother in that 1946 Frank Capra movie.)
After eight productions, South Coast Repertory's "A Christmas Carol" is now like an annual homecoming for Landon.
There's Keller--his director since 1980--and a "cast family" that includes such other returning actors as Richard Doyle, John Ellington, Art Koustik , Martha McFarland, Ron Michaelson and Don Took.
There's also a special first-time cast member this year: Landon's 11-year-old niece, Treva Lanphier, will appear as one of the Cratchit kids.
Finally, there's good old Scrooge. "I never get tired of that role. I try to keep it fresh, to find ways to improve certain character elements," Landon said.
"He's not a simple personality. Dickens gave us a Scrooge with serious complexity, as well those humorous extremes," Landon said. "His Scrooge also lived in constant terror--a man possessed by a real fear of poverty."
The SCR version, he said, seeks a few subtler undertones in depicting Scrooge: a lower-keyed malevolence toward Cratchit and nephew Fred; a starker emptiness to his reclusion; a deeper sense of loss in the flashback scenes of his youth.
But Landon's favorite scene has little to do with such restraints. It is the Christmas-morning scene after the ghosts have done their job, and an exultantly giddy Scrooge makes ready to re-enter the human race.
Landon has always acted this rebirth scene with show-stopping flourishes, complete with acrobatic bounds across the bed.
But during one 1980 performance, "when I leaped across that time, I got carried away and tripped on a bedpost--landing head first on the floor," he recalled.
"I felt dizzy but, really, I was OK, and I got up--maybe slower than usual."
The audience? "Oh, they loved it," Landon said. "They applauded, yelled and went crazy. They thought it was just a part of the show."