"I'm a gonna kill you."
The TV airwaves are awash with a sinister Stacy Keach taunting Maxwell Caulfield in ads for the touring production of Anthony Shaffer's Tony-winning "Sleuth" (opening next Thursday at the Ahmanson). Keach and Caulfield play, respectively, a betrayed husband and his wife's lover--roles essayed by Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in the 1972 film.
"As written, my character, Andrew Wyke, is in his late 50s-early 60s," Keach, 47, noted of the age discrepancy. "We've down-scaled that to middle-40s."
With playwright Shaffer's help, new lines have been added, the focus changed (less on British class distinctions, more on a battle for male supremacy) and the monetary stakes have been raised. Said the actor, "We've given this old warhorse a new set of clothes."
As for working one-on-one with Caulfield, "It's a virtue and a vice," the Georgia-born Keach allowed. "A virtue because you only have to deal with one person. You know all of his moves, you really work out a duet.
"The drawback, of course, is that there's no relief--I'm never off the stage. And it's a very physical production. It's given me an opportunity to take off all the weight I gained during (the filming of the recent miniseries) 'Hemingway.' "
Keach, who's rarely had time off since "Mike Hammer's" TV demise in 1987, considers wife Malgosia's presence with him on the tour "a luxury. We don't have any children at the moment--we're working on that--but in the future I'll probably want to stay home more. Lately I've been traveling so much that when people ask, 'What do you do for vacation?' I say, 'I go home.' "
There's another thing that people are always asking the actor about: his much-publicized 1984 cocaine bust in England.
"Really, it's not painful," he said of the subject. "All the negative aspects are far behind me. I'm happy to talk about it. Where do you want to start? Legalization? I'm dead against it. I appreciate all the arguments of eliminating the corruption, the hypocrisy, the crime, the black market. But I cannot endorse making something that can kill you more readily available.
"I don't have any ready-made answers," he added quickly. "I spend a lot of my time working with young people on the demand side. However, there's one thing you never hear talked about: the initial encounters of euphoria. Everybody tells you what a bad thing cocaine is--but until you've acknowledged that that euphoric place is the draw, you can't come to terms with the problem. And people don't want to live with pain, disappointment, rejection, not being a member of their peer group."
Keach (who played John Proctor in L.A. Classic Theatre Works' recently aired radio production of "The Crucible") wrote a story that he feels describes the syndrome of addiction: "It's about a man who lives in a place called Pain, and he wants to get to another town called Euphoria. This conductor says, 'I can get you there: just take a little of this, a little of that. The only thing is, we can't stay there too long--you have to come back to Pain.' Each time he goes and comes back he finds he's spending less and less time in Euphoria. Finally he gets caught in the place called Pain Forever."
Four years ago, it was a place the actor knew well. "I was absolutely hooked," he said flatly. "I couldn't make a move without cocaine. Making sure I had enough to get through the day had become the singular most important thing of my life. I was working, but I was becoming less and less competent, more irritable, given to all kinds of self-delusions, very irresponsible--even though I thought that with my discipline I was doing all right, maintaining. Not true."
Keach counts his arrest (and subsequent six-month incarceration) as the "luckiest thing" that could have happened to him. "Of course, dealing with the public humiliation was very hard," he acknowledged. "But that's the cross I have to bear. And now I realize there's a reason for what I went through: I'm a soldier in the field. A long time ago, I made the decision--really it was made for me--that this was something I'd be discussing for the rest of my life. If it were damaging or debilitating, I wouldn't. But it isn't. It's healing."