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THEATER AND FILM / Jan Herman

For Richard Doyle, an Actor's Life Is Driving

September 20, 1988|Jan Herman

Richard Doyle didn't exactly sweep into the Costa Mesa restaurant like a Hollywood star, but he might have. In a sweater the color of lime sherbet, with a pair of sunglasses dangling from his collar and his hair slicked down, he looked as though he had just taken a meeting at the Polo Lounge.

Doyle's Tinseltown meetings usually take place on the San Diego Freeway in his phone-equipped Volkswagen. On the road five mornings a week, he sometimes leaves his Santa Ana home before dawn to beat the rush-hour traffic into Los Angeles.

Even after 24 seasons as a founding member of South Coast Repertory--where he currently has a co-starring role in the hit revival of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible"--Doyle can make more money in an hour at a recording studio doing the ho-ho-ho voice of a bear in a Kellogg's cereal commercial than he makes in a week on the stage.

"I do a lot of voice-over work," he explained recently, sliding into a booth and ordering a cup of black coffee. "The car phone is a product of that. Sometimes I have to go to four or five locations. So my agent keeps in touch with me and tells me where to go for my next stop. Saves time."

That day had been "kind of light," Doyle recounted. He had driven to a sound studio on Melrose Avenue called Buzzy's, where he spent two hours narrating a health-care video program. Then he stopped at his agent's office on Sunset Boulevard and recorded some audition tapes. "A normal day would have carried me out to Burbank," he added, "and back down the freeway just in time to make it to the theater."

Indeed, for all his daytime moonlighting, Doyle's real work begins when the curtain goes up. Although he has dabbled in television since the 1960s--playing an assortment of characters in "Charlie's Angels," "MASH," "Cannon," "The Mod Squad" and "Dallas"--the 43-year-old actor says he has never truly aspired to anything but the stage.

"I very easily could have made a career of television," Doyle said. "The carrot was offered me. I even lived in North Hollywood for a while, thinking I would try to balance it with the theater. But I got to wondering: How do I want to be remembered? As the guy in the Von's supermarket commercial?"

At one point, he co-starred with Ernest Borgnine in a series called "Future Cop," which, as it turned out, had no future at all. "Nothing I've ever done on television has ever approached the excitement of the stage," said Doyle, who has also been featured in such major studio movies as "Mass Appeal" with Jack Lemmon and "Coma" with Michael Douglas.

"I had to ask myself: Should all my training and experience add up to being the second-banana cop on some show?" Doyle shook his head and ordered a second cup of black coffee, his mood waxing nostalgic as he remembered how his love of the stage was awakened.

A recreation director at a naval base in Norfolk, Va., put him in a talent show when he was 6 years old. She dressed him in a straw hat and striped jacket and asked him to sing "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" to an audience of Navy wives whose husbands were away at sea.

"There I was," Doyle recalled, "me, little Ricky, the center of attraction. I was hooked."

The image of the spit-curled child vaudevillian is a far cry from Doyle's current role as a 17th-Century Puritan in "The Crucible." He plays the Rev. John Hale of Beverly, whom Miller describes as "a tight-skinned, eager-eyed intellectual."

Because of his scholarship in witchcraft, Hale is summoned to Salem, Mass., to discern whether a mysterious ailment afflicting the town's children is the result of "unnatural" causes.

Having recently encountered an alleged witch in his own parish who turned out not to be one, Hale isn't easily persuaded by the claim that various Salem women are casting spells on the children. He needs empirical evidence. If the women have been seduced by Lucifer, there will be clear signs.

In one of the play's hallmark lines, Hale warns: "We cannot look to superstition in this. The devil is precise." The reverend is not a man to let his learning go unused.

"He's a catalyst in the play," Doyle said, "and his story actually has as great an arc as (the tragic hero) John Proctor's. There's a duality in Hale. He realizes a witch hunt has begun and is liable to get out of hand. But he wants to vindicate his study and find the real thing. He's looking for a witching."

One of the play's momentous ironies is that Hale comes to the realization that the women are unjustly accused, yet he has helped provide the proof to convict them. In the end, he experiences a sense of revulsion and disillusionment no less intense than Proctor's, although with less tragic consequences for himself.

Doyle, who was born in Brockton, Mass., said he delved into his own New England roots to prepare for the role. He visited relatives in Duxbury, near Salem, and read historical accounts of the witchcraft trials.

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