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CRITIC AT LARGE

Luckinbill Takes L.B.J. Home Again

November 29, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

In mid-January, Laurence Luckinbill will go to Austin, Tex., for a 3-day run of his one-man show "Lyndon Johnson." Playing L.B.J. in Austin is fairly comparable to doing J.F.K. in Hyannisport, Mass., H.S.T. in Independence, Mo., or F.D.R. in Hyde Park, N.Y.

It has to be daunting for Luckinbill. Lyndon Johnson died only 15 years ago and memories will be fresh. "I will stop in Johnson City and ask for an L.B.J. haircut and take it from there," Luckinbill said in his home in Pacific Palisades a few days ago. The play began life as a PBS special.

Luckinbill and his wife, Lucie Arnaz, and their five children (four sons and a daughter) moved back to California in August, 1987, after a decade in Manhattan.

For Luckinbill the return was an acknowledgement, not without bitterness, that the Broadway theater cannot assure the actor a living wage--even a successful actor, presuming he wants to do good work.

As long ago as 1970 Luckinbill wrote a piece for the New York Times about the economics of the theater. "I said then that it was becoming impossible to have a life in the theater. For the actor to feel responsible to the community, he has to feel that the community is responsible to him .

"It was a bombshell. Nobody wanted to hear that. The paper got 300 letters. But the situation has only gotten worse."

Back in Los Angeles, Luckinbill has resumed film work with a vengeance. He played opposite Charles Bronson in the recent "Messenger of Death" and with Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown in "Cocktail." At the moment he is winding up "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," which William Shatner is directing.

Secrecy has been tight surrounding the script, but one printed leak has identified Luckinbill as Spock's brother. Luckinbill does not say. The only supporting clue is that his makeup takes 2 hours each morning. "The greatest of the actor's gifts is stamina," Luckinbill says.

The movie work provides a secure base for the stage work and for some producing plans the Luckinbills have. Their project, "The Desi Arnaz Story," is under consideration by a studio now.

The L.B.J. project began when producer David Susskind asked Luckinbill to read James Prideaux's script. Susskind was doing it as a PBS special and needed an answer over the weekend.

"It scared hell out of me. I thought, I'll fail. No one can do L.B.J. Lucie said: 'If you turn it down, it really means you've decided to be a writer-producer-director, but not an actor any more.' I hadn't particularly admired Johnson because of the Vietnam War."

But Prideaux's script, based on the Merle Miller book, "Lyndon," dramatically depicts Johnson's rising anguish over Vietnam, leading to his decision not to run for reelection in 1968. The text, also strongly detailing L.B.J.'s achievements in civil rights, health care and poverty legislation, turned Luckinbill around.

"I said I'd have to read it to David and the director, Charles Jarrott, to get their reactions, and on a rainy afternoon I did. I began to get this wild feeling that it could work."

Keith Haney devised makeup, including new ear lobes and an extension for his nose, that gives Luckinbill a remarkable and occasionally astonishing resemblance to Johnson. The voice--cajoling, passionate, profane and imperial--delivers the character even without the special cave-like resonance which memory says the Johnson oratory had.

Lady Bird Johnson saw the special, but (rightly and with class, in Luckinbill's view) has chosen not to comment. But Harry Middleton, the head of the Johnson Library, has said Luckinbill " is L.B.J." After more than three decades as an actor, Luckinbill thinks it is his best work, the piece that had to await his own maturity.

Luckinbill, 54, was born in Ft. Smith, Ark., and made mild sorties at pre-med and pre-dentistry before acknowledging that he belonged in drama. After Catholic University, he spent two years abroad with the State Department lecturing on theater and doing plays. Part of his time was in the Sudan, where the starvation he saw propelled him into the late Harry Chapin's World Hunger Year. He and his wife are both active board members.

After the Texas engagement, Luckinbill will do "Lyndon Johnson" at Ford's Theatre in Washington as a benefit for World Hunger Year.

"Actors are tetched," Luckinbill says. "The only thing the actor can do is observe accurately. Marlon Brando used to talk about sitting in a phone booth on 42nd Street and watching people go by.

"In the family I was always kidded about only being an actor. My father was scornful of it. He never believed it was a life for a grown man. Now a lot has changed for me since my father's death. You have to become your own man after your father dies."

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