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THEATER

Call Him the 'Code' Breaker

Dennis Christopher hasn't been charged up like this with a project in quite a while. 'I'm in love with acting again; I'm like a new groom.'

May 26, 1996|Janice Arkatov | Janice Arkatov is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Dennis Christopher would like a lot more people to know about Alan Turing.

"I didn't know him--and no one I knew knew him," admits the actor, who plays the World War II-era British logician in Hugh Whitemore's "Breaking the Code," the Blank Theatre Company production currently winning raves at the Second Stage Theatre. Turing's most famous accomplishment, cracking Germany's Enigma code, "was single-handedly responsible for turning the tide of the war," the actor notes. "Plus he was one of the fathers of the computer, the sole father of the computer program. . . . Between those three things, how come we don't know him?"

Part of the answer may lie in Turing's professional fall from grace, a revelation of his homosexuality, which resulted in criminal charges in Britain and a tacit loss of respect by his superiors. Christopher happened on the subject when he saw a 1980s London staging of "Code" with Derek Jacobi. "I was fascinated by his story, felt a kinship with the character--but didn't imagine I had the technical chops to pull a thing like that off," he confesses. "I've done a lot of stage in my life, but I never had to dominate a stage for three hours.

"The memorization, quite frankly, was a real mountain to climb," adds the New York-based actor, who spun to early fame as the sweet-spirited Italian-spouting Dave in Peter Yates' 1979 film "Breaking Away." "And the ideas are so complex--I know it's an old joke, but I really can't program my VCR, I can barely pick up messages from my phone machine--so the challenge became in making the technical jargon understandable and putting passion behind it."

The actor (who has an apartment in L.A.) credits a superb ensemble and the play's director, Blank Theatre artistic director Daniel Henning, for helping him realize his performance: "Daniel is a major talent, working in a garage with no money. But his ideas are big and true. He makes wonderful pictures, wonderful images. He gives voice to actors, recognizing the artistic voice you have that you haven't been able to use. And he believed in me at a time in my life when not a lot of people have chosen to believe in me."

Though he's worked regularly (including "The Little Foxes" and "Brothers" on Broadway, "Murder, She Wrote" and "Stephen King's 'It' " on TV), the actor makes no attempt to airbrush the commercial comedown that followed his star-making turn in "Breaking Away."

"After that film, for about six years, I could do no wrong," he says. "Then I had two movies that didn't do well--'Don't Cry, It's Only Thunder' and 'Fade to Black'--and that's held against you. The roles available to you start to diminish, people take you less seriously. You're a promise unfulfilled, damaged goods."

It couldn't help but affect Christopher's feelings about his work.

"Acting had become something I did, and did well--but didn't particularly enjoy," he says flatly. "But with this play, I'm in love with acting again; I'm like a new groom. It's a very exciting time for me."

Already, word of his performance has led to renewed interest in the film community; he was just cast in Ken Russell's "Skeletons." "I'm not sure what this will lead to in my career," says the 40-year-old actor. "In my drive to be the perfect artist, I've left a lot of living to the side."

That wasn't the case in his early years, when the Philadelphia native fled a "strict middle-class Catholic upbringing" and enrolled at Temple University at age 17. Once there, he got involved in the antiwar movement, encounter groups and Julian Beck's experimental Living Theatre. But after one semester, he dropped out and headed to L.A. to act. Then it was off to Baltimore (for theology school) and three years in Europe, appearing in the films "Salome" and "Fellini's Roma" and working as a gofer for director Claude Chabrol.

"I'd always wanted to be a hippie," says the actor. "It was finished in America, but still going in Europe." After his visa expired, Christopher went to New York, where he studied acting--at Circle Rep, and with Uta Hagen and Austin Pendleton--and, for three years, worked as an assistant to designer Halston. "That life," he says, "consumed me." Evenings were often spent hanging out with pals such as Andy Warhol and Liza Minnelli at Studio 54.

That era ended when Christopher got a part in the original 1974 staging of "Yentl" off-Broadway. Then, in the late 1970s, he came to L.A. to restart his film career.

Jim Bridges cast him in "9/30/55," Robert Altman in "3 Women" and "A Wedding." Steve Tesich saw the latter and wrote the part of "Breaking Away's" Cyril (a role eventually played by Daniel Stern) with him in mind. Yet much of the work that followed was sadly one-dimensional.

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