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Beatty on Board

Should we be surprised as the veteran actor steers 'Show Boat' into the Ahmanson, riding high on the musical's success?

December 22, 1996|Sean Mitchell | Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar

'What the hell happened to Ned Beatty?" someone asked during the intermission of "Show Boat" at the Music Center. The question, as phrased, was not a judgment but an exclamation of wonder. Beatty, the unapologetic redneck stock player from Kentucky who for more than 20 years has charmed moviegoers in the many guises of good ol' boys with a girth, suddenly is onstage at the Ahmanson minus about 50 pounds. And he's dancing. Whoa.

Indeed, the question of what has happened to Ned Beatty might be extended to the vehicle in which he finds himself at this juncture of a fecund career that includes what a fellow thespian calls "maybe the one truly great one-day part in cinema history": his cameo as a stupefying corporate tycoon in "Network" that earned him an Oscar nomination in 1977. Not to mention "Deliverance," the John Boorman-James Dickey classic that started it all a few years before. Now, at 59, he has returned to the theater, whence he came, in a musical no less--the tour of Harold Prince's Tony Award-winning revival of Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern's prized 1927 Mississippi-sized antique, "Show Boat," encamped at the Ahmanson through April 3.

Starring as Cap'n Andy, the turn-of-the-century riverboat carny man who presides over love and loss in a family of theater folk, Beatty is pulling down great notices and helping attract crowds to the Music Center.

"This is basically what I started out to do," the actor says one afternoon in the simply furnished living room of the Spanish house in Beachwood Canyon where he lives with his third wife, Tinker, and two of his children. Lucinda, a basset hound, lounges at his feet. Beatty's pants look a little loose, and he is wearing a plaid tie. "My background was as a singer--singing in church, having that grow into singing in a bigger chorus, a few operettas."

He auditioned for a professional musical theater company in his hometown of Louisville when he was 16. They liked his voice but found him too short to be paired with the women in the company. "I'm 5-8 but I used to be 5-9," he says. "I thought I was going to be a comedian-singer-actor in musical comedy, but I could not get arrested."

He settled for accompanying himself on guitar at home, and when he's not doing eight performances a week in a show, he still plays after dinner on many a night--folk songs and blues mostly.

Cap'n Andy in "Show Boat" is an unconventional starring role in that Beatty has no big solo numbers and is even offstage a good bit. Yet as the wisecracking father figure whose unquenchable optimism shines a beacon through the murk of life's calamities and disappointments, he seems to hold everyone together, ever improvising to keep the show on the road--or, in this case, the river.

His best scene is the one in which he does not sing but single-handedly acts out each character in a hasty plot summary of a melodrama's remaining story line after a violent rube in the audience scares some of the actors out of the theater. It is a virtuoso bit of mimicry and movement, and it customarily brings down the house.

"The joy that Cap'n Andy gets from the show and putting on the show and bringing the show to these towns," Beatty says, "is the real center of the energy. It's a big deal for me."

Initially approached by the producers of "Show Boat" when he was still a cast member of NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," playing a lovelorn Baltimore police detective, Beatty was unable to accept the offer. He was eventually written out of the show, allowing him to grow mutton-chop sideburns and join the "Show Boat" tour in Vancouver last spring, paired with Cloris Leachman as Cap'n Andy's unsentimental wife, Parthy.

It's interesting to hear that his backstage role in the huge "Show Boat" company--68 strong--mirrors what he is doing out front for the audience. Michel Bell, the powerful bass who has been in the show for two years playing Joe, the voice of "Old Man River," says about Beatty: "He rallies people together backstage, he sets the tone. He's the epitome of a leader. He's the guy everyone thinks of as poppa. He's always coming around with candy and snacks, peanuts.

"Sometimes he'll ad-lib just a bit--throw in some new words--maybe in the first show of the week and the last show of the week just to wake us up. He knows when to give us a boost."

Beatty's had some practice in real life as a father figure. He has eight children by three wives. Which sounds complicated.

"It is," he says.

*

'Show Boat" has offered Beatty his own education in the ways of the modern mega-musical. He has had to get used to the body microphones, for example (there's one in his hair), as well as to the phantom presence of a star director.

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