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At 60, He's Still Burning Bright

Frank Langella may have found inner peace, but it hasn't dulled his appetite for challenging roles--and Strindberg's 'The Father' fills the bill.

April 05, 1998|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Frank Langella is a man of many personas. To the legions of fans who swooned over his 1970s turns in "Diary of a Mad Housewife" and "Dracula," he is sexual charisma incarnate. To those who know him chiefly from the theater, he's one of the few American actors in the classical thespian tradition--a master of towering and demanding roles. Then too, there is the droll Langella of comedy, both onstage and onscreen.

The man who greets a reporter on a recent morning, however, is at once all and none of these. Imperial yet approachable, he's also pointedly unimpressed by his own track record.

"My body of work means nothing to me," says the actor, seated in an office at the Geffen Playhouse, where he will open in the title role of Strindberg's "The Father" on Wednesday. "I don't care, and I don't think anybody else should care.

"What means anything to me is 'Will I be able to get it up two weeks from now and play this part richer and deeper?' " he continues. "Will I be able to deliver unto you some communication? And I'll drive home, if I did it that night, feeling good about myself. If not, I'll drive home miserable and mad at myself and the next time I'll try and do it better."

Clearly this is not the portrait of the artist as a young brat that he once was. As he puts it, he was "outrageous, obstreperous, difficult and willful." Nor should one confuse Langella with the volatile Brobdingnagian he can become in character, and for which he is justly famous.

Rather, this is a more tender and circumspect being--not to mention one with an affinity for Eastern philosophy. "I know now that where I am is where it's at, and I didn't know that as a young actor," says Langella. "I always thought it was somewhere else. It's only what I'm doing that minute that matters. Experience does that for you."

Langella has the graceful masculinity of a man at ease with himself. His eyes are mahogany reservoirs--their gaze direct, yet gently good humored--in a rosy-cheeked face that radiates vigor. He looks to be in his late 40s, though he is actually 60.

He's been busy since he last appeared on a Los Angeles stage, in 1993 in "Scenes From an Execution" at the Mark Taper Forum. In addition to 1996 Broadway triumphs in both "The Father" and Noel Coward's "Present Laughter," his recent film projects have included "Lolita" and Cirque du Soleil's as-yet-unreleased "Alegria." He was in the process of shooting yet another movie ("I'm Losing You") while in rehearsal at the Geffen.

"The last few years have been pretty hectic," concedes the actor, who divides his time between New York and Los Angeles with his companion Whoopi Goldberg.

Langella is not only an actor; he has also produced such works as Charles Marowitz's "Sherlock's Last Case" on Broadway and Arthur Miller's "After the Fall" off-Broadway, and directed Albert Innaurato's "Passione" on Broadway.

"It really is cyclical," he says. "You'd like to think that there's a grand scheme, but there isn't."

Langella's full dance card is notable, particularly given his professional longevity. "Frank is a real working actor," says Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson, who first cast the actor in the Taper's inaugural production, "The Devils," in 1967. "He takes it all very seriously, and he's grown and matured in really wonderful ways."

Moreover, Langella has stayed with the theater despite having worked in film and television since the early 1970s. "It seems to be something that comes naturally to me," says the New Jersey native, who made his Broadway debut in Edward Albee's "Seascape" in 1975. "There seems to be some life energy or force that happens to me when I'm on a stage."

Those who've seen him in "The Father," which was first staged at the Roundabout Theatre in Manhattan in 1996, agree. Writing in the New York Times, Vincent Canby noted the actor's "complete command over one of the most difficult and complex assignments in the modern theater" and called it "a career triumph."

Geffen Playhouse producing director Gil Cates, who also gave Langella his first screen test in 1969, says "I went to see 'The Father' because I'd heard his performance was so splendid, not because I had the intention of bringing it to the Geffen."

"What impressed me about the show was that I rarely have seen a classic made so accessible to a contemporary audience. I've seen 'The Father' six or seven times, and I always felt it was rather remote. But [here] I understood the Captain's pain. [Langella's] performance is truly monumental."

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