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After 'Producers' fell through, he finds solace in Moliere

January 03, 2003|Justin Glanville | Associated Press

NEW YORK — In his native England, Henry Goodman is known for the sheer breadth of his theatrical roles: everything from Billy Flynn in "Chicago" to Shylock in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."

To American audiences, though, he's more famous for the role he didn't play -- at least not for very long.

In April, Goodman was abruptly dismissed from "The Producers" -- only four weeks after taking over for Nathan Lane in the lead role of Max Bialystock. The part eventually went to Lane's former understudy, Brad Oscar.

Gossip columns were immediately alight with musings about the highest-profile Broadway firing in recent memory. Why had Goodman been let go? Not funny enough, some whispered. Too sinister to fit the show's zany ethos.

Some even foresaw the end of Goodman's budding Broadway career.

But eight months later, he's back -- bruised by his experience but with a renewed sense of artistic purpose -- heading the cast of the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Moliere's "Tartuffe."

These days, he says, he's seeking out roles that bring great personal satisfaction, even if they don't hold the same promise of celebrity that "The Producers" did.

"I'm not here to prove something by doing 'Tartuffe,' " Goodman says, seated cross-armed on a couch at the Roundabout's 42nd Street theater, where the play will open Thursday. "It's quite understandable for people to think that I am, but I'm not.

"If I'm here to prove anything at all, it's to myself. Since I left New York in April I've had huge debate and depression and question marks and self-doubt about what happened. But I wanted to come back here to have a wholesome experience."

" 'The Producers' never came up, to be honest, in terms of our rehearsals," says "Tartuffe" director Joe Dowling. "It certainly was very much in Henry's mind, but in terms of how the work was done, it wasn't an issue."

Goodman, 52, hasn't been in the position of having to demonstrate his worth as an actor for some time. He's already won two Laurence Olivier Awards (the British equivalent of the Tony) for lead actor -- one for a musical (Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins") and one for "The Merchant of Venice." He's been acting steadily in London for more than 20 years, both as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and in numerous productions on the West End and at the prestigious National Theatre.

In New York, though, the dark-haired, mustachioed actor is still fighting to forge a name for himself. Before "The Producers," he had appeared on Broadway only once, as a replacement in Yasmina Reza's "Art."

Watching him on stage as the treacherous title character in "Tartuffe," it's easy to see why Goodman would have been tapped to play Bialystock. His face twists athletically from one expression to another -- a wide sneer one moment, a grossly insincere grin the next. It's exactly the kind of two-sided nature that Bialystock displays in "The Producers."

And Goodman doesn't shy from playing the fool. As Tartuffe, he makes several bug-eyed (and ultimately humiliating) attempts to seduce the lady of the house. "The Producers," of course, is rife with ludicrous sexual situations.

So what happened in April?

Goodman says the show's producers began to panic when ticket sales cooled after Lane and co-star Matthew Broderick left the show in March. Goodman says he was made the scapegoat.

In addition, Goodman says, there was constant tension between old and new during his tenure in the show. He wanted to make the role of Bialystock his own but felt the show's producers wanted to him to imitate Lane.

Their mantra, he says, boiled down to: " 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' But as a creative actor, you naturally want to try things."

Goodman says he may have conceded the point a few too many times, so that his performance landed uncomfortably between his own vision and Lane's.

Looking back, Goodman says, his own overconfidence was also a problem. Thinking he could blast into the biggest hit on Broadway and put a new spin on it was unrealistic, he now realizes.

"The arrogance or self-delusion that I am guilty of is thinking I could work organically within the tension" of recasting the show without Lane. "That came from a confidence built on 30 years of work."

Goodman seems to relax as he elaborates on the fiasco -- as if, once articulated, the memories aren't quite so burdensome. He settles farther back into his seat as the conversation turns to his early career, which began on the streets of London's East End when he was 10.

He spent his weekend days at the Petticoat Market, near where he lived, hawking watches for spending money. The market served as a kind of acting school, he says.

"It was thrilling to work an audience, to persuade them that they wanted to buy this watch," he remembers. "You had to have a hammer and gather people around and do a show -- you had to perform."

He went for more formal training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, then moved with his wife to South Africa. He spent his 20s appearing in regional productions there and eventually became artistic director of playwright Athol Fugard's Space Theater.

After 10 years, the couple -- with a newborn son in tow -- moved to London.

"I was desperate to go home and do Shakespeare, to be honest," he says. "That was a mountain I had to climb over."

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