Ian McSHANE, who plays saloon owner Al Swearengen in the HBO series "Deadwood," is the sort of actor who's been in a great many movies, some of which he frankly hasn't seen. Like "Agent Cody Banks," the kid-caper movie starring Frankie Muniz that came out last year.
"Why would I see it?" McShane said the other day. He wasn't being arch, just matter-of-fact. The director, McShane said, was lovely. "I know I was fine in it, playing this sort of mad brinkman. Frankie I found enormously funny. All he talked about was his cars, you know. 'I got an Escaladian.' I said, 'What the ... is that?' He said, 'It's this big Cadillac.' I said, 'What do you need that for?' "
On "Deadwood," McShane inhabits Swearengen's barbarous nature so fully that it can be strange to have a conversation with the actor, who turns out to be a witty, rakish fellow who's played it all in his career, from Benjamin Disraeli on "Masterpiece Theatre" to Ava Gardner's lover, in the only movie Roddy McDowall directed, the 1970 horror film "Tam Lin."
As in Swearengen, there is dark humor in McShane. He will tell you that some of the things he's done have been awful, but also that there was this check at the end. "Sexy Beast," the independent film that came out three years ago, now that was a nice surprise. He came on screen in the last half-hour; he was the steely mobster Teddy Bass. He shot a banker in the head and then dropped the main character off at the airport.
"Everybody in the business loved that movie," McShane said. "Suddenly you're getting calls from a different area."
He then did "The Witches of Eastwick," a blockbuster musical, in London's West End. He was the devil. The show was not entirely well-received, and McShane left after nine months.
"Taught me a lot," he said. "Taught me never to do a musical again."
Now he is taking a break from working, because on "Deadwood," which airs Sunday nights at 10, after "The Sopranos," he has found not only a part worth savoring but one that might finally raise his profile, at age 61, here in the States. The lion not yet in winter.
In his native England, McShane has experienced TV stardom -- on "Lovejoy," which came on the air in 1986 and then again from 1991- to '94, with McShane starring as an antiques dealer-rogue. By then, his CV was already somewhat exhaustive. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Lots of London theater. Played Hal in Joe Orton's "Loot" in 1965, touring for six weeks in England, Orton in the rafters during rehearsals rewriting.
Asked if he watched Bravo's "Inside the Actors Studio," McShane made a face.
"For five years, I just lived wherever," he said. He was talking about a period in the 1980s. Over the years there have been three marriages, two children -- and now, nearly two decades of sobriety.
"I kept a car here, with the suitcase in the back," he continued. "And I'd just come back here and check into one of those motels on Hollywood Boulevard, and I'd do the film, I'd do the job, and I'd leave." By the mid-'90s he and his wife had a place in West Hollywood, in the same building as Gray Davis, who was state controller then. Their relationship entailed salutations in the lobby. It was Gray Davis, controller, after all. " 'Good morning, Gray,' " McShane said, imitating a bright British tone. " 'Morning, Gray.' "
There are, then, two McShanes: The accomplished workhorse of stage and screen and the McShane who is a revelation to American audiences as a kind of Tony Soprano of the Old West.
Swearengen, based on an actual person, runs the Gem Saloon, which is full service for the gold rush era. He peddles prostitutes, booze, drugs, gambling. Canned peaches, if Swearengen's in a bountiful mood, which isn't that often. Much of what McShane gives the character is seen in the way Swearengen comports himself; in the morning, he climbs out of the bed he shares with the prostitute-girlfriend he both loves and abuses and begins barking complaints at her as he urinates into a bedside pan, pulling his suspenders over his thermals. The rest of the day and night is spent trying to control his little fiefdom -- the Gem, but also the ungoverned camp of Deadwood in South Dakota, Swearengen its de facto mob boss.
The show's comprehensive profanities, by now a calling card, are often best expressed via Swearengen's rants. It's a character that began as grotesque but who McShane and David Milch, creator of "Deadwood," have humanized over the course of the first season, which concludes June 13.
"He's a modern man," Milch said of Swearengen. "But what motivates his energy is seeing himself as a primitive."
McShane can talk about Swearengen, and what a gift from the gods "Deadwood" is for an actor, and how wonderful it is to do work you want to see. But it's the other McShane, the traveled one, who inevitably reappears, telling stories the way actors used to on talk shows, back when Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett had shows and actors were people. You know, alcoholics.