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`Christmas Carols' past don't haunt this Ebenezer Scrooge

Dana Parsons | ORANGE COUNTY

December 16, 2006|Dana Parsons | Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

"Ebenezer?"

I thought I was being clever, but Hal Landon Jr.'s muted reaction suggested he probably had heard it a time or two. This is, after all, his 27th year playing Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" at South Coast Repertory.

Besides, it was only 90 minutes before Thursday night's performance, and surely the guy must be nervous. Every performer gets the butterflies, don't they? This is no time for me to be cracking wise.

\o7In fact, what's he even doing granting an interview this close to show time\f7?

"Well, they made me do it," Landon says. Then comes the beat, then the grin.

And we're off and running.

I like talking to legends, whether the word comes with a big "L" or a little one. Landon's tagline probably comes with a little one, but when you've done the Dickens play for 27 years, eight shows a week for roughly four weeks, and people stop you in public and tell you three generations of their family have seen it and then tell you that their Christmas season officially starts with your performance, well ... you're a legend in my book.

Landon, 65, enjoys that appreciation but says it wouldn't suit him nearly as well if it were all he were known for. "The fact that a good deal of people who see 'Christmas Carol' also come to see other plays we do, they know I can do something else other than Ebenezer Scrooge."

You want to talk range? He jokes about the generation of guys now in their 30s or 40s who have never been near South Coast Rep but know they've seen him somewhere. He'll ask if they perchance remember a flick called "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" that came out in 1989. Predictably, their faces light up as they recall the mini-classic and realize they're in the presence of Capt. Logan, the father of Ted "Theodore" Logan and who had a problem with some missing keys.

But this is the Christmas season, and Landon is Scrooge again. "It's a terrific role," he says as we talk in a meeting room in the theater building. "Big, wide, full emotional range and a great character to play. Kind of an actor's dream, really."

But year in and year out? "There are nights when it feels like I've been doing it for 27 years straight," he says. "I do have to reinvent things and find new approaches. Ideally, as an actor, you try never to anticipate and you're letting it be different every night. That's not such an easy thing to do, so I've really had to learn to do that in this play or it would become very stagnant."

Landon, married and the father of two grown daughters, has a Scrooge-y look to him, at first blush. Thin and bald, he could play gaunt. But he's one of those guys who the more you talk to him, the younger he gets. The voice is quite mellow and rich, the thinness morphs into athleticism, the wit is dry, and his speech skews much more young than old.

Not surprisingly, the work of Father Time doesn't please this thespian who was good enough to try out for the University of Arizona's basketball team and still shoots hoops from time to time and who has set his sights on breaking 80 on the golf course. And who works out regularly, in part so he doesn't look like a 65-year-old.

"The worst part of it," he says, "is if I go in on an audition sometimes. You're reading against guys in your sort-of type. Sometimes, you look at all the other guys and think, 'Why did my agent send me on this? I'm not nearly old enough for this part.' Then you go into the restroom or something, look in the mirror and it's 'oh, [bleep], yes, I am.' "

Not that he's quitting any time soon. He's one of the founding members of the acclaimed repertory theater and usually takes at least a couple of other roles a year there besides Scrooge. He has plenty of TV and movie credits to his name, but like lots of actors, decided to emphasize local theater over the vagaries of trying to "make it" in Hollywood.

He isn't haunted by what might have been. Nor is he tormented by the actor's constant companion of perpetual insecurity.

"I think I'm a very good actor," he answers when I ask him specifically. "But if somebody says something [negative] to me in rehearsal or I get some feedback, it's pretty easy for me to buy into it, just long enough to feel pretty terrible about it."

Then, he jokes, either rationality or denial kick in and he realizes he knows what he's doing.

Which is not the same as saying that Landon thinks he's got it knocked. "That's one of the great things about acting," he says. "It's a constantly evolving thing. We were talking earlier about the immediacy and lack of anticipation and not predicting an effect. It's such a key thing for an actor. I just realized, doing it this year, how much I've been forced to improve in that area in order to just stay sane in the part. That's been a really valuable discovery for me. It's not a new skill, but I've heightened or improved on that ability."

Landon isn't rushing me, but I'm guessing our time is about up. He says his pre-play preparation begins 45 minutes before the curtain goes up and consists of putting on the costume and the wig, doing brief vocal and physical exercises and then, five minutes before curtain, an "actor" thing that gets him into the world of Ebenezer Scrooge all over again.

He doesn't get nervous before the performances, but I feel like I'm keeping him from his appointed rounds.

But I have to ask him again, because it seems unnatural. \o7Are you sure it won't adversely affect your performance tonight by spending this much time talking to me?

\f7"We'll see," Landon says. Then the beat, then the grin.

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