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Getting hooked on pantomime

Paul Michael Glaser and Henry Winkler star as the villain in British 'Peter Pan' productions.

December 17, 2007|Paul Majendie | Reuters

WOKING, England -- Starsky and the Fonz are having the time of their lives being hissed and booed every night by hundreds of screaming children.

The Hollywood stars of 1970s TV series are reveling in their roles for pantomime, a rumbustious British theatrical tradition.

In the run-up to Christmas every year, theaters across Britain are packed with kids, often enjoying classic fairy tales given slapstick treatment.

Pantomime is all about joining in. Everyone shouts "Look out behind you!" as the villain creeps up on the hero, ancient jokes are recycled, singalongs are compulsory.

Paul Michael Glaser, who played detective Dave Starsky in the 1970s hit drama "Starsky and Hutch," and Henry Winkler, the leather-coated Fonz from sitcom "Happy Days," have both abandoned sunny California for chilly provincial England to play Captain Hook in two different "Peter Pan" productions.

"I like to play silly, and Captain Hook is such a wonderful baddie, isn't he?" Glaser said.

"It's great that Britain has this tradition of pantomime. It's great that audience participation -- which is at least as old as Shakespeare -- still continues here today."

In sharp contrast to life behind the camera, Winkler said: "Here, there is an audience of nearly 2,000 all screaming and yelling. The Americans don't understand the phenomenal give and take, the phenomenal interaction."

Winkler is strutting his stuff in the genteel southern English town of Woking while Glaser is over-acting on the other side of London in suburban Bromley. They tread the boards twice a day, six times a week.

Asked what the secret was to playing pantomime, Winkler said, "There are three secrets: One is stay healthy, two is stay healthy and three is have the most fun you can possibly have with your clothes on."

For Glaser, playing Hook at Bromley's Churchill Theatre is a chance to go back to his roots.

"Coming from a theater background, I think the energy of it all is a blast," he said. "It's a completely different craft to acting in front of a camera."

And Winkler loves the nightly battle to get his lines out amid all the booing: "The interactiveness of live theater is more potent than the best malt scotch."

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