Reporting from New York — — The character Patrick Stewart plays with impish charm on Broadway this fall is, he insists, very familiar: a stage actor who begins to realize, after years of toil in small theaters, that he's never going to make it into the big time.
"I've known actors like this, actors who are sad because the breaks never came," Stewart said, sipping a cup of strong tea just steps from the stage door of the Schoenfeld Theatre. "But all of us as actors think: Are we gonna be found out this week? Or will we hang on for another year?"
Yes, well, let's just say that this particular 70-year-old Englishman needs to call on his powers of observation and imagination — rather than personal experience — to find the sweetly tragic character of Robert in David Mamet's 1977 comedy, "A Life in the Theatre," which made its Broadway debut Tuesday.
Stewart himself has been a good deal more fortunate, earning international fame among devotees of classical theater — but also among fans of science fiction, comic book heroes, animated sitcoms and video games. His impossibly smooth, domed head, chiseled features and plummy voice make him instantly recognizable in the regal, authoritative roles he so often plays.
"Patrick has a very specific commanding voice and an enormous amount of charisma," said director Bryan Singer, who cast him as Charles Xavier, the mutant professor with telepathic powers in the "X-Men" series. "And, frankly, there are maybe two actors living at any given time who can carry that charisma with no hair."
Arriving at a restaurant two hours before curtain, his glorious head hidden by a dark driving cap, Stewart sought out a secluded booth and sat with his back to the room, all but invisible to the swelling pre-theater crowd. Only then did the cap come off.
"I must apologize for being late," he said, explaining that a young man had intercepted him on 45th Street to ask for advice "for someone starting out in life." Stewart politely managed some — "In the long run, being civil is to everybody's advantage" — before hastily moving on.
A Broadway comedy is one of the few things Stewart hasn't done in a career that began in regional theater in England half a century ago and led, at the age of 25, to membership in the Royal Shakespeare Company.
"I tend to play murderous, hysterical neurotics," he said, smiling. "I can't think why...."
But he's enjoying the change of pace. "It's really satisfying to hear an audience having a good time, especially these days," he said.
Stewart's repertoire has included Claudius and King Lear, Scrooge and Captain Ahab. He presided over the bridge as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" for seven TV seasons and four feature films. He starred as Professor X in four "X-Men" films. And his rich, harmonious voice has underwritten an assortment of characters on "The Simpsons," "Family Guy" and nearly a dozen Star Trek and X-Men video games.
As he listened to a recitation of his wide-ranging credits, Stewart smiled and put up a hand to interrupt.
"' American Dad!'" he said, laughing. "Let's not forget 'American Dad!' Ha. Ha. Ha."
The role of Deputy CIA Director Avery Bullock in "American Dad!" is one of his favorites. When Seth MacFarlane called him with the offer, Stewart recalled, "I thought: 'What an invitation! To have a recurring role in such a brilliant piece of television.'"
All of which makes one wonder: Does Sir Patrick, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in June, maybe have a little trouble saying no?
"I've been fantastically fortunate," he said. "And I see these roles as a challenge, not a threat. I enjoy risk-taking. Years and years ago, an agent gave me a tip: When you're reading new material, if you feel your blood run quicker, then you should probably do it."
Those multifarious roles have introduced him to many different audiences — sometimes on the same evening.
During previews for "A Life in the Theatre" earlier this month, a film adaptation of "Macbeth," with the 2008 Broadway cast and Stewart in his Tony-nominated leading role, was airing on PBS in the "Great Performances" series.
Stewart fell in love with Mamet's play when he headlined the 2005 West End production. London critics were mixed on the play but praised his performance — "at once so needy and so unsentimental," one said. As the Observer put it: "There's something disconcerting about watching Patrick Stewart play a second-rate actor but no mistaking his enjoyment in doing so."
He wrote Mamet and asked to reprise the role if the play ever moved to Broadway. "My very existence depends on writers, and to have David Mamet here for the first few days of rehearsal was as satisfying as it could possibly be," Stewart said.