Stacy Keach Is in D.C. to Play Title Role in 'King Lear' at Shakespeare Theatre

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 2009

The tingling sensation in his right arm began one day in March, before he was to go on yet again as a brooding Richard M. Nixon on the Los Angeles leg of the national tour of "Frost/Nixon." Despite the warning his body was giving him, he did go on. Because that's the stage actor's reflex. And because Stacy Keach is Stacy Keach.

He did call his doctor, who told him to come in, though there was a party for the entire cast on the day of the proposed appointment, a Monday. Now, how could Keach be a no-show for his fellow actors? The party, too, must go on!

"Tuesday morning, I got out of the shower and it felt like somebody had poured liquid nitrogen in my right arm," he recalls. "I had absolutely no control over the motor responses in my arm. So I went to the hospital, they gave me an MRI and said, 'You've had a series of mild strokes.' "

Keach is sitting in the Capitol Hill offices of Shakespeare Theatre Company less than three months later, volunteering the details of his health scare without a trace of self-consciousness. Bearded and robust, the 68-year-old actor says a stent was inserted into his carotid artery that following March weekend, and he was back playing Nixon the next Friday: "And then I finished the tour, and then never looked back."

That he's managed to put the episode behind him -- giving up a lifelong cigarette habit and modifying his diet in the process -- is heartening. Especially because his encore for the heavy lift of "Frost/Nixon" is an even more grueling job, perhaps the weightiest role to which an actor of a certain age can subject himself: the vain, tragic, foolish fond old monarch of "King Lear."

Keach is returning to Lear in a production originally staged three years ago at Chicago's Goodman Theatre that's being remounted in the Shakespeare Theatre's showier downtown space, Sidney Harman Hall. This "Lear" -- set in modern-day Eastern Europe and directed by the Goodman's highly regarded artistic director, Robert Falls (whose Broadway revivals of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "Death of a Salesman" both earned Tonys) -- is the Shakespeare's most highly anticipated offering of the season.

In the immediate aftermath of the strokes, Keach's terror was that he would have to forgo "Lear," that his career, in fact, might have to be put on hold altogether. At that prospect, he explains: "I was just devastated. But the doctor said, 'No, you're going to be fine, but you've got to change your life.' And I did."

So, days after finishing the "Frost/Nixon" tour, this self-diagnosed workaholic arrived in Washington for rehearsals with Falls and much of the original Chicago cast of "Lear," which begins preview performances Tuesday. It's a profoundly gratifying return for Keach, not only because he feels good, or that he is back in a city in which he's had success. What's also of urgent importance to him is that he's getting another crack at Lear. For an actor of Keach's classical experience, one who's had a go at all of the most storied leading-man parts in Shakespeare -- Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth -- it's not about getting it right, exactly. It's about getting it better.

"I sort of refer to him as 'Sir Stacy,' " Falls says of his star, with whom he first worked in Chicago several years ago on "Finishing the Picture," Arthur Miller's last play. "He's a thorough Shakespearean, and he sets such a great work standard. If he were a British actor, he would have been knighted."

Achieving an elite level of proficiency in Elizabethan drama does not earn an actor a spot in the VIP room of American culture. For that you have to break through in movies or on series television or, at the very least, "Jon & Kate Plus 8." Keach's wider renown is attributable in some degree to films but mostly to TV: He was the dad on the short-lived sitcom "Titus"; the warden on the drama series "Prison Break"; and most notably in the mid-1980s, the title character on the Mickey Spillane detective series "Mike Hammer."

While that show helped provide Keach the magnitude of financial sustenance that eludes most stage actors, one has the sense that his work in film and on television never quite measured up to his potential; after all, he was still in his early 30s when impresario Joseph Papp chose him to play Hamlet in Central Park in a production with James Earl Jones as Claudius, Colleen Dewhurst as Gertrude and Sam Waterston as Laertes.

Keach acknowledges that his impatience as a young man may have led him into television prematurely, before a career as a film actor had a chance to fully flower. "I wanted to be Laurence Olivier, basically," he says, "to be a great classical actor, and also be able to do modern things. 'Mike Hammer' -- that was pop art. That allowed me to do Shakespeare."

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