Enter the King, With New Rules

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."

He says he fell prey to a syndrome he recognized in his colleague Jack Lemmon, whom he adored (and who also got choicer film parts). "Every time he finished a project, he'd be on the phone to his agent saying, 'I'm available!' " Keach says. "He was absolutely convinced he would never work again and I suffered from that for many, many years. I don't anymore, but I did. If I didn't know what my next job was I'd be in a state of panic, and generally speaking bad decisions are made when you get into that state."

A California film festival recently chose to honor Keach and as a joke, showed a clip from his 1978 jungle stinker, "The Mountain of the Cannibal God," in which he played an evil archaeologist -- who knew they weren't all nice? -- opposite film siren Ursula Andress. On location in Sri Lanka, the movie was pleasant enough to make, though he knew it wasn't "Casablanca": "I've always justified [being in a clunker] by saying, 'I'm a classical actor, I do theater and I don't get paid a lot of money when I do it.' So I've given myself the license to do this junk."

It's a measure of his range and endurance that he's managed to propel his career on several fronts into his late 60s. "Frost/Nixon" kept him on the road for months, away from his family; he and his Polish-born wife, Malgosia, have raised two children outside Warsaw. Their son, Shannon, is a student at Southern Cal and daughter Karolina is a high school senior in Poland, bound this fall for another college in California, where the Keaches also have a home.

Now, he's immersed in "Lear," and finding that being three years older and having had a bracing brush with mortality are affecting his view of the play and the proud king who loses everything -- his kingdom, his family, his sanity -- after he issues a bizarre demand for a display of fealty from his daughters. Falls gives the production a specific time and geography: It's the 1990s, amid the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia. "I feel very strongly that this is our world," the director says, "and we don't have to stray too far to look at the follies of pride and arrogance that lead us into a devastating war."

Just before rehearsals began, Falls and Keach had dinner and talked about his health. "I think what it has done is given Stacy's performance an increased depth and poignancy," Falls says. "He has these moments on stage where it's, 'Be still my heart.' "

Keach sees, too, "a greater reality" in the character's infirmities. "In rehearsal, I'm feeling that the anger's deeper, the hurt is deeper, the pain is deeper," he says. "Also, having had some physical problems of late, that informs a lot of things, because Lear particularly in the first act is 'Oh, my heart!': He is constantly referring to his physical condition."

And of course, Lear's psychic disintegration is inexorably linked. "One thing I've become clearer about is that when he awakens in this world of madness, when he's on the heath, his exultation -- it's almost sexual," the actor says. "It's like the storm is awakening the madness and it's a relief, the great relief that he doesn't have to deal with reality."

It seems almost a perversely demanding leap, to jump from Nixon's frame of mind to Lear's. "I think Lear informed my performance as Nixon maybe more than the other way around," Keach says. Shakespeare's is simply the bigger character, he adds: "I mean Lear is up here."

So from now until the end of July, Keach will be spending his nights and matinees up here, with Lear. And thereafter? He hasn't a clue. Oh, a trip to the homestead outside Warsaw, for sure. A holiday from cues and curtain calls. "And then," he explains, "I'm back on the streets, looking for work."

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