Remak Ramsay, the actor, says he has no particular desire to be a household name. For the moment he seems to have fulfilled his goal.
"A household name?" he exclaimed, letting the phrase fall to the floor and lie there. "No, I think I would rather have the respect of my peers. Yes, and of course I like good reviews. But I'm just not charismatic enough to have mobs of fans chasing me down the halls, shooting off flashbulbs and demanding autographs."
Surely this will change.
"I don't think so," Ramsay said apologetically.
A 6-foot 3-inch theatrical exception, Remak Ramsay has the lead in "The Winslow Boy," a story of family crisis in post-Edwardian England, which opened last night at the Kennedy Center. In brush mustache, cropped hair and lanky aplomb, he looks every inch an Englishman schooled in the subtleties of Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham -- and sounds it, in the varnished rhythm of his club-member voice.
Alas, impression is again dead wrong.
"I was born in Baltimore, and then we lived in Philadelphia for a while," Ramsay explained patiently. "I don't even have a deep voice. As it happens, I just woke up."
It is his bearing then, taut as a tennis net. For Ramsay concedes that others have been fooled.
"When I was doing 'Private Lives' with Maggie Smith, John Gielgud came to see me. He's a dear man, very dear, but a bit vague. Quite vague, really. He said to me, 'You have a very convincing American accent.'
"I said, 'Well, I am American, of course.'
"Gielgud said, 'Oh, surely not.'"
Like many non-household words in the theater community, Remak Ramsay looks familiar, the result perhaps of Somerset Maugham's "Home and Beauty" at the Kennedy Center, or of Tom Stoppard's "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour," in which he played the psychiatrist during both runs at the Center. He has had many roles on Broadway. His films include "Simon," "The Stepford Wives," "The Great Gatsby" and "The Front," and it does not astound him not to be immediately remembered in any.
He is an actor who will look you in the eye and say, "The theater is getting to be more like show business every day," and then politely wait for you to realize he isn't kidding. While waiting, he rests his temple against the first and second fingers of his right hand. The show business reference has nothing to do with the fact that his dressing room is painted lavender, because it was dwelt in by Elizabeth Taylor until "The Little Foxes" departed over the weekend. No, he is referring to the tearing down of New York's grand dramatic theaters, and the resurgent popularity of musicals, and the passing-on of traditional acting.
More anon, but first, Remak. "Oh, yes, Remark, Remmick, Remake, I get them all," he said. "I often envied my brother, whose name is John. Actually, Remak -- the accent on the second syllable -- is my middle name." One braces, as always, in preparation for the Christian name scorned in favor of this middle. "It's Gustavus," Ramsay said.
He lives in New York and feels at home in Washington D.C., and not at home in Los Angeles.
"I can't go back there anymore," he said. "I make the most awful mistakes, as I did with Barbara Bain. I was at a party in Hollywood, and someone brought me to her and said, 'Do you know Barbara Bain?' And I shook hands and said, 'Noooo, I don't think so . . .' This was a mistake in Hollywood, and an insult. All those years on 'Mission Impossible' and I didn't know who she was. But in my own defense, she might no know who Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne are.
In a grand and unusual way (at least compared to fidgety off-screen movie stars and their tales of agent-betrayal and bad luck), Ramsay holds himself apart.
"No, I'm not directing myself toward stardom. I'm directing myself towards life. My career doesn't come first anymore, and I think that's how it should be. I've had series offers from L.A., and although I never took any I used to anguish over them. Maybe I could make the cover of TV Guide and become a household word, then call my own tune in New York the way Richard Thomas can with 'The Fifth of July.'
"But then I looked at the successes. Jim Nabors. Can you imagine him in a serious role? And I thought about what Richard Chamberlain had to do to break out of the Dr. Kildare role."
Actors used to talk like that -- about the importance of being an actor, having technique, being up to a variety of roles -- all the time. It is not so popular anymore. To see why, one has only to imagine Remak Ramsay on the Carson show seated between the left bicep of Robert Blake ("I tell you John, I got nuttin' but trouble . . .") and the right strapless shoulder of Angie Dickinson (Ad lib 10 sec: Angie reacts to Johnny) to realize that he would be a uncomfortable as a Louis XV side chair.
"It isn't being an actor that's stopped me from doing the talk shows," Ramsay said. "What has stopped me is not being a famous enough actor."
There have of course been disappointments. He was considered for the role of the father in "Ragtime," a forthcoming film of the novel by E.L. Doctorow. "Milos Forman kept reading me for the part. I was one of the first, and they kept calling me back. It's a very good role. They read me and read me, and then Jimmy Olsen got the part. He'll be very good, but I did feel I had been diddled around with some."
On his hand Ramsay wears a gold ring bearing the Ramsay crest, which contains among its other Scots-Presbyterian burden the motto "Ora et Labora" ("pray and work"). He went to Princeton and majored in architecture. He father is an investment counselor. None of this is good talk show material. But it doesn't hurt an actor any.
"I guess I am known for playing upper-crust Englishmen," he said. "What I'd like to do next is something different, perhaps a gas station attendant who talks in the "awful Baltimore accent" of his home city. Asked to say something in Baltimore, he replied:
"Aouh gross, I've got Carvel all over my pants."
This phrase, he submits, is the "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain" of Maryland. It comes out sounding nasal and umlauted and redolent of beer and spicy crabs.
No such part has been offered him yet. It is just something he would like to do. He would also like to play other roles but can see why he perhaps may not.
"Richard III, I would like to do. But of course he is usually short and a humpback, and I am tall. Cyrano? Well, there's a physical limitation there, too. I would like to do Othello, but I don't have a big burly look. And I don't have the pure physical size you expect in a King Lear."
This is curious chat for a lavender dressing room, but then Ramsay did not pick the color. Only the role, that of a stentorian barrister who seems at first a cold fish but later on is revealed to be something else.
"The Winslow Boy" is old-fashioned, yes, but in the best way -- it relies on characters, and it's not pat, and at the end all kinds of strands and skeins are drawn together. The Winslows are a family you really can root for and care about. It may sound corny and sentimental, but it's only sappy treacle if it isn't done right.
His opinion of many modern plays is that they are polemical. "They make people feel guilty, and their real purpose is to get the fear and anger and rage off the playwright's chest. 'The Winslow Boy' is about something else: It's about enormous sacrifices being made for principle. I believe in that. What's missing nowadays is the feeling that 'if I cheat, I diminish myself,' and I think that feeling is in us all and can be tapped."
Ora et Labora, and the devil with household words.
Ramsay won't tell his age.
"It would be ungallant. I have a twin sister."