There is a kind of actor who offers himself up as a blank page on which a dramatist's vision is drawn. Roy Dotrice is such an actor, a chameleon who, in his transformations, summons not merely the inventions of fiction, but the ghosts of history.
Currently he is playing Winston Churchill at Ford's Theatre, aided by a four-hour makeup job to pouch his cheeks, whiten his hair and widen his forehead. In the past he has been the 17th-century writer John Aubrey, Abraham Lincoln, George Bernard Shaw, Anton Chekhov and Charles Dickens and his father.
"It's basically because I'm a masochist, I think," Dotrice said last week. "The challenge of doing a one-man show -- and I think the only way to present Churchill is in a one-man show -- is you come forward and say, 'My name is Charles Dickens. I know you don't believe it, but I really am. And I'm going to try to tell you all individually and collectively all about myself.' It's direct, direct communication with the audience."
Dotrice, 57, bears a slight resemblance to Danny Kaye, with a hint of red hair. On this day he is conservatively dressed in a three-piece, pin-stripe suit worthy of Churchill himself, left over, he says, from the opening-night party hosted by the British Embassy the night before. He discusses the play and his own career with the zest of a true storyteller, assuming voices and accents and giving full emphasis to the punch lines.
His fascination with Churchill predates the play, which was written by Samuel Gallu at the behest of Charles Schulz, creator of "Peanuts." Schulz became enamored of the British prime minister after a visit to his "war rooms" in London, a sort of bomb shelter under the government offices in Whitehall.
"I always thought Churchill was a rather blustering, arrogant individual. And he was, I'm afraid, an arrogant, blundering, bulldozing sort of man," Dotrice says. "But the thing that impressed me most of all is the man's humanity. Even humility.
"Here's an example: It didn't matter what part of the world he was in -- it could be Malta, it could be Marrakech -- he gave strict instructions that any cigar stubs he left had to be collected and put in a special box which he always kept around. And there were many cigar stubs, as you can imagine, because he only half-finished his cigars. He was desperately concerned because a gardener at his family estate at Chartwell, a Mr. Kearns, had difficulty getting tobacco for his pipe during the war, and Churchill used to quite ceremoniously but religiously present this box of cigar stubs to Kearns and Kearns would chop them all up and smoke them."
That story is not in the play, nor is another which Dotrice thinks gives some explanation of why Churchill was subject to depressions, which he called his "Black Dog."
"Churchill had a daughter named Marie. She and Clemmie [Churchill's wife Clementine] were down in Cornwall, on holiday. She [Marie] suddenly began to run a high temperature. Clemmie got in touch with him and he left London and came down immediately. A doctor was called in and didn't seem to know what it was; he said, 'Oh, it's just a kind of virus, the child will be all right tomorrow.' That night Churchill had to go back to London for important meetings the following day. And the following day the child died.
"When he got the news, Churchill was heard at the end of the garden, screaming, totally demented: 'Jesus Chriiiist!' He never really got over it, yet it's never mentioned, never ever mentioned. Clemmie became almost paralytic; she was in a wheelchair for a year."
Dotrice began acting while a teen-age prisoner of war during World War II. During his three-year internment in a German camp, he said, the only amusement the prisoners had was to put on plays for themselves, and he started, in true Shakespearean fashion, by playing women (including Portia). After the war he was granted a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but he never went because he got a job at a theater in Manchester, where he stayed for 12 years. He was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company for eight years, and he is proud of having introduced baseball, another legacy of his POW years, to Stratford-on-Avon.
He first became internationally known with "Brief Lives," the play about John Aubrey that won the honor of an entry in the "Guinness Book of World Records" as the longest-running one-man show -- 1,700 performances. He was nominated for a Tony for "A Life" a few seasons ago, and last fall was here in the short-lived "Kingdoms" at the Kennedy Center and on Broadway. This summer he had the dubious honor of being virtually the only praised element in two disastrous productions at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. His film career has never really gotten off the ground, although, he says, he'd love to make the money.
He lives in England, with frequent excursions to ply his trade and to fish, a favorite hobby. His wife is a historian; his three daughters are all actresses. In his own acting, he finds his greatest pleasure in the historical lessons he can teach. He is thrilled, for example, that after a series of performances for students at Penn State, the books on Churchill that had been gathering dust in the college library were all checked out and there was a waiting list.
One Churchill story that did make it into the show Dotrice heard from the RSC doctor in Stratford-on-Avon. The doctor had been a colonel during the war, and was sent with a group to Norway to teach the soldiers there how to use a British Sten gun. They found that the only way to keep the barrel of the gun from freezing and backfiring was to put a condom over the end. A special 22-inch size was ordered from a British firm, which had to get permission for the unusual equipment from Churchill.
"Churchill agreed they could be made on two conditions: first, that they be stamped 'British Made.' And second, that they be stamped 'Medium size.' "