Brian Bedford is one of an increasingly rare breed: a man of the theater. He has not done a television series or many movies or commercials or soap operas, but he has a yard-long resume of stage roles ranging from Ariel to Arnolphe -- his Tony-winning role in "School for Wives" -- to Henry in Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing," now at the National Theatre.

It's not that he is snobbish about doing the other things, he just hasn't spent his time going after them. "I was under contract to Universal once," he says. "And I made a couple of movies. I had an agent for that, and I was told to move to Los Angeles and become a movie actor. But I'm not one to sit around waiting for movies to happen. Even for the really marvelous achievers in films, Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman or Meryl Streep, even they don't work enough for me. It's still a year between movies. I can't do that. I don't want to do that."

Taking over the role Jeremy Irons created on Broadway did not intimidate him, partly because he had done the play in Canada and partly because he thinks his age, 50, is more appropriate for the part of the middle-aged playwright who leaves his wife for a younger woman. "Jeremy was such a matinee idol, it was a bit distracting, really," he says. "The whole point of it is that the younger woman is supposed to be 10 years younger. And then she has an affair with a guy half her age. It's a very poignant thing. Irons and Glenn Close were really contemporaries."

He found his friendship with Stoppard, whom he met when he did "Jumpers" here in 1975, helpful. "It's the life of Tom Stoppard . . . He is one of those rare people who really loves women. Curiously, there's something rather chauvinistic about that, too -- a 'woman is woman and man is man' sort of thing. And at the end of the play she says, 'I've had it, take care of me,' and gleefully he says, 'Don't worry, I'm your chap.' That's a very English thing too, of course -- the idea that the chap looks after the little woman."

Bedford is from a Yorkshire working class background. He went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he fared so well at his graduation exercises that he won two contracts, one with the Liverpool Playhouse and the other with H.M. Tennant, the leading producer of the '50s. He thus got five years' work with basically one audition. One of these jobs, in the Tennant-produced "Five Finger Exercise," led to his coming to the United States at the age of 24, and he's been here more or less ever since.

For eight seasons Bedford has been in the company of the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, where, he says, he first came to think of himself as a classical actor, playing such parts as Malvolio in "Twelfth Night" and Richard II. This summer he's taking a break from the festival, believing he was becoming "a bit of a fixture, and taken a bit for granted . . . I thought it would be good for all of us to be separated for a while."

He also did his first directing there, and indeed his next project is not a part but directing a revival of "Blithe Spirit" slated for Broadway. He's now carrying around a school copybook, making notes for the production.

Bedford owns a 250-acre farm in upstate New York, and is fond of exotic travels -- such as spending Christmas in the Sahara. He had serious back problems for a number of years, which at one point made it impossible for him to sit and required him to travel by lying flat in a station wagon. He is now a student of the Alexander technique of body control, which solved his back problems and improved his vocal power.

And this man of the theater has an ideal to pursue. "I'm hoping what happened to John Gielgud, who is my mentor, will happen to me," he says. "Spend your life doing the best parts and directing and having a wonderful time in the theater, and then at about 70 become a movie star, and make tons of money. That would be perfect."