Enter, singing, the Pirate King:
Oh better far to be like me, and do a Broadway show or three,
And win a Tony award or two, and make the movie version too.
In "Sophie's Choice" I was obscene,
And now that "Pirates" is on the screen,
I'll probably make a film of "Nine"
'Cause I'm the wondrous Kevin Kline.
From "Forbidden Broadway, (c) 1983 Gerard Alessandrini, to the tune of "I Am a Pirate King"
THE WONDROUS Kevin Kline sat in a hotel chair, looking more uncomfortable than glorious. The sleek and dashing handsomeness he evokes on stage and screen has somehow disappeared, replaced by a soft-spoken Jewish-Catholic boy of 35, who has such a gift that people even remember his auditions 10 years later.
After a decade of theater credits, which gets you respect but no complimentary champagne in the hotel suite, he has suddenly become "hot," newly visible as the extravagantly theatrical Pirate King in the movie of "The Pirates of Penzance," and as the darkly handsome lover of "Sophie's Choice."
At this point, when he can still go to a restaurant or a ball game without being recognized and people still confuse him with Calvin Klein, he regards his growing renown with a mixture of delight and anxiety.
"I want to have my cake and eat it too," he said. "I want to be famous enough that I have a shot at the best scripts, on the stage and on film. Unfortunately, the price you have to pay for that is a certain degree of pain."
There are those who predict he will be the finest actor in America. It is a prediction not made lightly. It is not made by the new fans, like the high school girls in the balcony at a recent benefit screening of "Pirates," who applauded tentatively when his name flashed on the screen before the film and screamed when it came on at the end. Or by the directors and producers who are deluging him with scripts and beckoning from the golden avenues of Hollywood.
They are the ones who are going to have a hard time with Kevin Kline because he doesn't want to be what they want him to be. He is one of the new breed of serious actors -- like Meryl Streep, who plays opposite him in "Sophie's Choice," or William Hurt, costar of "The Big Chill," Kline's latest movie -- who want the glory but not the fame and who are trying to bargain with the system, to get the great parts without playing the part of movie stars. It's not just the crassness of the hype machine, which they find has little to do with the craft of acting, but sheer practicality as well. "When you lose your anonymity," he said, "you lose a valuable tool for an actor -- to be able to observe without people acting funny."
"I saw him at Juilliard in 'A School for Scandal,'" recalled Alan Schneider, who directed him in the play "Loose Ends." "I remember going to see him afterwards and saying, 'Kevin, you can do anything.' It's very hard to find a young leading man in the American theater -- the last one was Chris Plummer. He can be the finest actor in the American theater." Schneider would like to direct Kline in "Hamlet."
"He's a man that has just begun," said "Sophie's Choice" director Alan Pakula. "As the saying goes, 'you ain't seen nothin' yet.'" Pakula already has another film project in mind for Kline.
Kline calls forth such superlatives because he combines the best technique, learned at Juilliard and refined over four years of touring in repertory with The Acting Co., with emotional depth and wit -- not to mention good looks and what Pakula called "wonderful old fashioned glamor." Directors love him because he is willing to take risks and because he surprises them. "A lot of actors hate me because I make such demands on them," said Schneider. "Kevin made demands on me."
And he is known for intense, unrelenting hard work. "Kevin is totally reliable," said actor Stephen Hanan, who played with him on Broadway in "Pirates" for a year. "I remember times when he was terribly sick... He'd be vomiting in the wings and then go out and perform at top energy, then come back off and vomit again. And the audience never knew he was sick."
"One thing I like about him is that he's not afraid to make fun of his own persona in public," said Pakula. "He's one of the few cases of actor's narcissism who brings out affectionate feelings, and that's because whatever extravagant thing he's doing, he never takes space away from anyone else. Whenever I need good laugh, I can call him up and even if he's not there, I can listen to the message on his answering machine, and it will cheer me up."
POOR Kevin Kline. He likes the attention, but he doesn't want to appear immodest. He doesn't believe that actors should talk about themselves, but he feels he has to in order to help sell his products.
"Yeah, I suppose like a year from now, if 'Sophie's' continues to do as well as it's doing, and if 'Pirates' takes off, and if 'Big Chill' comes out, it's possible that, uh, I doubt if it will affect me anymore," he says, his voice so low it can barely be heard. "But if one becomes more nationally known, one's name and one's face, or whatever... but so far, I walk around New York or wherever, and people tend not to recognize me that much. I'm blessed with not looking like myself."
What he does look like is what he claims, half-jokingly, to be -- a regular guy. Dressed in corduroys and a blue flannel shirt, he has tousled curly black hair, flecked with gray, and a face that is the proverbial blank page, one that can be transformed at will into men of other times, other backgrounds.
Actors should "shut up," he says, not because they are stupid, but to preserve the integrity of their performances. "I hate talking about acting because it is something very personal," he said during a visit to Washington for a New Playwrights' Theatre benefit. "When I read about an actor's research for a part I end up seeing the movie or play and seeing the research... I don't want people going to 'Sophie's Choice' and saying, well yes, there's a little Catholicism here, and I see he's not really Jewish. It's not my function to say my really personal, deep down feelings about a part. If I collected stamps, I wouldn't want people to know that ... It should be magical. It should be mysterious."
He can say this with some credibility because of his classical training, which defines the actor's craft as the creation of a new character rather than as simply an extension or expression of one's own personality. This is the direct opposite of the actor who is as much a performer of his own personality as he is craftsman.
Schneider compares him to the young Laurence Olivier, not just because of his looks. "I think Kevin models himself after Olivier," he said. "He works out every day, just like Olivier." The workouts are in aid of the sometimes violent athleticism both actors are known -- and sometimes criticized -- for.
When I begin to learn a part, I use the method form of art.
I spit a little more, 'tis true, than a Juilliard actor ought to do.
But many an actor has been bought and many a script is poorly wrought
And the only way to make it through is to ham it up as nightly I do.
From "Forbidden Broadway" Kline's leaps, falls, jumps, rope swings and other shenanigans in "Pirates" have almost become a trademark. (Once on Broadway he executed his final backward fall off the ship in "Pirates" at the end of the first act to find that stagehands had forgotten to set the mattresses for him to land on. Hanan recalls the occasion as one of the few times Kline displayed temper.)
"Believe it or not, I first thought of casting Kevin as Nathan after seeing him in 'Pirates,'" said Pakula. The two characters -- a fairy tale pirate in an operetta and an ominous Jewish charmer from 1947 Brooklyn -- are vastly different, but Pakula knew what he wanted. "Nathan must be captivating, have great joie de vivre, " he said. "Otherwise he would be just another screen neurotic."
Pakula also liked something else about Kline -- his middle-class background. Kline was raised in St. Louis, the son of a toy- and record-store owner. He was raised a Catholic, making him, as Pakula put it, "more Kevin than Kline."
"My middle name is Delaney, and where I grew up it never occurred to me [that his name might be considered an odd amalgam]. It was only when I started acting that people said your name is a bizarre hybrid... I was baptized and confirmed. My father was not really Jewish. He'd never been in a temple. He knew few Yiddish words. He'd drive us to church occasionally; sometimes he'd even come. He was basically an agnostic."
Which is not to say that Kline's background meant nothing as he explored the world inhabited by Nathan. "Nathan is not written as a Jewish character. But I did get more in touch with the fact that if I had been in Poland [during the Nazi occupation] and my father was Jewish and my mother Catholic I'd have gone to a concentration camp.
"So you take that as a basic kick-off point in terms of how I related to that character. I think the Jews living in Brooklyn after the war -- some people didn't care at all, some felt a conscious or a busconscious guilt when they found out what had been going on in Europe. Nathan has it, too -- that not only was he not there, but it's one thing to be horrified and shocked that they allowed themselves to be exterminated so relatively willingly, but [the people like Nathan] felt 'I wasn't even given the choice; I don't even know what I would have done.' And that feeling of impotence and guilt -- he becomes obsessed by it."
Kline spent grades six through 12 in a private school run by Benedictine monks who believed in corporal punishment. "They got me once on the hands, but I never got it bent over a chair. It was very exciting though, like the more repressed you are the more exciting it is to break the rules. We all got terrible reputations among the Sacred Heart girls.
"If you were caught smoking on campus you were either expelled immediately or given six stripes -- six lashes of the cane. And I smoked every day after lunch from my sophomore year to my senior year. And they knew it, but they could never catch us. We could see them coming."
He was a music major at Indiana University (that really is him playing a Beethoven sonata as Nathan in the movie) until he discovered acting. He went on to Juilliard, where, Schneider recalled, he was considered one of the best but not the "main guy" in the class -- that honor fell to David Ogden Stiers, who has been playing Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III in the late television show "M*A*S*H."
After four years in The Acting Co., he went back to New York and before too long had a part in a Broadway musical, "On the Twentieth Century," for which he won a Tony. His next play was Michael Weller's "Loose Ends" (a production that started here at Arena Stage), in which he played a young man of the '60s whose marriage is breaking up in the '70s. Then came "Pirates," for which he won his second Tony.
Although each of those three shows turned out to be a hit, Kline maintains he chose them because each offered a particular challenge in a "work of quality."
"I had no idea that 'Loose Ends' would be taken to New York and become a hit," he said. "The same way with "Pirates.' I thought it would just be six weeks in the park. I didn't even particularly want to do it. I'd never done Gilbert and Sullivan. I'd never even liked Gilbert and Sullivan. They were going to do 'Loose Ends' in Los Angeles, but at the last minute they put it off... I rode a friend's bicycle through Central Park to go to my agent's office, and it was May and just in full bloom, and I thought, hey, the park is great. I guess I really decided on that bike that if 'Loose Ends' fell through, I'd do 'Pirates' in the park.
"But I can't say it was a brilliant, well-considered thing. These decisions are made sometimes almost capriciously, but it's the caprice of a gut feeling. If you read a script that has terrible problems, perhaps, but a good heart, or if there's an idea there... you cannot do a good part if it's surrounded by a dumb play or film script. I'd rather do a small, good part in a really good film than a big lead in a dumb movie or play. Because no one will see it, and you're not adding anything, you're subtracting."
So the fates have conspired to push him center stage. But he has not yet achieved the kind of instant recognition he so fears. "Recently," he said wryly, "I was calling someone at a hotel in New York, and they weren't there so I asked the operator to take a message: 'Just say Kevin Kline called.' She says 'not the Kevin Kline!' And I said, 'well, I don't know, who do you mean?' And she said, 'The pants guy.'"
Although he's had his share of awards, Kline said that they are one of his least favorite parts of show business. The question he hated most on a recent trip to Los Angeles (during which he spent several evenings picking up awards for Meryl Streep) was: Do you think you will get an Academy Award nomination for "Sophie's Choice?"
"I really didn't expect one. I think my part in that movie is funny in a way -- mind you I'm not crazy about what I did -- I thought, gee, it would be great if I could sneak a little nomination in because it is very flashy, a great part -- but the movie's not built around Nathan. And it's too big a part to be in the supporting category. So anyway I did not expect a nomination... I really didn't expect it. And I didn't get it! One of those terrible expectations that were fulfilled."
He thinks awards are good for business, but not much else."It is an atrocious, barbaric practice, making what could be a celebration of outstanding work done in the past year into a contest, a quiz show, where people are put in categories, and one person is going to win and the other four are going to LOSE! You can be a LOSER! ... But in a society where the educational system is what it is, where you're first in your class, or second in your class, in sports you win or you lose... it's sad that it carries over into the arts because it only adds to the bad reputation of the 'art of acting' being a business enterprise."
Kline is waiting to decide what will be next for him. It could be a film; it could be a play. If he doesn't decide within a month, he'll go on a publicity tour for "Pirates" to Australia and Europe.
Meanwhile, he will stay in New York, reading scripts and books and practicing the piano. He is not married (although he has had long-term relationships with actresses Patti LuPone and Mary Beth Hurt), and says it is only within the past year that he has had the financial stability that allows him to think, for the first time, about having a family.
"When I meet the right person I think it will become a reality much quicker," he said. "But because of the insanity of this profession -- just in the last year have I had enough financial security that I could conceive of marrying and having children and that sort of thing... I admire actors who marry other starving actors and have starving children."
Meanwhile, he is where he wants to be. Now -- whatever he's been doing -- all he has to do is keep doing it.
For I am a Kevin Kline,
And it 'tis, it 'tis a glorious thing to be Kevin Kline.
Yes, I am a Kevin Kline,
And it 'tis, it 'tis, a glorious thing to be Kevin Kline!
From "Forbidden Broadway"