English actor Edward Duke concedes he's always been hard to cast.
The young English actor today is usually of the 'Brideshead/Chariots of Fire' mold," he says. "You know, the type that is always shot through gauze as they're running their way to victory or else chasing Anthony Andrews all over Oxford. Something dreary like that. I am 6 foot 3, and funny, and I wasn't getting any of those roles. I'd go to auditions and make them laugh and giggle and fall about. And then they'd say, 'Obviously not a romantic lead. Thank you very much.' "
A man can only suffer so much rejection. In 1979, Duke took fate in his hands, fashioned himself a one-man show from the fairly hilarious novels of P.G. Wodehouse, sunk his life's savings, 1,000 pounds, into it and opened in a dingy pub south of the Thames to an audience of exactly four. As it turned out, one of the four was an influential London critic, who approved heartily of the endeavor. "Jeeves Takes Charge," as the merry outing came to be known, moved to the West End, prospered, and won Duke the prestigious Olivier Award for Most Promising Actor of 1980.
He has since chalked up more than 550 performances in most major cities of the English-speaking world, recouped his investment many times over and made himself a name in the process. On Wednesday, he begins a three-week return engagement at Ford's Theatre, where he did brisk business two years ago, despite a malfunctioning lighting board that, opening night, repeatedly plunged him into semidarkness. "Terrible night, horrible night," he remembers.
If there's a downside to Duke's saga, it's that his portrayal of Bertie Wooster, the quintessential 1920s British playboy and twit, is so perfect that casting agents now think of him solely in terms of upper-class idiots. "They forget that I am playing 12 roles," says Duke, who in the course of the quick-change evening also turns himself into a trumpet-voiced dowager aunt, harrumphing uncle, nasty schoolgirl and self-effacing dolt, not to mention Jeeves, the very embodiment of unflappable British butlerhood, whom Duke modeled after his father.
"My father was a diplomat with the Foreign Office," he explains, "but when he retired, he took on all the aspects of a butler and would steam around and do all the washing up. The walk, however, is that of a Japanese Noh actor. Noh actors glide, which is what Jeeves really must do. Bertie is more me, I'd say, although he's much wittier than I am, even if he is an idiot. The women are all based on Dame Edith Evans and the old uncle is inspired by Sir Ralph Richardson, who was the most magnificent man I ever met, but deeply, deeply eccentric. So you see, I made it into a very smart cast."
Duke, 32 and tanned from a recent stay in Tahiti, is ensconced in one of the plusher suites at the Bristol Hotel. Although he admits to being slightly awed by so much luxury he is trying to take it in stride by draping himself casually over an armchair and opting for a beer. His accent reeks of privilege, but he appears to evince minimal interest in going through life pulling rank. He would prefer, one suspects, to pull off a good joke.
"I am the world's worst giggler," he says. "I became an actor so I could fool around with other actors. Because it's fun. And I must say the loneliness of a one-man show is a problem. If you're in a play and you're not feeling well, you can draw energy off the other performers, who will support you. But in this, if I'm not feeling well, it's like going out and drowning in deep water.
"I'm a great believer in the fact that one-man shows are basically boring. The audience is sitting there, after all, thinking, 'Well, we've got him for another two hours. What's he going to do?' So you've really got to kill yourself, without seeming to. As a child, I was always daydreaming. One of my dreams of glory was traveling around the world, performing a show and earning lots of money. The dream is a lot better than the reality, I can tell you. I think this engagement of 'Jeeves' will be the last for some time."
He downs a swig of beer, then feels compelled to contradict himself by adding cheerily, "I love long runs. It's only after the first 100 performances that you know what you're doing. Sir Ralph told me that. Maybe I will do the show in India at some point. Yes, in the really old places in India. I would like that."
What Duke does not like much, it turns out, are the English, propriety, the hotels in Puerto Vallarta, Catholic schools and Australia. "I just came back from Australia," he says. "I had performed there and hated it so much I decided to go back on a holiday to see if I didn't like it a bit more, because it's a major market for English actors. I hated it even more the second time. It's like a very large provincial, English seaside town -- Brighton or Worthing -- but with sun. It depressed me greatly."
More to his tastes are San Francisco, Madrid, which he calls "my favorite city in the world; everybody's always partying," and New York "because that's where it all happens." The mention of Los Angeles elicits a well-bred shudder. Los Angeles, it seems, was not particularly amused by "Jeeves Takes Charge." "We'd been a smash in San Francisco, but we got a terrible review in the L.A. Times and we lost a packet. Closed after two weeks. I don't think anybody goes much to the theater in L.A. anyway. My agent used the time I was supposed to be performing there to send me around to the movie studios, which was wonderful. No, the people were all idiots, but the studios were wonderful.
"At one of them, I happened to say to this television casting agent -- Randy something or other -- that I had won an Olivier Award for my show. And, God's truth, he said, 'Newton-John?' I said, 'No, Laurence Olivier.' And Randy said, 'Oh, well, you just don't think of him, you know, like giving awards.' It was amazing."
Duke lets out a huge laugh -- somewhere between Bertie Wooster's bray and thunder -- throws his head back and kicks up legs not unlike a cricket's -- thereby providing a vivid illustration of what he apparently means by "laughing and giggling and falling about."
"It's true I've been traveling too much. Maybe that's why I dump on everywhere," he says, regaining his composure. "L.A. is really glamorous, I think, history-wise for us. But you don't ever see anyone from the waist down. I mean nobody walks. They're all driving. And everyone's an actor. I was amazed at all the actors I met, who don't go to acting class; they go to the gym!
"But I did get to meet Elizabeth Taylor. She's friendly with the Wodehouse family and she came to offer her support. And she said, 'Well, you know, Richard and I did 'Private Lives' and we got rotten reviews. Rotten! But they came in droves!' Well, of course, they did, for God's sake. She's Elizabeth Taylor. If she stood on her head and sang 'God Save the Queen,' they'd come in droves. But I'm not blase' about meeting her at all. It was a real thrill to sit there and just look at this legend in her own whatever."
Duke has been hooked on show business since his childhood in Santiago, Chile. At 6, his father took him to see Margot Fonteyn in "Swan Lake" at the Theatro Municipale. Rapture struck. "I can still remember how magical it was and how much I wanted to be part of that magic. As a result, I was hopeless academically. Got kicked out of everywhere. Didn't want to sit in classes, you see. Wanted to be an actor." Eventually, he was packed off to Stoneyhurst in England, but was asked to leave the presitigious Jesuit-run private school after using improper language before one of the priests.
"I'm afraid I couldn't understand why they would beat you for not making your bed and then would preach mercy," he says by way of selfdefense.
By this time, his parents had been transferred to the British embassy in Japan, so Duke was enrolled in an American high school in Tokyo. "It was rather like being sent from Auschwitz to the Seychelles," he remembers gleefully. "But I didn't last there either. I spent all my time in the Kabuki, which went on all day." To this day, he remains a devout fan of the traditional Japanese theater and admits the astonishing range of its performers may have played a part in his decision to undertake a dozen roles at once in "Jeeves Takes Charge." That and "ego, I suppose."
It was composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, however, who rescued the show from that dingy pub, outfitted it with spanking sets and launched it into the big time. Webber had just had a flop with a musical called "Jeeves," and Duke suspects he may have been trying "to vindicate himself by producing me in the West End. At any rate, I'm enormously grateful to him and all that. He's a total businessman. A bit distracted, you might say. But I like him a lot actually. Poor man gets pilloried in the British press all the time because of his success. But that's Britain for you. We are not a gracious nation.
"Oh, I know we have this veneer of respectability. But we've started a lot of wars and we're actually rather bloodthirsty. Look at our soccer riots, which are nothing to be proud of. And Yobbos! Do you know that word? They're louts, who run around Saturday night, threatening you with broken bottles and getting sick all over you. Everything in England has been brought down to a mean average. No one's allowed to be too rich or too poor. Everything's sort of the same, you know. Democratic! Success is not permitted. Whenever I go back, it's 'So we've been off in America earning dollars, have we? I suppose we'll be taking taxis next,' or, 'None of your la-dee-dah ways around here.' What I miss is the conversation at dinner parties. We're rather good at that. But that's all I miss."
The Wodehouse estate, Duke notes, has been "terribly nice" about his show. Wodehouse's widow, eager to wipe out the memory of the musical "Jeeves," waived all royalties, figuring -- rightly, as it happened -- that wherever Duke performed, sales of Wodehouse's books would go up. She also bestowed upon the actor her late husband's clock and his bow tie, which Bertie Wooster wears faithfully every night at the top of the second act.
"Before she died, she came to see the show," says Duke. "We had a standing ovation of one that night."
Between bookings, the actor has landed himself bit parts in a couple of movies, and a few larger roles on the stage. But none has won him the attention of "Jeeves Takes Charge" -- certainly not the musical "Peg," which was based on "Peg of My Heart" and turned into "this incredible piece of rubbish, which didn't make any sense"; or "Why Not Stay for Breakfast," which he describes as "an awful trousers-down farce, sort of like the play in 'Noises Off,' but worse." Next month, however, he's set to play Elyot in "Private Lives" in a small regional theater on the West Coast, and who knows what Randy, the television agent, or his peers may yet come up with?
And if the casting agents don't come around this time, Duke has another idea in the back of his head. "Noel Coward," he says. "Now that will be the great one-man show of the century. What would be really interesting would be to do the glittering Coward in the first act, then the failed, postwar Coward in the second act. Because he was a failure, critically. And also he was rather sad, which would be useful. I've written the Coward estate about it. They answer my letters with a 'Maybe, but we're not sure if you're the right actor for it.' But I sort of am. I could be. As much as anyone else."
Duke is daydreaming again.