Ted van Griethuysen didn't want to do Lear. Not really. The Mount Everest of roles in the English-speaking theater? A part that critics for almost the last 200 years have been saying is so demanding that it cannot be acted? That some scholars have even suggested drove Shakespeare, after writing it, to a nervous breakdown?

Before his 1962 Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play (with Paul Scofield in the lead), Peter Brook believed its summit had never been reached. According to a colleague, Brook felt that "on the way up, one found the shattered bodies of other climbers strewn on every side. Olivier here, Laughton there; it's frightening."

Which is why, in several decades of acting--in Washington, New York and London, among other places--van Griethuysen had done quite well, thank you, playing other Shakespearean characters. He'd done modern drama, too. He was very happy.

In fact, in 1991, when Artistic Director Michael Kahn did his first Shakespeare Theatre production of "King Lear" (his second opens Tuesday night with van Griethuysen as the king), the actor was extremely content to play the role of Gloucester to Fritz Weaver's doomed monarch. Van Griethuysen was in his mid-fifties, an age when American classical actors start to think that, well, if you've been around this long, you should at least mull over the idea of scaling Lear.

"To watch Fritz gave me exactly what I wanted," he says, "which was a chance to answer two questions for myself--one, can this part be acted at all? And two, did I think I might be able to do it someday? And the answers were yes."

But he was still unsure of the character's deepest, darkest feelings, which he would have to know and understand in order to attempt the role, particularly in the first scene. "I thought I could do the rest of the play," van Griethuysen says, "but I simply didn't get that first scene."

Few openings in Shakespeare are as crucial. The 82-year-old Lear announces that he will divide his kingdom among his three daughters, the largest chunk going to the one who can convince him she loves him most. The first two daughters heap buckets of flattery on him. The third, young Cordelia, his favorite, refuses to join the competition. Enraged, he cruelly denounces, disowns and banishes her--which sets in motion the entire play.

But van Griethuysen was troubled: "How does he turn on a dime like that, from loving her the most to instantly hating her?"

Four years later, in 1995, the actor turned 60. "Your sense of the world is different with every decade," he says. "But particularly when you turn 60, your notion of time becomes very different. You notice you don't have much left."

As if on cue, a cipher that had been haunting his memory for years finally made sense, which in turn gave him an idea what might be lurking at the bottom of Lear's soul. Van Griethuysen had gotten to know the great actor Morris Carnovsky near the end of his life--when the older man had developed a habit of occasionally falling silent and staring.

"That would get my mind going," van Griethuysen says. "What was he looking at? And then something finally hit me after turning 60. He was a man on the edge of eternity. The edge of oblivion. That's what Morris was looking at. And that's what Lear is looking at. He's a man on the edge of eternity, of something vast and dark. And full of terror."

Somewhere in there, Lear's lightning flash from love to hate was understandable. And since he could base Lear's emotional journey in the rest of the play on self-discoveries from his own life, van Griethuysen was suddenly eager to do Lear. Couldn't wait to do it. He went to Kahn, the only director he could trust to take him safely up the mountain. Kahn agreed: Van Griethuysen was ready.

The director, however, wasn't. Having done it once, he didn't want to repeat it.

Growing Into His Roles

It is a hot, soggy August evening in 1999, and the Kahn-van Griethuysen "King Lear" is coming together at last. The actor, 64, is rolling around on the cold, hard floor of the Shakespeare Theatre's rehearsal hall in Southeast Washington. He's resisting the best efforts of fellow actors Floyd King and Ed Gero to get him up. He struggles. He howls. He moans. But they slowly begin to overpower and lift him.

"Wait, wait," Kahn cuts in. "We can't see Ted from that angle." He repositions them. They start over. Again. This time, van Griethuysen rolls differently.

It's Week 4 of rehearsal for "King Lear," and Kahn is trying to sharpen focus as well as adjust sightlines. As he tends to do while directing, Kahn sits with his legs crossed, an elbow on his knee, his chin in the palm of his hand, quietly studying the action before him. That is, until something happens that isn't consistent with his idea of what should be happening.

And having an overall idea about the play is what changed his mind about doing "King Lear" a second time. "I started to see I had some new thoughts, and so I felt I could do it again and do it differently," he says.

Mainly, though, he was seeing van Griethuysen differently. Kahn first saw him when he came down from Manhattan to appear in "Love's Labour's Lost" at the Shakespeare Theatre more than 10 years ago. "Ted was a quite fancy actor in those days, kind of mannered," Kahn says. "But it was a great performance."

Van Griethuysen, a New Yorker at the time, returned the following season for "All's Well That Ends Well," turning in a performance that brought an invitation from Kahn to join the company. Die-hard New Yorkers, van Griethuysen and his wife, actress Rebecca Thompson--they married in 1961--at first resisted but then accepted. Ever since, they've split time between a home in Stratford, Conn., and an apartment in the Lansburgh Building above the theater.

"Over the years, Ted really started doing lots of character work," Kahn recalls.

In particular, van Griethuysen's performance as the king in the "Henry IV" plays: "I really wanted him to get deeper as a man and father," Kahn says. "These were strong character roles that he really hadn't had the chance to play. And he really went there. He lost some of the affectations he had, which had been very effective, but he stripped himself much more cleanly as an actor and entered into the character in a wonderful way. And that was a big turning point for him."

Another big turning point was the role of Prospero in Garland Wright's autumn 1997 production of "The Tempest," also at the Shakespeare Theatre. In the audience one night sat Joy Zinoman, artistic director of the Studio Theatre and a longtime admirer of van Griethuysen's. Zinoman could appreciate the technical discipline van Griethuysen brought to every part he played. But with Prospero, she also saw a vulnerability in the actor that she'd never seen before.

"And I thought, hmmm, maybe this is someone who's ready to explore realism," Zinoman says. "The side of things that's not just costumes and noses and walking around and being some grand king, but the side that's about being private in public." The following spring, when she was preparing her production of Sebastian Barry's "The Steward of Christendom"--about an aging man who has three daughters and who goes mad--she cast van Griethuysen in the lead without auditioning anyone else.

Van Griethuysen's performance gave Kahn even more to admire. "It was more than just an actor continuing to go to greater depth," he says. "In that performance, Ted dealt very well with the age and despair of the character." So well, in fact, that he won his second Helen Hayes Award.

By now Kahn had begun rethinking "Lear," and it was increasingly apparent that van Griethuysen was ready not just for the role but also for Kahn. "An actor who has as much technical skill as Ted, which you want in this kind of play, who also can experience the play as fully as Ted does--all of that is very special to me," the director says.

But it's only recently that someone could say that about van Griethuysen. "Ted's found a way to just jump right in now that I don't think he did before," Kahn says. "I mean, it's hard to believe Ted would be rolling around on the floor and trying things. He wouldn't have done that six or seven years ago."

Van Griethuysen would be the first to agree that he has come a long way.

From Oklahoma to the White House

Much to the consternation of his father, an oilman, van Griethuysen knew early on that he wanted to be an actor. Childhood in little Ponca City, Okla., was fairly uneventful for van Griethuysen and his sister, but he developed a taste and talent for appearing in school plays. Then the family moved to Houston, where he finished high school. When he received his diploma, he'd already been working on the local theater scene for two years.

"I just loved acting," he says. "To become other people--it was hard to explain that I felt more like myself doing this. My father was baffled at how I could have come from his loins."

His University of Texas major was supposed to be history. "But when my father drove me there, at the last moment I thought I'd enroll in the drama department." His father looked at him . . . and said okay. "That meant a lot to me," van Griethuysen remembers. "He was a more thoughtful person than I'd ever realized."

After earning a dual degree in acting and costume design, he received a Fulbright scholarship in 1956 and went to England, where he eventually worked for, among others, Peter Brook. A year later he was at Yale University, studiously avoiding New York. ("I was still afraid of going there," he says.) But then he became friends with actress Mildred Dunnock, who had originated the role of Willy Loman's wife in "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway. Dunnock was forever entreating him to move to the city, which he finally did in 1958. She gave him a room in her Gramercy Park apartment--and immediately got busy trying to find him work.

"She'd call up producers and directors and say, 'Put this man in your play!' " van Griethuysen says. "And they did!" In his first New York show, he shared the (rather small) stage with a young Peter Falk. A highlight of his early career was to be among the handful of actors who in 1961 performed Shakespeare in the White House for the first time (scenes from "Troilus and Cressida" for President Kennedy, his wife and their guests at a state dinner).

By then he'd secured the actor's holy grail--an Actors' Equity card. "I was making 250 a week, a princely sum at the time," van Griethuysen recalls. "My father got reconciled to my being in theater right away. It was more than he was making."

He and Thompson later started a theater company, and van Griethuysen tried his hand at directing. He also took up teaching, to the exclusion of acting. In the early 1980s, when he returned to performing, he discovered that acting in New York now meant having to do the occasional out-of-town show. The roles were fewer, but he could still make his living from the stage. And still does.

Before his death nearly 10 years ago, van Griethuysen's father had developed Alzheimer's disease, which affected the younger van Griethuysen deeply. "In some ways, my performance in 'Steward' owed something to him," he says. "My sister saw the show and said I really looked like him."

He had cropped his hair almost down to the skin for "Steward." Kahn liked the image so much that van Griethuysen has done it again for "Lear." Ironically, though, van Griethuysen's performance of a 12th-century octogenarian king owes more to his mother than to his father.

Defining Lear

"Lear is a person who would see himself as different and even superior to everyone else. Because most of us go through life for the most part seeing others as shadows and ourselves as the only people with a real inside." Van Griethuysen is very animated in the otherwise dead stillness of the Shakespeare Theatre lobby, empty except for him and a reporter.

"But under horrible circumstances and at the age of 82, he is suddenly confronted with the real fact about his life--he is essentially no more and no less than a man, and he is like other people. Which is probably the most important thing in life you can learn."

Like most other actors, van Griethuysen looks for parallels or analogues between his own life and the lives of the characters he plays. But unlike some of them, he is not drawing from the Method but from a school of thought called aesthetic realism, developed by the poet-philosopher Eli Siegel.

"It's an organized way of looking at the world," says van Griethuysen, who, beginning in his mid-twenties, studied under Siegel in New York for many years. "Aesthetic realism is based on a theory of opposites, which is that reality and art explain each other. Each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." (In a way, Picasso somewhat anticipated aesthetic realism when he cracked, "Art is a lie through which we see the truth.")

Most significantly for van Griethuysen, aesthetic realism related just about everything--from theater and history to physics and chemistry and even other people--to his own life. "My sense of myself, of who I was, was so greatly expanded as a result. And I came to feel a kind of closeness to plays that I would never otherwise have felt."

For example, "Lear is a certain relation of coolness and intensity," he says. "So am I. The way I'm cold and warm is different from the way Lear is cold and warm. But the opposites, the coldness and warmth, are universal. So what enables me to relate to somebody or anything, for that matter, is the opposites, because we all have them."

They are also what make him confident that, although he and his wife have no children, he can play a father in probably the greatest dysfunctional-family story ever told. "You don't murder people when you're playing a murderer," he says. "It's an aspect of thinking yourself into somebody else's life." Still, he acknowledges, "you do worry that there's a choice you wouldn't make because you don't know parenthood instinctively."

But before he could realize any of this, van Griethuysen had to realize something about himself. On his 21st birthday, his mother sent him a card telling him that he was the reason she was alive. "But she didn't know me!" he says. "There was so much I kept hidden from her, so you can't respect someone for thinking that. So there was this mix of adoring her and having contempt for her that was just a knockout."

The more devastating revelation then hit him. "The largest impediment to me being myself was the contempt I had for the whole world that was different from myself. I saw people as not me, which, of course, extended from how I saw my mother. But it wasn't the obvious kind of contempt."

It was more subtle, like dust--looking for it, he suddenly found it everywhere.

"If you have contempt for everything that is not you, it can cripple you for life," he says. Put another way, the implicit sense of superiority fed by an almost instinctive disdain can prevent any meaningful connection with people you love or care for.

He says aesthetic realism, which some critics have dismissed as a cult, gave him a means to understand and accept that he is, well, essentially no more and no less than a man, and he is like other people.

Van Griethuysen remains a devotee of Siegel's teachings. "But he's not an evangelist," says Floyd King. Instead of proselytizing among his colleagues, van Griethuysen is generally trying to help them. "If he has an idea, it doesn't have to be for himself," King says. "He'll give it to you, which is phenomenally generous."

Being severely humbled at, say, 25 can certainly be daunting. But being forced, as Lear is, to learn at 82 that your sense of yourself was always grotesquely overinflated, and that as a result you killed possibly the only thing you loved more than yourself, "is terrifying," van Griethuysen says. "His picture of himself is shattered, and I think that has something to do with why he goes mad."

This is hardly the only way to play Lear. But for van Griethuysen it's the path that extends from his own life and work, and that now leads to the peak of this massive role. The question, of course, is whether he will make it to the top. But as a certain Danish prince says in another Shakespeare play, "The readiness is all."