Another town, another role

 

From ‘The West Wing’ to ‘Star Trek : Voyager’, Len Cariou has had a long and varied career in television. This week, he returns to the stage at the Gate Theatre as Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons’

THE POLITE WAY to describe Len Cariou is “veteran” or “distinguished”, usually in conjunction with the words “Canadian” and “actor”. But hey. Let’s be accurate about this. He’ll be 70 on his next birthday – and he’s half Irish. Which explains why he’s in Dublin to play the role of Joe Keller in the Gate Theatre’s new production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Or at least, it half explains it. “My mother is Irish; the other half is Breton,” he says. “I had always thought it would be really nice if I could work here one day but, you know, the chance of that happening way back when were – sheesh – almost zero.”

He nods out at O’Connell Street, getting on with its hectic Saturday business far below the enormous windows of the theatre’s brand-new rehearsal space. “I visited once for a week, 30 years ago. I can just about remember O’Connell Street but I don’t remember much else. I stayed in the countryside with a friend who had rented a house for the summer to write a book. But I did come into the city one day, because I wanted to see the Abbey and the Gate. I don’t even think anything was playing because it was the summer time, so I didn’t get inside the theatres. But I just wanted to see them.”

If you’re looking at the photo and thinking you’ve seen Cariou before, that’s because you have. His is one of those faces which turn up on television from time to time in The West Wing, The Practice, Star Trek: Voyagerand various episodes of CSI. He was a regular on Murder, She Wrote. He also turns up in movies; he’s to be found, for example, doing a marvellous little cameo in the Jack Nicholson vehicle About Schmidt. On stage, he has a formidable number of Shakespearean outings under his belt.

But the scene of Cariou’s biggest triumphs – and the reason for all those complimentary epithets – is musical theatre. In 1970, he won a Tony nomination for his role in Applause, a musical adaptation of the film All About Eve. In 1973, he got another one for his portrayal of Fredrik in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. “I did A Little Night Musicwith Prince and Sondheim for about a year,” he says.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and he’s working as artistic director of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, where he wants to put on a production of the Prince/Sondheim show Company. “I called Hal in NY and said, ‘Would you send me a copy of your stage manager’s script? I wanna try and create what you guys did in New York.’ So he said, ‘Yes – and by the way, Stephen has written a musical for you. It’s called S weeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I’m gonna send you a copy of the script.’

“And I said, ‘okay’.” He does a double-take worthy of one of those “pesky mouse” moments in Tom and Jerrycartoons. “By the way? By the way, Stephen has written a musical for me? Anyway, when the script arrived it was the middle of the week and I was in the middle of either directing a play or acting in one. Maybe both. I can’t remember. I started to read it and I thought, ‘These guys have lost it completely, for Chrissake. This is madness.’”

ON MATURE REFLECTION, he decided that with the right music, the thing might work. He launches into an entertaining account of the lengthy interlude – at least two years, as far as I can figure out – before the show finally got into rehearsal. It’s a tale of phone calls in the dead of night, films that never happened and a hugely diverting impression of Sondheim himself presenting snippets of his extraordinary score for the first time. “You’re sick, man,” was Cariou’s response when he first heard the now-famous opening line, “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd . . .” Sondheim had inverted the opening notes of the Requiem Mass to give him the first eight notes.

But it wasn’t the music that proved troublesome during rehearsals for Sweeney Todd.Instead the pie shop – of all things – proved to be, quite literally, a sticking point. “It had been built wrongly,” Cariou recalls. “It was made from cast iron instead of aluminium, and the damned thing would lock in one position, so that even with everybody in the cast trying to push it, it would just break down. Finally they had to rebuild it. But for the first preview we had to use the old one. So we have the preview, and we get to the penultimate moment of the show, and the pie shop breaks down. It won’t budge. We have to stop and get the stagehands to come on and get it into position – with a preview audience in the theatre.

“After it was over, I’m going to my dressing-room, and we’re all moaning and groaning about the damned pie shop not working. And I come around the corner, and there’s Stephen Sondheim standing outside my dressing room. And he looks at me and he says: ‘They understood it. They f***ing understood it.’”

The rest is the stuff of theatrical legend – rave reviews for Cariou and his co-star Angela Lansbury, a run of more than 500 performances and a Tony award for Cariou. “Angela and I really, really worked well together,” he says. “We had great fun doing it. We were very proud of the fact that we were able to keep that line of not going over the top into farce with these, well, Jacobean characters.”

TO MOVE FROM the sublime to the ridiculous, is that how he came to be a regular on the TV crime show Murder, She Wrote? Because of his friendship with Lansbury? “Yeah, pretty much,” he says. “She hired virtually every actor of her vintage on that show. They came up with this MI6 guy Michael Hagerty, and they sent me the script and I thought, ‘Well, it’s sort of fun – and it looks like there’s a little flirtation going on with Angela’s character, Jessica Fletcher, there’. But then I thought, ‘Aw, do I really wanna do this?’ My agent called and I said, ‘I dunno. I’m not sure.’ And he said, ‘Maybe this will persuade you. They’re shooting it in Hawaii.’ And I went, ‘Oh. Well, if I can get a ticket for my wife. . .’ So Heather and I went to Hawaii.”

In fact, he says, Hagerty hardly ever features in Murder, She Wrote. “I only did nine shows – one a year. Everybody thinks I was a regular. But of course, they play them so often that I turn up every now and again and say, ‘Hi, how are ya?’ and off we go again.”

Perhaps it’s Cariou’s relaxed attitude to his profession that, along with his versatility and obvious dedication, brings him such a constant stream of work. Certainly he has played everyone from Stalin to Cap’n Andy Hawks in Showboat,from Iago through Ernest Hemingway to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. He has just completed a run of 50 shows as Richard Nixon in a Canadian production of Frost/Nixon.

What’s up next for him? “I don’t know, actually,” he says. “I’ll just see what happens.” The chances are, though, that it will be something theatrical. “I love the theatre. I love being in the theatre. I love the process of putting plays together. You get to really delve into characters. You can’t do that in film, really – there’s not enough time, they don’t rehearse it, and you shoot out of sequence. A lot of the time you fly by the seat of your pants.”

Meanwhile, he is thoroughly enjoying rehearsals for All My Sons. The production team has been hard at work for a month with director Robin Lefèvre, with what he describes as a very strong cast that includes Barbara Brennan, Donna Dent and Mark O’Regan. “It’s a real classic, and as relevant today as right after the second World War, when it was first done in New York. It’s about war, and defective parts in aeroplanes, and the ramifications of that. In Iraq, if you remember, guys were getting killed right left and centre because the equipment wasn’t what it was meant to be. So it’s as relevant now as it ever was.

“And it’s a very stirring play. It really looks at the moral issue of war and the effects it can have. And it’s a look at a family. It’s a very loving family, but something happens and it just unravels. The walls come tumbling down.” Cariou being Cariou, he has already played the role of Miller’s pater familias, Joe Keller, in Los Angeles. “It was a very successful production, but we only ran it for about three weeks, which is the run in most regional theatres in the States and Canada,” he says. “So I wasn’t really finished with the role – if you know what I mean.”

And Cariou being Cariou, he has a little story to tell about the experience. “Los Angeles isn’t a great theatre town, by any stretch of the imagination. A lot of people who came to the play had never heard of it. Well, it was written in 1948, remember. But there are a hard core of people who go to the theatre there, and are very knowledgable. Warren Beatty came along – and he knew Miller and Elia Kazan in the old days, of course. So Warren and Annette Bening came. And they were just knocked on their ass by it.” Enough said?


All My Sonsopens at the Gate Theatre tomorrow