Familiar Face

 

Mention Donald Moffat and chances are most people will shrug and confess they are not familiar with the name. But most cinema fans will recognise his face. Irish theatre-goers, meanwhile, will quickly recognise him for his superb portrayal of Larry Slade in Robert Falls's production of Eugene O'Neill's mammoth classic The Iceman Cometh at the Abbey Theatre in October, 1992.

Five years on and Moffat is back in Dublin, this time to play James Tyrone in another O'Neill play, the semi-autobiographical masterpiece, Long Day's Journey Into Night, at the Gate Theatre. Famous face, not-quite-so-famous-name; Moffat smiles at his apparent dilemma: "You always know when they say 'the distinguished American actor' it means they don't know what the hell you look like," he says. There are ironies, of course - Moffat is not exactly an American, although he is much happier as one. "I used to be a Brit," he concedes, "but that was a long time ago. I'm totally American. I left England in November, 1956 - on November 17th to be precise - and I've lived in America ever since. I've spent much longer there than I did in England."

His movie credits include The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1987) and Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990). Most recently he appeared in Clear And Present Danger, playing the US president. While film pays well, Moffat has always made a point of doing at least one play a year. Theatre, in which he has directed as well as acted, has always been his real home. During his early years in New York he was a member of the famous APA-Phoenix Repertory Company. If an actor merits the description only after mastering and retaining 50 roles ready in his head for performance at any given time, Moffat and his Phoenix colleagues in the 1960s came close to fulfilling that requirement by rotating several productions. While on Broadway with that company, he was nominated for Tony Awards for his performance as Laudisi in Pirandello's Right You Are. . . If You Think You Are and for his Hjalmar Ekdahl in Ibsen's The Wild Duck.

Moffat's relationship with O'Neill's work began in the early 1970s when he appeared in the five Sea Plays for American television, and in The Hairy Ape. But his true baptism was in 1985 when he first played Larry Slade in JosΘ Quintero's production of The Ice Man Cometh, starring Jason Robards. It was the 30th anniversary production of an earlier, historic production also starring Robards. The play had had a stormy beginning - it was originally written in 1939 and O'Neill waited about six years before releasing the play.

There were always difficulties with the play; it demands a large cast and if not cut, runs over four hours. "It's a monster," says Moffat. "But then, so is Long Day's." Larry Slade is not only one of O'Neill's finest creations, he is also one of the most memorable characters in American theatre: the watcher who never sleeps, wryly announcing in a play so concerned with death, "It's a great game. The pursuit of happiness."

Moffat's Slade at the Abbey impressed and so he was the first choice when the Falls Abbey production was being cast. Now, in playing the role of James Tyrone, in a play "written in blood " - O'Neill drew heavily on his unhappy family history - Moffat has the chance to achieve a definitive performance in a powerful study of reconciliation which leaves no one, neither actors nor audience, without a greater level of understanding about failure, self-deception and the oppression of memory. Set in the Irish-American world O'Neill knew well as the son of an emigrant, it was first performed in 1956, three years after his death.

At 65, James Tyrone remains vain but is also ridden with guilt for behaviour which has forced his wife Mary to retreat into a twilight world of drug addiction where she endlessly laments her lost beauty. His meanness, the legacy of childhood poverty, has caused him to compromise a potentially great acting career and he has been drawn into shady, cheap business deals. Their sons are another source of grief; both are idle and drink heavily and the younger one is now dying. Reacting to his son's illness as if it is a personal affront, James Tyrone says "I never thought a child of mine - It doesn't come from my side of the family. There wasn't one of us that didn't have lungs as strong as an ox."

Tyrone is still taking shape in Moffat's imagination, he says. "I reached the stage where I know what he is doing, now I'm working on achieving this."

How did it all begin for Moffat? Content discussing the work of Chekhov or O'Neill (he agrees that O'Neill is closer to Chekhov than to Miller or Albee or even Williams), he suddenly looks quite weary, takes a metaphorical deep breath and prepares to work his way through a long professional CV. To begin at the beginning means returning to his early years in Plymouth where his Scottish father and Devonshire mother ran a boarding house. "Totnes has apparently really changed," he says brightly. "It's become some sort of centre for New Agers, my daughter sent me an article about it." He was an only child, "pathologically shy" and his first experience of acting came at school where his ability won him the recognition of his schoolmates. "There were two things which won me peer acceptance; I was good at acting - I was Marley's ghost in Scrooge - I also had a talent for running."

Moffat proved to be a useful cross country runner and later competed on the track over the mile. During his National Service days, between 1949 and 1951 he trained with Chris Chattaway and Chris Brasher - later the 1956 Olympic 3,000 metres steeplechase gold medallist - both of whom also featured in Roger Bannister's historic first sub-four-minute mile. But this was all to come. "When I knew them they were usually running about 4.05, 4.12 and I was running about 4.30: let's say I was in the same lap." He must have been closer than that.

Athletics was soon left behind - Moffat knew he was serious about acting. He trained at RADA and made his professional dΘbut with the Old Vic at the Edinburgh Festival where he played the First Murderer in Macbeth. "There are two kinds of actors," he says, "the star who likes to show off and say `look at me' and then there's the other kind, shy people who see acting as their surest method of self expression." He leaves it as understood where he places himself and adds, of acting, "you know you like it and then you get hooked. You get used to saying these great lines by great poets, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen and that's what happens." Just before leaving for America, Moffat had appeared in his first movie, a second World War adventure, Michael Powell's The Battle Of The River Plate in 1955. His departure also coincided with John Osborne's Look Back In Anger and the emergence of British theatre's "Angry Young Man" generation. It is difficult to decide whether he regretted his timing or was relieved by it.

He moved from Britain to Oregon, home of his first wife, but soon realised it offered little for an aspiring actor and headed off to New York. There, he discovered a community of what he describes as "professional Brits" - actors content to make their living by playing Britons. It was not for him. For the first time, he felt "unencumbered" and says simply, "I wasn't an Englishman any more". He set about eradicating an English accent which was by then already determinedly modified West Country. "Once upon a time I sounded like a real Devonshire lad," he says, exaggerating his vowels so mercilessly all he needs is a straw dangling from his lips. Sentiment plays no part in his attitude towards his native country. "When I go there it's just another visit. In fact, when I first left I didn't go back for 18 years."

Any trace of England in his accent has long since gone: his voice is soft, neutral and best suited to American regional accents. "I do good regional and rural, I can't do the urban ones." True, it is unlikely he would be cast in a Mamet role. "No, I wouldn't be, I can't talk that fast." In The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1987), Moffat found himself playing a Czech doctor, complete with Czech accent. How would he describe his style of acting? Moffat laughs and replies: "I pretend as well as I can."

Recalling a New York production of Titus Andronicus he appeared in at Central Park for the New York Shakespeare Festival, he says, "it is a fascinating play". Whatever its many weaknesses, it is also Shakespeare's first attempt at tragedy. Moffat refers to its incredible violence. "And we were out there playing it straight with even the noises of jets passing overhead and no one laughed." Also for the festival, he played Falstaff - "Yes, I was a very thin one" - and Touchstone, the jester in As You Like It.

He has never lost his faith in theatre and believes as an art it will endure. "People have been watching plays since the Greeks and probably before that, we need theatre as a way of trying to understand life." His first acting job in New York was an off-Broadway production of Under Milkwood. It had a short run. He experienced a lull after it closed, but has never been out of work since.

In 1974 he appeared in Waiting For Godot, as Estragon. The production, which included Jason Robards, was filmed for American television and remains the definitive American production. Moffat admires the play. "I saw the first production in England, which was directed by Peter Hall," he says. "It was also the first in English. I thought it was wonderful, crazy stuff - and full of truths. It is as Beckett said it was, `a play about these two guys'. " Above all, though, Godot is about life and Moffat comments on the fact that every line of dialogue could be taken from ordinary speech, "often my wife and I have caught ourselves speaking lines from it - it's so close to real life". By the late 1960s, the APA-Phoenix Company had begun to disperse: it collapsed in 1969 - "the usual reasons, funding and personalities". Moffat's first marriage had also ended and he had married his present wife. He was becoming increasingly involved in regional theatre work across the US. He was also a founding member of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival and in 1973 helped establish the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre. It was an ambitious idea - the theatre was in a rundown part of the city, Moffat pauses before adding "well, actually, it was a porn district, but it was free theatre". He had arrived there on the West Coast for a part, but ended up staying 25 years. During those years he became more involved in film and television.

Although he speaks very well about theatre and tends to discuss it more in the context of the work as literature rather than performance, he is practical and does not intellectualise his career. He is a professional jobbing actor with a repertoire of character roles. "I did everything from Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The High Chaparral. In the beginning it was mainly westerns, later I was even in soaps like Dynasty and Dallas." About the same time he also starred in the title role of a made-for-television Tartuffe.

Rachel, Rachel directed by Paul Newman in 1968, was Moffat's second movie and the beginning of his US cinema career. As any actor will confirm, movie acting is very different to theatre. "On stage, there is a far greater responsibility. In a movie, the actor is far more passive; the process is so different, it is largely done by the director and producer. On the stage it is the actor and the author; the actor and the audience."

In 1983, he appeared as Lyndon Johnson in Philip Kaufman's film version of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. Moffat loves the film and thinks Kaufman was true to the book: he had first worked with him on The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid in 1971. Five years later, he worked with Kaufman again in the film version of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Moffat also featured in Brian de Palma's film version of another Tom Wolfe book, The Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990).

About seven years ago, Moffat and his wife, their four children now grown, settled in a beautiful old house on the Hudson river. He produces four photographs, taken of the house during each of the seasons. It dates from about 1735 and he says it is near Westpoint.

On leaving the theatre where the interview has taken place, Moffat looks up at the bright, full moon. Theatre-goers arriving for that night's performance are going in. Some are glancing at him, a few nudge their companions and point towards him. His lunar meditation is interrupted by a Dublin man who, having almost walked past him, has clearly had second thoughts. "Excuse me," he says to Moffat, "but are you who I think you are? I mean are you from the telly? I said to my girlfriend, `I know that fella', I mean, I don't know you, but you're awful familiar."

A youngish woman waits nearby, standing by her parked pram: she looks more resigned than interested. Moffat says, "I was in Clear And Present Danger. Did you see that?" The mystery is solved. The man is delighted by his own powers of observation. Moffat, loyal to the forthcoming production, points to the poster and says, "I'll be in this soon, here at this theatre, why don't you come?" Everyone does know his face. As far as his name is concerned, Moffat is content enough not to worry.

A Long Day's Journey Into Night previews at the Gate in Dublin from next Thursday and opens on Tuesday, March 31st.