"By that I mean performing in the classics." And that he has, appearing in Shakespeare, Moliere, Coward, and Boucicault across the country, abroad, and on Broadway. He is perhaps most identified with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario and, to a lesser extent, the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, where he is currently tackling the much-extended production of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." Bedford is director and star, playing none other than the imperious Lady Augusta Bracknell.
Initially he had reservations on several fronts, not least his indifference to doing drag. "I'm not a huge fan of drag and never was," he remarks. "I wasn't dying to get into frock and camp around." But then that was part of the challenge and allure. In the end, he approached her as he would any other character.
"I try to work out who she is and play her with dimension, seriousness, and reality," he notes. "She is an utterly foolish woman, but then I specialize in playing utterly foolish men, who are utterly humorless and utterly deluded. For some reason I love playing these parts." Bedford's goal is to forge a Lady Bracknell who so completely believes what she is saying—therein lies the comedy—the audience quickly forgets the actor is acting or is, for that matter, a man. Bedford is doing neither drag nor send-up. Indeed, his comic hallmark as Lady Bracknell is various and nuanced expressions of disapproval coupled with shock. It's hilarious.
A lifetime of playing roles reflecting a long, classical comic tradition—from Restoration to Noël Coward—most prepared him, he says. "For me, 'The Importance of Being Earnest' is the play after 'School for Scandal' and before 'Private Lives.' I'm talking in broad terms. Noël wouldn't have happened if Oscar hadn't come along first."
Part of his challenge, especially in his director's hat, was correcting what has come to be mistakenly viewed as "style," he emphasizes. "Style is much deeper than how you walk, handle a fan, or take snuff." With the notable exception of the 1952 film "The Importance of Being Earnest," starring Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave, and Margaret Rutherford, "Earnest" is often presented as a litany of witty aphorisms that quickly become tedious and predictable, he says. As the actors prime themselves for a succession of quips, the acting becomes "over-stylized, sophomoric, and superficial." When style is done well, it has its roots in behavior and psychology, he points out.
The relaxed and professorial Bedford is unwinding in an Upper West Side apartment, where he is staying during the play's run. It is 40-plus stories up with spectacular views of the Hudson River, the George Washington Bridge, and New Jersey. Bedford marvels at the view, suggesting he's living in a movie set.
Play Every Note
Not bad for an actor who grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood, the son of a postal worker. From the age of 4, Bedford wanted to act, and he remains convinced it was his destiny, whatever the era or his place of origin. And, later, when he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA)—with such classmates as Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney, and Alan Bates—he recalls, "None of us ever had any doubt whatsoever that we were going to be successful. Our confidence was alarming. I don't know where it came from." He concedes he didn't learn much at school, noting it was out of sync with the times. "We were taught that if we wanted to play leading men, we had to be 6 feet tall, aristocratic-looking, and speak with an Oxford accent." But that view was also reflected in the theater world, he says, adding it wasn't until John Osborne wrote "Look Back in Anger" that working-class people were seen as interesting theatrical subjects.
That said, Bedford's RADA years were a heady time, and whatever the school's shortcomings, he was immersed in terrific theater, which served as his real teaching tool. Virtually every night, he and his fellow classmates gobbled up West End theater, absorbing the techniques of such legendary actors as John Gielgud, Paul Scofield, Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, Margaret Leighton, Evans, and Peggy Ashcroft, he recalls. "The list is endless."
Bedford's career moved along rapidly, and by the late '50s he was appearing on Broadway in Peter Shaffer's "Five Finger Exercise." The actor immediately felt at home, though his love affair with the States had its roots in a lifelong affection for American culture—Hollywood movies, in particular. He talks about those "Doris Day–type films. I thought the idea of the United States was the most exciting thing I could imagine. I knew this is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I spent the better part of a year on Broadway with Peter Shaffer's play and the better part of a year on the road with it. It was a huge success."
The major turning point in his career was his star turn in Moliere's "School for Wives," bringing him the Tony Award in 1971. "My competition was Ralph Richardson, Alec McCowen, and John Gielgud," Bedford replays the scene, sounding floored even in retrospect. "In my acceptance speech I said, 'John was my mentor. He taught me a great deal. I hope tonight he doesn't regret it too much.' They cut to John. He was beaming like a beacon. John had a great influence on my life. What I learned from John was the necessity for variety in tone and pitch and pace in classical texts. Variety is not only the spice of life but also [of] Shakespearean delivery."
Bedford also credits Mike Nichols and the late Michael Langham for shaping his aesthetic and technique. Nichols taught him to have "more trust in my own instinct," and from Langham, "I learned you have to be relentlessly meticulous about every word in the text." He explains, "That does not mean emphasizing every word in the text, but making sure every word in the text is heard. It's like hearing a Mozart piano concerto. Can you imagine missing any note? When we rehearsed 'Importance of Being Earnest' we talked about Mozart, about the pace of it, and specificity. You can't fuck around with the classics. You bring your own resources and experiences, but you have to serve the text up to the audience in a clear and accessible way.
"I believe the same is true with Tennessee Williams, but there is a difference," he continues. "Marlon Brando as Stanley invents his own rules and is very idiosyncratic in his delivery of the text, and it's a great performance. You're not quite as free with classics. You can't pause in Mozart. You don't have the freedom in any music because it's so utterly organized, even modern music—though modern music is a different discipline."
Asked what comes next, Bedford insists he is so completely involved in "Earnest" he cannot think about future projects. "It's like asking someone after they've had a five-course meal what they want to eat tomorrow. You can't think about food at that moment."
"The Importance of Being Earnest" will run through July 3 at the Roundabout Theatre Company American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tickets: (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com or www.roundabouttheatre.org
– Nominated for six Tonys (won one) and six Drama Desk Awards (won five)
– Guest starred on "Frasier," "Cheers," and "Murder, She Wrote," among many other TV shows
– Featured in the film "Nixon," earning a SAG ensemble nomination
– Supplied the voice of the title character in Walt Disney's "Robin Hood"