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The Spellbinder

The Spellbinder

His is indeed a life in the theatre. His film and television resume is also replete with solid credits. But Roy Dotrice has also spent lifetimes in prisoner-of-war camps, in fascinating visits to houses of other well-respected British actors, and in the supportive presence of his family.

In speaking of his work, Dotrice weaves in bits of these tales, recounting them with voices and accents. That work has ranged from playing the 15-year-old Mio Romagna in Maxwell Anderson's Winterset through his one-man show on Winston Churchill. He was Tony-nominated for his work in A Life and a 2000 Tony winner for his performance in A Moon for the Misbegotten. He performed in all of Shakespeare's plays during his nine years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he has played 18 lead roles in London's West End. His film appearances include perhaps most notably the role of Leopold Mozart in Amadeus.

Now, at age 82, the longtime character actor is at long last playing younger. He is opening at the Brentwood Theatre this week, playing Grandpa in Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You, directed by Christopher Hart, the playwright's son. In a sense it's not a stretch: Dotrice lived through the era, he says he feels quite at home on the heavily wallpapered set, and there's that age thing. Indeed he says he was rehearsing his doddering old-man impersonation--as he says, "a touch of Gabby Hayes about it"--until Christopher Hart gently reminded the actor of his age. Apparently, Hart is the only one who remembers that age. The actor is vibrant, slightly salty, and agile enough to climb down a ladder from the Brentwood's stage to this interview.

A Self-Starter

All the stories Dotrice tells of his career begin with his childhood on the Island of Guernsey (in the English Channel), or his months as a POW during World War II. At age 15 he spent almost four days rowing across the English Channel, signed up with the Royal Air Force after lying about his age the second time he applied, flew for two years and was captured by the Germans, and taught himself to act while being held captive. The young Dotrice, who hadn't yet started shaving, began his legendary career playing women.

Apparently he learned so much from performing in the camps that he was offered a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Before enrolling, but after the liberation, he and his fellow ex-POWs toured a show titled Back Home, a potpourri of their camp productions. The tour ended in Manchester, and Dotrice went to see Manchester Repertory Company's production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. "The guy who was playing Robert Browning--he was so bad--I thought after my three and a half years' experience on the stage in prisoner-of-war camps, if I couldn't do as well as that without going to RADA, I ought to be shot." He declined the RADA scholarship. Instead he offered his services to the rep company's proprietor and was given the lead in Terence Rattigan's Flarepath, to begin the following Monday. Then came 13 years of weekly repertory performances, during which played more than 500 leading roles, many more than twice.

Eventually he formed his own company in Guernsey. "And thereby hangs a tale...," he reminisces. He opted to resurrect a role he had tried while in the camps--his first male role, that of the 15-year-old in Winterset, whose father had wrongly been accused of murder. To this day Dotrice recalls his monologue--and begins to deliver it during this interview, rich with emotion, young tears, nuance. But Dotrice says the Guernsey production was not well-received, his time to be performing teen roles having passed.

Entrances and Exits

Along the way, he learned from watching--some lessons more Zen than Method. When Olivier played Othello at the Old Vic Theatre, recalls Dotrice, "One night, as the great French director Michel St-Denis would have said, 'Ze bird 'ad flown.' Something had happened to Olivier; he was giving a marvelous performance. He was almost hovering above the stage. We all congregated in the wings to watch him. And then we take the curtain call. And as they went past me, I said, 'Well done, Larry.' He said, 'Ah, f*ck,' went to his dressing room, and slammed the door. I knocked on his door. 'Come in!' So I went in. I said, 'What the hell's the matter with you, Larry? It was a wonderful performance tonight.' He said, 'I knew it was. But I don't know how the f*ck I did it.' And that's the actor's dilemma. There's no button you can press every night for getting a wonderful performance."

Other lessons Dotrice learned were practical. In the 1940s actors got paid 6 pence for an entrance round of applause and a shilling for an exit round. "If you got your shilling, you'd get a packet of cigarettes and fish and chips on the way home. And actors used all kinds of tricks," explains Dotrice. "You could be doing an ordinary drawing-room comedy, and some old actor would go up to the French doors center, and, nothing to do with the script, would turn and say, 'One, two, three, four, and to hell with the lot of you,' bang his foot-because there was always a metal sill, which would [rattle], and that would start his exit round."

Wilfred Hyde-White (Col. Pickering in the film version of My Fair Lady) told Dotrice one of the classic exit-round stories. Hyde-White was performing in the West End with a then-elderly Charles Heslop. As Dotrice tells it, "Charles had his big scene, and at the end of it he'd exit through the French doors. And there was a little garden wall with roses. And Wilfred used to go off with him--because, you see, if someone does a big scene, and exits, and nothing is left onstage, the audience applauds. But if it's a big scene and someone is left onstage, you think they're going to do something, so you don't applaud.

"So, every night after Charles had his big scene, Wilfred used to exit with him," Dotrice continues. "And they used to have a little chat at the end of the garden wall [offstage]. And when the applause had died down, Wilfred would come on and continue the play. One night Charles said to him, 'Wilfred, why is it that every night after my big scene, you come off with me?' Wilfred said, 'Well, I just enjoy our little chats.' Charles said, 'Come off it. What's the real reason?' So Wilfred said, 'My dear chap, I'm just helping you on your exit round.' Charles said, 'Well, Wilfred, I don't think I need any assistance from you.' For the next three weeks, whenever Charles exited, Wilfred would knock the phone over or open a great [big] copy of The Times. So for three weeks there was absolutely no applause at all. One night, there's a knock on Wilfred's door. It was Charles: 'Wilfred, I just wanted to say, I do so miss our chats at the end of the garden wall.'"

This Is Your Life

Considering Dotrice's background, one would think he'll never again need to audition. "Oh, God, I spend my life going to auditions, still," he exclaims. "You never stop auditioning in this country. It's not so bad in England, because they know my work." He was up for two pilots this season--the only two that were age-appropriate for him. "I thought I was absolutely brilliant. I didn't get either," he says. "It's that phrase we hear continually: 'We're going in another direction.'" To prepare, he tries to work out the character, voice and all. "But it's kind of silly," he says. "Basically you know very well that if you're auditioning for film and television, you've got to play if off your own personality. They don't want heavy character stuff."

His wife, actor Kay Newman, who was in rep with him for those 13 years, helps him prepare for auditions and keeps his performances real. "As she always has been my best critic, I pay attention to what she says. I go onstage, and I think I'm performing wonderfully, and I say to her afterward, with a big smile, 'How was that?' And she says, 'Bloody awful. How dare you do that awful, 1930s-style acting. Stop it, you old ham.' And that's great. It's what you need, isn't it?"

This thought further reminds him of one of his visits to the home of the now-late actors Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. Laughton was performing Lear. "On the first night, I was sitting in his dressing room," Dotrice recalls. "He came in after the first act. Elsa said to him, 'How dare you? That pissing little performance you're giving up there. You're giving a stupid, bloody film performance. This is a great character. All these pissing little gestures. Do something big. You're a big king up there.' And she reduced him to tears, the great Charles Laughton."

Dotrice would love to take on Lear. "It does seem to be the epitome of one's acting career," says the actor. It would take the right director to lure him into a production, though. "The strength of any company, the strength of any chain, is as strong as its weakest link," he says. "There's no point in doing Lear with an inferior company. You've got to do Lear with the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company--something like that--where you're going to have to fight for your existence from all the other actors who are as good if not better than you. And whatever you do in life, if you do it with people who are better than you, you're going to improve." BSW

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