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Little: It's great being back on Broadway

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Cleavon Little is back on Broadway, and he couldn't be happier. The immediate occasion is ``I'm Not Rappaport,'' a smart Herb Gardner comedy with Mr. Little and Judd Hirsch as two eccentric old codgers who strike up a wary friendship while sharing a Central Park bench. It's drawing crowds at the Booth Theatre here after a hit premi`ere engagement (with Little playing the same part) at the Seattle Rep.

The underlying occasion is Little's longtime preference for stage work over movie work, East Coast over West Coast, meaningful Broadway plays over high-visibility Hollywood turkeys.

Not that he's ungrateful for the fame Hollywood has given him, starting with the Mel Brooks farce ``Blazing Saddles'' back in 1974. But a 13-year stay in Los Angeles taught him that movies shouldn't be his steady diet.

``You get lazy out there,'' Little told me in his Booth dressing room the other day, looking at least three decades younger (which he is) than the rangy old building superintendent he plays in ``Rappaport.''

Back on the New York boards, Little feels renewed. He finds stage work more fulfilling than film, because ``it's immediate . . . and sustained,'' and because he still gets a thrill when he faces an audience. ``It's fine for us to talk one on one like this,'' he said to me shortly before show time, ``but a little while from now I'll be standing in front of possibly 800 people. That's a very different thing!''

This ``different thing'' -- getting attention and applause from others -- is what drew Little to acting in the first place. ``I grew up convinced that my head was too long, my feet were too big, I was too dark, and my eyes were too large,'' he says with a smile, ``and acting was the only way I could get accepted by people! I didn't consciously know I wanted to be an actor when I was young, but I think I always knew it subconsciously.''

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