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.''
It was a sympathetic schoolteacher who led him to take acting seriously, he recalls, encouraging his talent despite ``a certain amount of prejudice'' against blacks that he says afflicted San Diego, his hometown. Eventually he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts on a scholarship, broke into the Off Broadway theater scene, graduated to the Broadway and Hollywood circuits, and picked up a Tony, among other awards. His career has embraced all the performance media, and he tries to keep room in his schedule for such noncommercial projects as dramatic readings and workshop productions.
Although black performers have been badly slighted in Hollywood and Broadway circles, Little doesn't speak out readily on racial matters. Early in his acting life he was supported by teachers who focused on his gifts rather than his color, and he feels he has been able to grow as an artist without facing a great deal of bias or bigotry. ``I know there's a lot of it out there,'' he says, ``but I've been fortunate.''
Still, he acknowledges that something is askew in a society that boasts so many black talents and makes such minimal use of them. Speaking of this issue, he cuts right to the basic questions: ``Where are the blacks? Why aren't they chosen for more parts? Why don't the producers and directors put them in everyday parts that don't involve race? When blacks do get a part in a movie or a play, it's usually to show how black people suffer. But they don't all suffer. I don't suffer. We can play all kinds of parts, but we have to get the chance.''
The villain in this situation, he continues, is the mistaken idea that white audiences won't respond to black performers. ``The producers operate out of fear,'' Little says. ``They're afraid of losing the white audience. But what people want is to be entertained. If you give them the best, they'll buy all the tickets you can sell. . . .''
Looking to his own future, Little says his ambitions include finding good parts in a major movie or two -- just to keep his hand in -- and ``working to overcome my fear of auditioning for a musical, because that's something I'd really like to try again.'' His current plans call for more ``Rappaport'' performances, first at the Booth and later (he expects) on a road-company tour. ``This is a good part in a good play,'' he says with quiet satisfaction. ``And that's such a pleasure to find.''