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Langella's latest guise - as Sherlock Holmes on Broadway

He has played a fanged vampire; a sea lizard; Mozart's old nemesis, Salieri; a skeletal villain of the universe; and the cad who broke Carrie Snodgress's heart in ``Diary of a Mad Housewife.'' Stop him, someone, before he thrills again. But it may be too late. Frank Langella, the man behind those masks, opens Thursday on Broadway as the prince of thrillers: Sherlock Holmes. He stalks the stage in a new play, ``Sherlock's Last Case,'' by Charles Marowitz. Mr. Langella leaves startling new fingerprints on the legend of the arch-detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 100 years ago.

Just before ``Sherlock'' ended its Washington run at Kennedy Center, Langella sat down in his dressing room to chat about his role as both star and producer of the show.

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``Charles [Marowitz] has written a very unique, `what-if...?' Holmes. He's not a traditional Holmes, and he's not based on a Conan Doyle story. So it's Charles's Holmes that I'm playing.

``He's certainly more vain, more egocentric, far more mean. He's a snob. He's narcissistic and quite disdainful. He's a unique character sketch; he's been interestingly drawn.''

Langella's Holmes is also silkily charming, elegantly tailored, and the first Sherlock to bring a subtle sexiness to the role. ``Yes,'' Langella says with a nod, ``he's interested in the woman of this play. But he's interested, too, in women in general.''

He admits, ``For a while I think I did have, in the early rehearsals, all these ghosts in my head of [Basil] Rathbone [in the movie ``The Hound of the Baskervilles''] and even some of what Jeremy Brett does [in ``The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes'' on PBS], and the Holmeses I've seen over the years. [He has also played the role once before.] But they gradually leave me, and I become very involved in the text and what I instinctively feel the man would do.''

Langella has left his suave and dapper detective on stage as he talks candidly about the roles - acting and otherwise - he plays in life. His head of thick black hair edged with gray looks windblown. He is wearing, not Victorian tweeds, but a white T-shirt of the type golfers wear on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach and, with it, a very long pair of gray and black plaid trousers. Langella is stretched out in an easy chair, comfortable as a panther on a rock, with his feet in gray running shoes propped up on his dressing table. Vertical, he is well over six feet tall and slightly formidable. His brown eyes are overhung by black cliffs of eyebrows. The voice is a deep baritone, soft as suede, with a polished burl that comes from years of acting.

He is talking about how playing Sherlock may or may not have slopped over into the rest of his life. ``I don't feel ever that I take a character home with me, although my wife says that, in the last few months of `Dracula,' she thinks I actually believed I could fly.''

He points out that, since playing Sherlock, ``I'm very meticulous these days, so in that instance, it's probably slopped over. And friends of mine have told me that I'm far more detail-oriented than usual, very concerned about the facts of things and the truth of things, and I tend to get right down to the heart of everything. And I think that's a combination of Sherlock and producing.''

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As head of Alfie Productions (named for his Yorkshire terrier), Langella is producing ``Sherlock's Last Case'' in conjunction with Kennedy Center and the Landmark Entertainment Group. Producer Langella says proudly that he brought the $1.2 million-budget show into Washington nearly $90,000 under budget, and that it grossed $1 million in its month-long run here.

The trick to being a producer, says Langella, is listening.

``The clich'e would be to think that, if you're the producer, you talk, and you give orders, and you say do this and do that. But in fact, I listen to my employees and I listen to my colleagues. I listen very carefully to what's bothering them. I try to get to the heart of it as quickly as I can....'' He adds that, when you're a producer, people don't want to hear your problems. ``They want to hear leadership things from you.''

When playwright Charles Marowitz sent Langella his script and asked if he'd be interested in playing Holmes, Langella said yes, provided he could produce the play. The lure of producing, says Langella, ``is to try to have the entire production reflect your taste. You can have a say [in decisions] if you're the star of the show, but you don't really have the final say.'' The success of a play rests on a single point of view being adhered to, says Langella, and in this case it's his.

There are bottles of makeup and brushes lined up neatly in his dressing room under the mirrors and Matisse prints. But at times producer Langella acts more like a frazzled businessman than the actor who won a Tony Award for his portrayal of the lizard in Edward Albee's play ``Seascape,'' and a Tony nomination as the Transylvanian matinee idol in ``Dracula.'' He has also collected three Obie Awards (``Benito Cereno - The Old Glory,'' ``The White Devil,'' and ``Good Day'') and a National Society of Film Critics Award for his film debut as the heartless lover in ``Dairy of a Mad Housewife.'' Langella says candidly of that role, ``Well I was a cad and a bounder then, so I didn't have much trouble playing [it].'' That infamous role made him an overnight star at 29. ``I think I lived off my identity as an actor for a while.''

He says his attitude changed 10 years ago, when he married Ruth Weil, former editorial director of House Beautiful, and they had a son and daughter. Now, he says, ``I think of myself as a man and father but not as an actor.'' Both kids are delighted that he's playing the giant toy Skeletor, the bony ``villain of all the universe'' in the movie ``Masters of the Universe,'' which opens the night before ``Sherlock's Last Case'' in New York. He'll also star, with Rebecca de Mornay, in Roger Vadim's remake of ``And God Created Woman'' set in New Mexico.

Langella, who has also been involved in directing, is interested in writing, too. He wrote an ``About Men'' column last summer for The New York Times Magazine, titled ``The Monsters in My Head.'' It was a moving piece about the childhood fears he'd had as a boy and how he taught his four-year-old son to overcome his own imaginary monster in the shadows.

Langella grew up in Bayonne, N.J., in a middle-class family that never went near a theater. His father owned a steel drum reconditioning business. ``I was a loner. Loners seem to become actors, or actors force themselves into the light out of that loneliness.'' He'd wanted to be an actor since the age of 11, when he became a gnome in a school play. At Syracuse University he majored in acting and got a BS degree for his work in speech pathology.

Now, with years of success behind him, he says, ``I think for an actor it's absolutely essential not to stay the thing for which you were initially loved, but to keep changing....'' Langella, who has never done Shakespeare, would like to tackle ``Hamlet.''

He says, ``I look at actors sometimes on television, and my heart breaks, because all I see is pots of hair dye, pancake, face lifts, and efforts to keep being what they were 10 years ago. And I think it's sad, because I find them so much more interesting if they'd just let themselves be what they are.''

The greatest mistake, he says, is to confuse images with life. ``Those people that we kind of hold to our hearts, the image people, the legendary artists, all end miserably for the most part, and sadly, in hotel rooms or palaces or castles or holed up in a hill somewhere behind gates. And we like to think, `Oh, how magical and mystical and wonderful.' But basically they are people who at some point in their lives said, `Well, I have two roads I can go down here: I can go down the human road, or I can go down this path of legendariness.' And down they go. They hold onto their images until they crack like eggshells. And that's that. That's all they have.''

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