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Tony Randall Unveils National Actors Theatre

'TO me, that's what theater is. Theater belongs to the actors, or should." Tony Randall manages to squeeze a few minutes from a frenetic schedule to talk about the new National Actors Theatre that he has founded and to explain its emphasis on the actor.Now nearly 70, Mr. Randall confesses, ve been talking about this theater for most of my life but got really busy with it about 10 years ago." Familiar to audiences for his situation comedy television series, "The Odd Couple," and an impressive number of sophisticated film comedies in the 1950s, Randall has always maintained his connection with the stage. His dream "to do the world's classics at a price that the average person can afford" is now a reality through his energy, resourcefulness, and determina tion. That resourcefulness was tested during a preview performance of the National Actors Theatre's debut production, Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." Fritz Weaver, who plays the pivotal role of Deputy Governor Danforth, became ill. Randall, script in hand, stepped in to save the show. ("The Crucible" officially opens Dec. 10 at Broadway's Belasco Theatre and runs until Jan. 5.) Randall has pulled together the company using a combination of financial contacts that combined to yield the approximately $6.5 million needed to start. "Ten years ago, I swore I would never do another [TV] series, but Warner made me an offer I couldn't refuse." In exchange for starring in "Love, Sidney," Warner agreed to donate a large sum to his nonprofit theater foundation. "Then I began to go out and hunt for money." He nailed down donations from a snack-foods company, an insurance company, foundatio ns, and individuals and created the organization. An all-star one-night performance last year of "The Odd Couple," headlined by Randall and Jack Klugman, took in $1.2 million. Martha Scott, who appears in "The Crucible" with Martin Sheen, Michael York, and Fritz Weaver, credits Randall with "doing something extraordinary, because everybody says the theater is dead. No. Good theater is appreciated and attended." The response bears out her assessment. Randall reports that within three days of an ad appearing the company had sold 10,000 subscriptions, which leaped to more than 28,000 soon after. "I think we automatically became the largest theater in the United States." Using a formula that combines a subscriber base with nonprofit status provides the company with the insurance most productions do not have - that their season can proceed as planned without worrying that box-office interest will dry up or be subjec t to the impact of a bad review. Randall notes that in other countries government-supported theater companies are the norm, citing France's Comedie Francaise, Britain's National Theatre, Japan's Kabuki, and Israel's Habima as examples. "We don't have government support. Should we? Of course we should." Randall will serve as artistic director, choosing plays and planning the seasons. This year's six-month season also includes productions of Georges Feydeau's "A Little Hotel on the Side," featuring Randall, and Henrik Ibsen's "The Master Builder," starring Earle Hyman, which Randall will direct. "Next year, I want to do four or five and run eight or nine months, and very soon, run year-round." Randall has also joined forces with New York City's education chancellor to create a program to bring young people into the audiences, with special performances for high school students. "Plus, I have a second balcony, which is for students, at $10 every single performance." Randall chose the 1,000-seat Belasco to house the project, a theater rarely used in recent years for commercial productions, although steeped in theater history. A special arrangement with each of the unions involved allows the nonprofit productions to operate as though they were at a regional theater instead of Broadway, which keeps costs down. Also cast in "The Crucible" is Molly Regan, who is a member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Company. She calls the selection of the Miller play, often identified with its McCarthy-era origins, "extraordinarily powerful." She says that "anybody who's ever been wrongly accused can identify with [the play]. And when you go right to the core, who among us has never been wrongly accused of something? That's what's universal about it."

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