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The Prime of Mr. Tony Randall

The classic comedy performer pursues his most important role yet, as founder and artistic director of the National Actors Theatre

EVERYONE knows Tony Randall because of his classic characterization of Felix Unger in the television series "The Odd Couple."

What people are less likely to know is that he made his Broadway debut more than 50 years ago. Or that his credits include "Candida," with Jane Cowl; "The Corn is Green," with Ethel Barrymore; "Antony and Cleopatra," with Katharine Cornell; and "Caesar and Cleopatra," with Cedric Hardwicke. He has had a thriving career on stage, on screen, on television, and as America's best-known opera buff. For the last decade, he has been consumed with the dream of creating a national theater to present the classics of world theater in repertory.

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The National Actors Theatre, of which Mr. Randall is the founder and artistic director (this year, Michael Langham is co-artistic director), had its premiere season last year with productions of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," Feydeau's "A Little Hotel on the Side," and Ibsen's "The Master Builder."

This year the company has already presented Chekhov's "The Seagull," is currently doing Shaw's "Saint Joan," and in April will stage the George Abbott farce, "Three Men on a Horse," in which Randall will be reunited with his "Odd Couple" costar Jack Klugman.

The National Actors Theatre has not been met with universal acclaim by the critical community (although some recent reviews of "Saint Joan" were positive). I talked with Randall about his struggles to build the theater, its progress, and his feelings toward the critics.

When did you first get the idea of starting the National Actors Theatre?

It's something I believed in all my life. When I studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse, our teacher, Sanford Meisner, was part of the Group Theatre. The Group Theatre was always an ideal. Later in life I saw the national theaters of other countries. The Royal Shakespeare, the Comedie Francaise, the Habimah [in Israel], the Moscow Art Theatre, etc. Always the idea was in my mind that, sooner or later, someone would start one and ask me to be in it!

Eventually it dawned on me that unless I started it, it was not going to happen in my lifetime. So after 10 years or so, I just started up. I didn't know what was involved. I didn't have any idea how much money it would cost. And I didn't know that you had to get a theater. Simple things like that.

Did you always dream of doing it in New York, in a Broadway theater?

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That's what I wanted. I didn't want it Off-Broadway and I didn't want it out of town. I wanted to be in the heart of Broadway, in an important theater. I don't think you could do it anyplace else.

This season you and Michael Langham are co-artistic directors. How do you select the plays you are going to do in a given season?

Last year, I wanted to open with an American classic. Marty Sheen suggested "The Crucible." He was exactly right for it. And so we opened with that. Then I wanted to do something from world literature. And I also wanted to do a play for me. That was the Feydeau. And Ibsen, of course, is another world figure. I love "The Master Builder." I had done it before. So there we were, that was our season.

And this year?

Maryann Plunkett was in all my plays last year, and I told her that I would do a play for her this year. And she wanted to do "Saint Joan." Michael Langham loved the play and wanted to do it. We opened with "The Seagull" because it's one of the great things you must do if you want to have this kind of theater, and I thought I put together the perfect cast for it. I still think so. Finally, with "Three Men on a Horse," I wanted a play for Jack Klugman and me, and that's very hard to find, a good play for the two of us.

How do you feel about the critical and commercial reaction to the National Actors Theatre?

We're doing very well at the box office. And with subscribers. There are people who appreciate us and want us. I agree with Clive Barnes [of the New York Post].... He made an astonishing statement that I almost would challenge, but I accept it.

He said, all right, they're not the Royal Shakespeare, they're not the Comedie Francaise, but their standards are higher than the Old Vic, before it became the National [Theatre in London]. Well, I'll accept that, because I saw the Old Vic many times, and I thought they were great. So if our standards are higher than that, in his opinion, I'll willingly and gladly accept it.

Why do you think the critics have been so harsh?

I can't imagine. Nobody can. And people like Clive Barnes have written about it and come to our defense.

Of course I don't think it's right. I'm prejudiced.

But do you ever agree with the individual assessments of a particular production? Did you take issue with every criticism of every production?

I didn't read every criticism. When I'm told they're bad, I don't read them. I didn't read any this year except Clive Barnes's good one.

They're too upsetting to me, I must admit. I don't sleep for nights. I just can't afford to get that upset. They're very wounding. They hurt. They hurt.

What do you think of the level of classical acting in this country? Is it difficult to cast these productions?

Yes. We don't have enough classical theater. I'm obviously trying to do something about that. But the fact is that every state in the union should have a state theater devoted to the classics. So that everybody, especially kids, can see the great plays....

We don't have an enormous pool of actors well-schooled in the classics. If you were to ask every American who was the best Oedipus he ever saw, well, probably 99.999 percent have never see one. That's criminal. Everyone should have seen the Greek classics. They're the origin of our theater. They don't even teach that in schools. They teach Shakespeare, so you'll hate him forever.

How much pressure do you feel to cast name actors in roles?

That's a very good question. I want the best actors I can get. The best actors in America are our name actors. No question about that.

But is that necessarily true regarding the classics?

Yup. It's also very valuable from a box-office point of view.

But if you were casting a Shaw play, you'd cast Philip Bosco over Clint Eastwood.

Of course.

In the case of "The Seagull," you cast Ethan Hawke, who happens to be a very popular movie actor at the moment.

That choice was made by the director, Marshall Mason. There must have been 30 guys who came up and read for it. We didn't go after Ethan Hawke. Far from it. He went after the part.... And he had some pretty tough competition. I thought that I had enough name value in that play with Jon Voight and Tyne Daly.... I thought that he was the most interesting who read for it. And the youngest. I think he's an actor of tremendous potential. He can be our next Hamlet if he aspires toward it, and is willing to wor k hard enough. He has to build his voice.

It seems that the best critical response has been for your regular performers, as opposed to the stars you've brought in, like Tyne Daly.

They weren't very kind to her. Some were. Time magazine was wonderful toward her. [The reviewer] understood what she was trying to do with the part. Others didn't. But she was doing something very original. It wasn't what they wanted to see.

What was she doing?

She didn't make any attempt to make [Madame Arkadina] sympathetic. She played it straight, like an arrow. I don't think it's ever been done that way. [Actresses] always attempt to find something adorable about her and so forth.

Has there been a lot of demand among performers to be in the company?

Yes and no. Sometimes, with all the best will in the world, actors are tied up. Not just the name ones. They've got a movie, a TV series, something coming up exactly when we're going into rehearsals. That happens all the time.

I should mention that last year, Rob Lowe, whom I was very glad to have, came to us. He said he wanted to be a part of what we were doing. He's a very smart young man. And he realizes that looks like his don't last forever, and that one fine day he's going to have to get by on something else, and that he'd better learn how to act. Well, it's worked out marvelously for him. He's going to become an important stage actor. And he came to our front door and rang the bell. Now, I don't know who Ethan Hawke and

Rob Lowe are. I honestly don't.

I know who Clint Eastwood is. But I don't know this younger generation of actors that kids who hang out in malls across the country are screaming for.

You're only acting in one production a year.

I'd like to act in every show.

But you've picked two farces to appear in. Haven't you had the desire to play a serious part?

Oh, yes. but I think we should do one farce or comedy every year. That should be part of the mix. And I'm better ... practiced at that. There are many parts I'd like to play. Most of the parts I really aspire to, I'm now too old for.

What would be your dream production?

My dream, and we're a long way from it, is to operate the year round. So that I could build a company and hold it together, and build such a large and cohesive company that I wouldn't ever have to go outside the company to cast anything. A true repertory company.

Wouldn't you be trading some marquee value to do that?

Yes, but it's my dream that the company would become so good that people would want to see the company. It would be the star. That would be the right way.

What productions are you thinking about for the future?

I have rather elaborate plans for next year. But my only superstition is, I will not talk about things until I have contracts.

Now that you're up and running, is it harder or easier to get the money you need?

Harder. Oh, yes. All across the country nonprofit theaters are going under, going broke.

It's a shocking state of affairs, when you consider that one B-2 bomber costs many times our national endowment. Our national endowment is less than what the city of Vienna gives to the Vienna opera. This is appalling.

I was present at the opening of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. I heard [then-] Gov. George Wallace pledge perpetual support from the state legislature. And the city of Montgomery gives them half a million dollars a year.

It's the most beautiful Shakespearean theater I've seen, and I've seen them all. Now imagine, if the city of Montgomery could give that much money, what could the city of New York do?

How much of a financial cushion does the NAT have?

We've done very well with our benefits. Last year we did "The Odd Couple" for one performance and raised $1.2 million. We're doing it twice again, in Palm Beach and Los Angeles.

Do you enjoy stepping into that part again?

Sure. It's a wonderful play. I love that part, and I love being with Jack.

Aside from the financial problems, what's been the most frustrating part of this experience?

The negative critical response.

Assuming that the critics aren't out to get the NAT, and that they're simply not liking a particular production, should they temper their response because the venture is so worthwhile?

No, they should say what they think. But they attack us, and they attack me. They've been personal attacks. One person wrote that this is just a TV star's ego trip. That referred to our first production, "The Crucible." That was a beautiful production....

Have you ever considered not inviting the critics? Can you survive without them?

I imagine I could. I haven't really thought about it. Good idea.

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