The Reluctant Shakespearean: Frank Langella Keeps a Late Date With Lear

‘I wasn’t old enough to really understand what crawling towards death means’

Frank Langella as King Lear. (Photo by Johan Persson)

Frank Langella as King Lear. (Photo by Johan Persson)

Given the power and precision of Frank Langella’s baritone, which served him well when he played Richard Nixon in the award-winning play, then film, Frost/Nixon, it is strange that he has done so little Shakespeare. In the early 1960s, when he was 23, he was Iago to James Earl Jones’ first Othello. In the ’80s, he played Prospero at the Downtown Roundabout. He played Malcolm in Macbeth and was Oberon and Theseus in a Tyrone Guthrie Theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mr. Langella, who turned 76 on Jan. 1, is now taking a crack at the granddaddy of Bard roles, King Lear, in a production that opens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this week.

“I could have done what many actors do in England and gone through the canon, but I didn’t want to,” the actor said in an interview at BAM’s Harvey Theater (where Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen were the last to do Lear). “If I’d wanted to play any role when I was the right age for it, it would have been Richard III. Shakespeare is sort of a drug that you think, Oh, that’s not my drug. Then you try it, you sniff it, you taste it, you inject it, but once you’ve had it, you don’t want it anymore. That’s how I feel now. I understand why actors have been devoted to it for their whole lives. I haven’t. My career has not been one of wanting to do all of the great Shakespeare roles. In many ways, my favorite actor in that era wasn’t Olivier or Gielgud or Richardson. It was Rex Harrison. I thought what he could do in any role was remarkable, and he didn’t like Shakespeare much.”

As it turned out, Mr. Harrison’s preference to Shaw over Shakespeare kept knighthood away from him till the last year of his life. Brits can be unforgiving to actors who slight the Bard, which makes Mr. Langella’s Lear all the more astonishing. He is the first American to head up a company at the Chichester Festival Theater, and the Lear he did there last November reaped rhapsodic raves from the hard-nosed English critics.

Duncan Weldon, the London producer and an ex-Chichester chief, talked him into it. “’Really, think about it before you’re too old,’ he told me, so I sat down and—I have to say it—honestly read it for the first time with the idea of playing it. I had read it 30 years before. Every time, I’d said ‘no,’ I hadn’t really read it. This time, when I read it, I thought, Oh, of course, I’m at the age now to completely understand his plight and can empathize with it. Before, I wasn’t old enough to really understand what crawling towards death means, which is in Lear’s very first speech. And I didn’t understand quite what the idea of losing the props we all use to justify our existence means. One by one, Lear gives up those props, or they’re taken away from him.”

Mr. Langella may not have done much Shakespeare to date, but he has played the Bard himself. In 1968, he starred in William Gibson’s play A Cry of Players, at the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center. It was a trunk play from 1946 that had never gotten produced. “Bill’s wife saw Marlon Brando in a workshop and thought he’d be great in the part,” recalled Mr. Langella. “So Bill went to visit Marlon about it, and Marlon said, ‘I don’t want to do a play. I want to be a movie star.’ It just languished for the next 20 years till 1966 when Bill saw me in The Skin of Our Teeth with Annie Bancroft and Estelle Parsons and decided to take out the play and rewrite it for me.”

He doesn’t remember the role as being particularly intimidating. “He was an impetuous young man,” he said of this version of the Bard. “Bill based him on what he knew of young Will’s love affair with Anne Hathaway.” Directed by Gene Frankel, A Cry of Players twirled for 72 performances in repertory—alongside none other than King Lear.

Mr. Langella occasionally checked out that Lear, played by Lee J. Cobb. “He was one of my closest friends. In fact, several of my closest friends were in that production. Rene Auberjonois played the Fool in Lear. Stacy Keach played Edmund. Stacy and I shared a dressing room, but I wasn’t in Lear, and he wasn’t in A Cry of Players, so we never saw much of each other. A lot of them doubled, did both plays.”

Cobb, of course, is the tip of the iceberg where actors who have played Lear are concerned. Mr. Langella now finds himself in the company of Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud and Orson Welles. As for his own Lear?  “Several people wrote of how much my Lear seems to be looking for love,” he said of his performance in the Chichester. “I didn’t realize it, but it’s true. If you’ve lived your life as he has—from the moment of birth, having the crown put on your little head and every wish and every command of yours indulged in—you cannot understand real love. You get to be 85, and you think your daughters all love you. But since you don’t understand love, when one of them says, ‘I love you just because you’re my dad, and we’ve had good times together,’ and he says, ‘No, no, tell me more,’ he turns on her, because he can’t handle her honesty.”

The physical and vocal demands of Lear are enormous, but they are not the half of it, said Mr. Langella. “I don’t know how I can say this without it sounding pretentious or ‘actory,’ but I think I have to bear my soul in this part more than any role I’ve ever played. Even when I was doing Nixon, I felt I had to go there, but Lear—because of what his journey is—requires total soul bearing. He’s a man who says, ‘I’m going to take off my crown now, and everybody’s going to treat me the way they always have.’ Then he sees it’s only the crown they’ve been treating well and not him. Instead of saying, ‘I want my crown back, and I want to be king again,’ he says, ‘What have I done? What kind of life have I lived? I threw away the one child who really loved me, and now I’m being tossed away by the two who didn’t.’ In order to do that, an actor has to look at that very quality in himself: What is my metaphorical crown? What do I carry around that I think is the reason people either like me or don’t like me? How brave can I be about taking it off and just being a human on the planet?”

The Lear ordeal leaves Mr. Langella more energized than depleted. “I always feel better at the end of it,” he insisted. “But at the beginning—wild horses! I don’t want to do it. When you know where you have to go and you’re my age, you’re never really satisfied until you rip yourself open and tear yourself apart. What’s the point of doing it if you don’t go where the character needs to go? Albert Camus once said that it takes the man in the audience a lifetime to emotionally travel the distance the man playing Lear travels in two hours, and that’s true. So around four in the afternoon, I go into a very low place of energy. I just think I’m never going to do it, and then adrenalin and determination and ego all kick in, and out I go.”