A Star in Spite of Himself

A Star in Spite of Himself After three decades of stellar performances, actors' actor Lewis J. Stadlen has become what he never set out to be — a bona fide star

Some actors make an obsessive science of achieving stardom. Not Lewis J. Stadlen. The fact that his name ignites only a faraway familiarity seconds the motion. He tends to spend his energy on the role at hand, making it the best possible performance he can — and just look where that has gotten him: to the St. James, where he stars above the title in Mel Brooks's mega-hit The Producers as Max Bialystock, Broadway blow-hard. Where did he go right?

Stadlen's special brand of iconoclastic comedy starts with Zero (as in Mostel), and The Producers, of course, is Zero to the Max — a gleefully unregenerate con man lithely at play (and pay) in Little Old Lady Land. "Zero Mostel is certainly the person I have stolen from shamelessly, as well as Nathan [Lane, the B'way megahit's Tony-winning original Max], and Nathan stole from Zero, too. We both went to the movie to try and figure out what was the essence of Zero's performance. What I came up with was that, in the most affirmative sense, he's a man with no guilt. None. And to play a guy who's guilty about nothing is very life-affirming. It spins everything in a positive way. He's a hustler who'll do anything — anything! — to perpetuate a lifestyle he no longer possesses. All of Mel Brooks's stuff is like that. It's about people with very immediate needs that have to be fulfilled. That's why there's such tremendous energy up onstage."

There's a hard edge to his own broad-stroked characters — and some real-life reference points as well. You'll find more than a morsel of Mostel in Stadlen's goofy gaggle of zanies, including — under their real names or not — at least two Marx brothers (Minnie's Boys and The Man Who Came to Dinner) and Jackie Mason (45 Seconds From Broadway).

Of course, if you've got it yourself, flaunt it — and Lewis J. Stadlen, the overnight star 36 years in the making, is finally entitled. "I feel very good that I've gotten to this point. It has taken me a long while. I'm treated as a star, yet I really haven't dedicated myself to being a celebrity. After a few years, it didn't interest me that much. The thing that I want to do is work with the best people in the business — and I've succeeded in that.

"I've been very choosy. I haven't been in any disasters because I haven't been totally obsessed with upward mobility. The idea that I reached the point of being in this incredible vehicle makes me feel I made some important and sensible choices in my life."