"Big Daddy" Pollit is back in town, thumping and thundering around his Mississippi Delta plantation like the proverbial bull in a china shop, shattering the egos and agendas of those around him. It's his 65th birthday, and he has bolted from the hospital with a carefully doctored "clean bill of health," which, like his family hovering ominously on the sidelines, is shot through with "mendacity" — soon to be rescinded and called by its dreaded rightful name (terminal cancer instead of a minor "spastic colon").
The play is Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Big Daddy remains one of his most towering inventions. Ned Beatty recently set up shop here with a portrayal that won him great acclaim in London (and an Olivier Award nomination). What he brings to the birthday party, beyond the prerequisite hellfire, is some surprising tenderness and understanding toward his second-born, Brick Pollit (Jason Patric), who has retreated into an alcoholic haze following the suicide of a homosexual friend.
"The passage of time has made this play somewhat different," Beatty believes. "First and last, Big Daddy is a redneck. He is not this rich plantation owner. He is a redneck. And he's the guy who's trying to teach Brick he understands his son's feelings. Brick is the homophobe. I don't think people used to see that in the play. Now, you can see it. It's about a father and a son. The father is saying, 'C'mon, live your life. You're here.' And Brick doesn't want to because he's so torn up."
Beatty couldn't be more in sync with the character. With eight young'uns of his own (from four marriages), he's eminently qualified to play the patriarch. Plus, the plantation palaver Williams has provided is served up with easy authenticity in Beatty's lazy Kentucky cadence. "It's very natural for English actors to do Shakespeare," he says. "They just go out and open their mouths and let it happen. Tennessee Williams, to a Southerner, is the same kind of feeling. I once did a play of his, set in Nashville — Period of Adjustment. It failed twice in New York, but I played it in the South, and audiences loved it. He knew every nuance of these people he wrote about."
It has taken Beatty some 50 TV credits and a good 60 feature films to get to a starring role on Broadway. His stage roots — more than 70 plays — barely show, having been logged almost entirely at the beginning of his career, which kicked in from two highly unusual points of entry: In 1947 he began singing in barbershop and gospel quartets, and in 1956 he performed in outdoor historical pageants. When he decided "the actor's life for me," he took it seriously, racking up a decade at Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA, then following that with eight years at Arena Stage in D.C. "I used to worry about acting because I did not grow up in a family of actors or artists or performers. I always thought of it as fun. 'How could you get tired doing it?'"
At 66, he's beginning to see the light. "If the confrontation between Brick and Big Daddy really happens, it's like having a confrontation with somebody in your family. If nothing else, it's physically draining. I did it with Brendan Fraser in London, and he's a big guy. If we got physical with each other — which we often did — it knocked you out."
Broadway recharges his battery. His only other Main Stem appearance found him fielding six bit parts in The Great White Hope, until he eventually replaced an actor in a one-scene role as the Chicago district attorney.
At this juncture, a different door opened. "Deliverance" director John Boorman was canvassing the country for well-trained rep actors who were unknown to movies. As the Arena Stage's redneck-in-residence, Beatty qualified in spades. His work as the "good old boy" sodomized by backwoodsmen was a helluvah way to break into pictures, but it kept him there — steadily employed — for 30 years ("Nashville" and "Network" are points of pride).
Once, recently, he escaped to skipper Show Boat across the country. His Cap'n Andy was the only time he played the musical card that started him into show business, and he doubts if he'll go back for seconds. "I'm totally comfortable with acting. If I have to sing, I can feel my knees knocking."
For the present, he'll make music with the words Tennessee Williams has provided Big Daddy, a veritable aria of angst delivered center stage all alone.