He's that rare artist who always works, whether on Broadway or Off, whether acting or directing. He just completed Lincoln Center Theater's revival of The Little Foxes for which he was Tony-nominated as Best Featured Actor. In the middle of that run he was hired for Roundabout's current revival of Misalliance in their Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre. What's your secret, Brian Murray?
"Luck and timing," he chuckles during a rehearsal break. "Being available and that job being right, then being available for another that can follow. That's just luck."
He's feeling lucky about his role in Misalliance. "I can't say John Tarleton is the standout. After all, it's an ensemble piece. But he's the most agreeable character he agrees with everything I've played in a long time. Ben in Little Foxes, now that was evil. But that can be fun!"
Murray was born of British parents in South Africa and from age eight worked professionally onstage and in radio. He went to England at 18 to study, "but I took a repertory company job, which gave me my education."
In 1961 he was accepted into the Royal Shakespeare Company and landed in New York in 1964 on their world tour in honor of Shakespeare's quattrocentenary year. "It was the RSC's first U.S. tour," he said. "We did King Lear, directed by Peter Brook at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater, the only time there's ever been a straight play there. It opened only two weeks before we did. We didn't have mikes, and the acoustics were dreadful!" Murray, who is soon to become a United States citizen, fell in love with New York. "I'd never known a place as exciting," he said. When the tour ended, he returned to New York and joined the Off-Broadway hit The Knack, directed by Mike Nichols.
"I caught as much theatre as possible," said Murray. "What impressed me was the passion, commitment and vitality of the actors. By comparison, the English theatre was laid back. It was considered bad form to get too intense, and I was intense. I found myself in a place where everyone was intense, so I knew this was where I wanted to be."
In 1965 Murray made his Broadway debut in All in Good Time starring the distinguished Donald Wolfit "in a company that was mostly English but which had a lot of good American actors, such as Richard Dysart [of TVs 'L.A. Law'] and John Karlen [Tyne Daly's husband on 'Cagney & Lacey']. It got wonderful notices except in the Times. So we closed. Yes, even then! It deserved much better."
In England he worked on the West End and in the regions and ruminated on coming back to America. It took three years, but the vehicle was Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. "That was an extraordinary experience," said Murray, who was nominated for a 1968 Tony for Best Featured Actor (as Rosencrantz) along with cast members Paul Hecht and John Wood. "We won the Tony (for Best Play) and became a cult hit." In his book The Season, William Goldman called it the first snob hit. "None of us realized it was going to be that popular, least of all David Merrick [the producer], who only took the theatre for three months. But it was the sixties, and every kid who was possibly going to Vietnam identified with these two almost nameless, background people who are used by the government. We ran for a year."
Did the Tony nomination secure his future? "Yes," he replied. "Let's say, 'Of course, it did!'" he added thoughtfully. "More than anything, it was the play and the incredible reviews."
Some highlights of his full career as an actor were: Hugh Leonard's 1978 Tony-winning Best Play Da, in which he played Charlie, the son; Sleuth; Noises Off; two years ago Off-Broadway in Travels with My Aunt opposite Jim Dale;
and last season, Off-Broadway again, in a revival of The Entertainer.
"Noises Off was memorable," observed Murray. "Because of its nature, being farce, it wasn't considered as great to work on as Rosencrantz, but I'd put it right up there. I had the opportunity to do Da again last summer, this time playing the
title role, at Irish Repertory, where I've also directed."
Which brings us to that "other hat." Is it easy to be directed when you've directed? "Much easier," he noted, "particularly if it's a director I trust. I happily take that hat off and say, 'I want to be directed. Govern me,' as my character in Misalliance says. When there's a director who's nervous, I assure them it's a dream to be directed. Frankly, I could no more direct myself in a play than fly!
"As a director, you cannot have your ego get in the way of your concern for the actors. You have to be their nurse, lover, daddy, all those things. An actor has to have an ego, but a director shouldn't not that sort of ego."
Murray enjoys going back and forth between his two personas. "Interestingly, I seem to do it in batches, several in a row and not act. Then I come back to acting."
What makes the time right? "I'll read a play or, perhaps, discuss one in which I'm too old to do a particular role, and the juices start to flow. My favorite directing is with a play by, say, Shaw because you have so much intelligence to deal with. The secret to having fun is to get people who can understand and speak it well."
-- By Ellis Nassour