Few actors can boast as strong a record on the New York stage as Brian Bedford. His presence has been somewhat spotty over the years (five plays in the last decade), but four of the performances—The Moliere Comedies and London Assurance at the Roundabout Theatre Company, Timon of Athens at the National Actors Theatre, and Two Shakespearean Actors on Broadway—have netted him Tony nominations. He won the Tony back in 1971 for The School for Wives. As the above credits illustrate, Bedford's forte is the classics, with an emphasis on Shakespeare and Moliere. His currently performance in Sheridan's The School for Scandal originated at his oftentimes artistic home, the Stratford Festival in Canada, and is currently mid-run at The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's new Navy Pier home in Chicago (it is the first non Bard play the company has ever presented). Bedford spoke to Playbill On Line about his love of the great roles, his imminent return to New York and the unlikely nature of his best known performance.
Playbill On-Line: How is it performing in CST's new theatre on Navy Pier?
Brian Bedford: Have you seen this theatre? Oh, it's beautiful, really beautiful. It's like a very luxurious, very comfy [version of] the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon. I think it's influenced by the Swan. It's really quite lovely. The last time we did this production of The School for Scandal, it was in a 2,000-seat theatre at Stratford, Ontario. And here we have the luxury of 500 seats. It's a thrust stage, so you're in the middle of this very accessible space. The trouble with 2,000 seats is you have to belt it out and you shouldn't have to do that with this rather Mozartian text.
PBOL: Is this your first time performing in Chicago?
BB: Oh, no. I've performed here many, many times. I first performed here in 1960, I think. I've usually been on the road with plays I've done in New York. And I've always enjoyed Chicago.
PBOL: I read somewhere that you actually have a lot of relatives in the Chicago area. Is that true?
BB: Well, I do! Less, now. But when I first came here in 1960, I had quite a lot of relatives. They've sort of dwindled.
PBOL: That's somewhat surprising. One associates you mainly with Britain and Canada?
BB: I'm absolutely dead half-Irish, half-English. The Irish side came from County Mayo to Chicago. PBOL: You seem to act primarily in the great plays of the English and French theatre.
BB: Well, I try to.
PBOL: Were the classics always your passion or would you rather do more new plays?
BB: Well, where are the new plays? Is there such an animal? In the last few years, I did a revival of Equus and a revival of Amadeus at Stratford, and in the past I've been involved with Tom Stoppard quite a bit—I did The Real Thing, I did Jumpers and had a very good time. Occasionally I do movies and television. But, unfortunately, once you get used to these really magnificent texts, you are kind of spoiled. [Everything else] is a bit small and a bit thin. I suppose it's like a musician getting used to Beethoven and Mozart and the greats. It's kind of fun to do other things, but the reward is incomparable in, for instance, Moliere and Shakespeare.
PBOL: It's probably all for the best for the theatre, since you do the classics so well.
BB: Well, it's certainly all for the best for me. From the minute I came to the United States—in fact, before I came—I wanted to live [here]. I've always been absolutely obsessed by the U.S., since I was a kid. So when I had this great opportunity to come here with Peter Shaffer's Five Finger Exercise in 1959, the minute I got here, I knew this is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. But I had this inherent instinct for the classics and I wanted to have an English actor's career. And that seemed to be very questionable, almost impossible. But somehow I've managed to do it, thanks in great measure to Stratford, Ontario. My relationship with Stratford has absolutely made my life.
PBOL: Few stage actors today seem to do much Moliere, something you are well known for. Why do you think that is?
BB: You don't get all that much opportunity, unless you're working with a classic repertory company.
PBOL: Moliere is certainly not revived as much as Shakespeare.
BB: No, which is probably for the good. I think there is too much reviving of Shakespeare, simply because it's very hard to do and it's not too often that it's done well—in my estimation. I'd rather it not be done, than be done poorly, personally. And, of course, in England they never stop doing Shakespeare, so they have to dress the Emperor up in the newest possible clothes. It's all to do with what hasn't been done before. It's like Moliere in France. They're desperate to find new ways to do these things.
PBOL: You seem to hit New York only every few years, wherein you remind everyone what a great actor you are and then disappear for a couple more years. Can Broadway expect another visit in the near future?
BB: I think so. But at the moment I'm not really at liberty to say what it is.
PBOL: In recent years, your visits have been at the Roundabout. Could it possibly be there?
BB: Yeah, it is actually. And it's Moliere. [Laughs] But I can't talk about the details. They're still trying to work it all out.
PBOL: More than any other actor, you always reminded me a bit of Charles Laughton. Was he ever an influence?
BB: No, he wasn't. He was a great influence on my friend, Albert Finney. And I think they did a play together. Charles Laughton? [Laughs] I met him once and was very impressed him. Unfortunately, by the time I saw him in the theatre, he'd been pretty much exclusively in movies for so long. And then, like a lot of actors who had spent time doing the classics, he always had a hankering to return to them. After many years in Hollywood, he came back to Stratford-upon-Avon and did Lear and Bottom. I saw those performances. By that time, the classical acting muscles had become a bit flabby. It's like boxing. You have to keep in shape. The muscles do atrophy if you don't use them. And I think it's awfully, awfully sad when you see a great talent that hasn't been cultivated.
PBOL: Finally, Do you ever get much feedback for having voiced Robin Hood in the 1973 Disney animated film?
BB: Oh, that's what I'm most famous for! Especially from a lot of children about two feet high. [The video] still sells like hotcakes. And the kids watch it all the time. Little mites in supermarkets come up to me and ask me to do "Oo-da-lay-lee."
—By Robert Simonson