The Baddest Man in Town

The Baddest Man in Town Whether he's playing a ruthless town boss in "Deadwood" or the brutish Max in The Homecoming, when Ian McShane is bad, he's very, very good.
Ian McShane
Ian McShane

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Two fluttery birds, leaving a coffee shop in the East 30s, stopped by a table near the door and asked the husky, saturnine man sitting there: "Are you Ian McShane?" When he acknowledged he was, they giggled and scurried out. "Brits," said McShane dryly, "taking advantage of the dollar."

He himself is a Scot, or mostly Scot, even if, he says, "the 'Mc' in the name means there must be Irish way back." The genealogy of Max, the coarse, tyrannical paterfamilias McShane plays in Harold Pinter's The Homecoming at the Cort Theatre, is of no consequence. What counts is the lip-licking avidity with which the old guy agrees to put his daughter-in-law from America "on the game" as a Greek Street whore (". . . that's a stroke of genius, that's a marvelous idea"). Her earnings will support Max and two of his sons — a third son is the young woman's husband — in their desolate North London quarters. Pure evil.

Well, not altogether evil, says McShane, who is most familiar to Americans as the unscrupulous saloonkeeper Al Swearengen in HBO's "Deadwood." "Max has more than one dimension," said McShane in the wake of the departing birds. "Like Swearengen, who came off in the beginning as the baddest man in the world, but there was more to it than that. Max and Lenny" — the son who's had that marvelous idea of putting his sister-in-law to work on her back — "share the same sharp, tough, brutish, Hobbesian view of the world." [Philosopher Thomas Hobbes, 1588–1679: "The life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."]

"Harold shares that, too," said McShane. He has known Harold Pinter since he, McShane, played brash, aggressive Mick in a two-hour British TV production of Pinter's The Caretaker in 1966. "Harold is not the dark Darth Vader presence people think he is. People put that aura on him. 'It's Pinter! It's Beckett! Ohhhh!'" the actor squealed in his best baritone. "'Enigmatic' is the word I would use for Harold." McShane's arrival on Broadway in The Homecoming invokes a certain symmetry, for himself and for the show. In 1967, one year after he'd done that televised Caretaker, the 25-year-old actor made his first and until now only appearance on Broadway, as a young survivor of the siege of Leningrad in a play by Alexei Arbuzov called The Promise. The other two young actors — it was a two-men-and-a-girl love story — were Ian McKellen and Eileen Atkins. "The trouble with that," McShane said now, "was that Eileen has never been 17 in her life." But that isn't what closed the show — a hit in London — after 35 NYC performances. "I don't think the U.S. was ready for the Russians. Last night I received an e-mail from Ian: 'Hope you last longer than we did.'"

If all goes well, the limited engagement at the Cort will run into mid-April. Co-starring with McShane are Raúl Esparza, Eve Best, Michael McKean, James Frain and Gareth Saxe. The director is Daniel Sullivan. It's a 40th Broadway anniversary for The Homecoming, too. In that same year of 1967 — the year covered, McShane notes, in William Goldman's diaristic book "The Season" — Pinter's classic-to-be made its American bow with Paul Rogers, Ian Holm and Vivien Merchant (the then-Mrs. Harold Pinter). Another link: In 1962, two years after his graduation from RADA — the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art — McShane was in a film called "The Wild and the Willing" as a student who has an affair with his professor's wife. The professor was played by Paul Rogers — "a sweet man" — who was so terrifying as old Max in The Homecoming. "Paul was actually a young man then." Two beats. "People were older then."

McShane is asked if he's ever known anyone like Max in what's called real life. "No. Oh no. I don't think anyone has known a Max. It's very difficult to cross Dick Cheney with George Carlin, you know."

Was doing "Deadwood" fun? "Fantastic. Like doing a film, a workshop and a play all at the same time. David Milch [creator and executive producer] knew what the scenes were, and gave them to you day to day. Nothing improvised. And all this on a ranch north of Los Angeles. So you were totally in that world. You went in, held your balls — and jumped."

The actor's parents, Harry McShane and Irene Cowley McShane ("my mother is English") are in their 80s now and still going strong. They met at age 16 when Harry McShane came down from Scotland to Blackburn, England — where their son Ian would be born, September 29, 1942 — to apprentice as a footballer (soccer, to us) with the Blackburn Rovers. Harry soon found a career as "what was then called a No. 11 — a small, speedy, Scottish left-winger" on the great Manchester United team. (In 1958, two years after he called it a career, around half that team died in a plane crash at Munich.)

How come you didn't go into football?

"Didn't have the talent."

But another kind of talent was quickly spotted by Leslie Ryder, a teacher at Stretford Grammar School. "He came and said, 'You're going to play this part'" in what turned out to be Jean-Paul Sartre's Nekrassov. "After that I did Cyrano, at 16, and then I joined the National Youth Theatre, the first member not to come from London, and then RADA and that's it. My last time as a civilian. Been an actor ever since."

And he is married to an actress, Gwen Humble, whom he met when they were both in a 1980 movie called "Cheaper to Keep Her." "She's from Detroit, so I have to be a Red Wings and Tigers fan." His two grown children from an earlier marriage are not in theatre. "Very smart of them." Pinter's Max would put it another, and less polite, way.