If I don't challenge myself," Hal Linden laughs, "I'm just gonna sit down on the couch and not get up!"
Indeed, with both a Tony and an Emmy sitting on his mantel, the 73-year-old Linden could easily while away the days, mulling over his memories and resting on his residuals. But Linden isn't that kind of actor. Instead, the man still best-known as TV's Barney Miller is taking on a new challenge: making his Gilbert & Sullivan debut at City Center this month (January 7-23), playing the beloved Major General in the classic swashbuckling operetta The Pirates of Penzance.
"I challenge myself everywhere," Linden continues with a glint of irony sparkling beneath his mellow bass-baritone, "onstage, on the golf course. Hey, isn't that the point of it all? To keep getting better? Otherwise why do it? That's why, in my career," reports the actor whose resume includes 20 Broadway and touring Broadway productions — from the original Bells Are Ringing to the revival of Cabaret — "I rarely repeat playing the same role in a show. I figured I'd plumbed 90 percent of [a character] the first time around, so let's move on to something where I'm starting from scratch." Of course, considering that in Pirates he'll be tackling the lyrical intricacies of that father of all patter songs, "Modern Major General," Linden says, "I'll be approaching it word by word."
And with such tongue twisters as "I quote in elegiac all the crimes of Heliogabalus," Linden ain't kidding. (Noting Gilbert's quick, if esoteric, nod to the infamous third-century Roman emperor, Linden says: "All I know is, it rhymes with 'parabolous.'") Still, he has found learning the role in Pirates "a fascinating opportunity. With all those marvelous words, it's my mission that every word will be, if not understood, then at least heard and received." It's a mission Linden's director, Albert Bergeret, knows all too well. Having spent the past three decades as the artistic director of Pirates' presenting organization, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, Bergeret admits "there's a tradition around Gilbert & Sullivan that can become stultifying and deadly. But it's like with Shakespeare — you have to make their work a living, breathing tradition. Gilbert & Sullivan still speaks to audiences today."
Moreover, Bergeret — who first encountered Gilbert & Sullivan when he portrayed the title role in his sixth-grade production of The Mikado — believes the composing duo's genius is twofold: Sullivan's "silly, fun and often wonderful music fits so well into [Gilbert's] dramatic situations," while Gilbert's lyrics have "such charm. And his satirical views on human relations and political institutions, as we can see, tend to repeat from one generation to another!"
Indeed, both onstage and off, it is Bergeret and Linden's mutual regard for generational (i.e., family) outings that has brought them together now. While Linden currently makes his home in California, during his various turns over the years in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and his Tony-winning performance in The Rothschilds, the native New Yorker says, "my kids always came to see me on Broadway when they were growing up."
What makes Linden so eager to return to Manhattan this month (aside from meeting a great acting challenge) is the opportunity to be near his daughter, who not only just reopened the Morningside Bookshop on Broadway and 114th St., but — most importantly — is expecting her second child in February. As for her first child, Linden says he can't wait for his four-year-old granddaughter to see The Pirates of Penzance.
"It's a big show. And with all the color and movement and noise of it all, I think she'll enjoy it. Though," Linden reckons with a chuckle, "I doubt she'll know who Heliogabalus is."