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Patrick Stewart transports 'King Lear' to Texas

Sunday, June 02, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

You might say it was the ghost of Richard Burton or Laurence Olivier that sent Patrick Stewart to Mexico last year to film "King of Texas," which debuts at 8 tonight on TNT.

Call it the Great English Actor Dilemma: London or Hollywood? Reputation or celebrity? Art or money? Shakespeare or "Star Trek"?

"It's something I think a great deal about," says Stewart.

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Olivier made one choice, turning his back on Hollywood in the '40s -- with a nudge from World War II -- and laboring mainly on stage for relative pence in the next few decades, creating a double legacy as the greatest English stage actor of the 20th century and founding head of London's National Theatre. (Luckily, he also lived long enough to return to Hollywood and make some money.)

Richard Burton made a different choice, leaving a stage career of early achievement and huge promise for Hollywood, money and Liz Taylor.

Anthony Hopkins comes in between. Though he has now given himself to movies, he previously had a full career on the London stage, where he triumphed at the National in the late '80s as both Antony and King Lear. When he was in Pittsburgh filming "Silence of the Lambs," Hopkins acknowledged what hard work it had been and that happiness was waking up knowing you didn't have to play King Lear that day.

But Stewart, discussing "King of Texas," notes simply, "I'm happy to say I don't share Tony's feelings about this."

Now 61, Stewart made a fast start as a stage actor, moving when still young from English regional theater to the Royal Shakespeare Company. From the start, he played middling to larger character roles and heavies. He was well along on the Great English Actor track.

"Originally, I had no expectations about ever seeing a camera," he says. But "Star Trek: The Next Generation" changed all that: "Now, having spent a large part of the last 15 years in front of a camera, I've become fascinated and intrigued by the whole process. Still, a few years ago I realized that to be really happy I needed to balance that with more stage work."

In the past few years alone, along with movie work on "Star Trek" and "X-Men," he's made time to do Arthur Miller's "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" both off-Broadway and on; to star in "Othello" at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, where his Othello was white and everyone else was black; and to play Prospero in Shakespeare's "The Tempest," both in Central Park and on Broadway.

You could say that his desired "balance" between film and stage reached its epitome in calendar 2001, with a schedule that would daunt much younger men.

He began in January at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre, playing George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Then came two months filming "King of Texas." Next, he went back to England to perform "Shylock: Shakespeare's Alien," a full-length solo show. While in England, he also did J.B. Priestley's play "Johnson over Jordan," a role made famous in 1939 by Ralph Richardson. By then it was October, when he went back in front of the camera to film "Star Trek: Nemesis." And he ended an astonishingly productive year with a brief rerun on Broadway of his famous "A Christmas Carol," in which he plays all the parts.

As that one-man show suggests, Shakespeare is definitely on Stewart's mind. He knows he's at an age when he has to tackle the great roles sooner rather than later. "Antony, Lear, Falstaff, Macbeth -- they're all waiting for me. I'm almost too old for Macbeth: I'll have to do that first. A serious classical actor who hasn't done Hamlet or Romeo, as I haven't, has to do Macbeth."

The pinnacle is King Lear. Although Great English Actors often play Lear when young, Stewart never has. In his only "King Lear," some 30 years ago at the RSC, he played the sadistic Cornwall, who has the advantage of dying early. Stewart recalls that carried a perk: "If your character died before intermission, you didn't have to stay for the curtain call."

Somewhere in the midst of other projects, Stewart's gnawing thoughts of Shakespeare suggested "King Lear" as a Texan. By himself, he worked out how the characters could be transposed to post-Alamo, pre-statehood Texas.

Turner Network Television was eager to produce. The chief question was how to treat Shakespeare's language. "That's the issue we examined most," says Stewart. "Why not just do 'King Lear'? " But Turner wasn't about to film the original "Lear." Signed to write the screenplay was Stephen Harrigan, who had just spent eight years researching a novel, "The Gates of the Alamo." With Stewart as executive producer and star, they decided to set the story in 1842, the turbulent time of Texas' brief nationhood.

The result is the basic story of "King Lear," but thoroughly transposed to a world based on the famous King Ranch. According to Stewart, Harrigan found "a style for the language that's somewhat elevated, larger than life," but also authentically Texan. They hired "a great dialect coach, Robert Easton," an expert in the history of Texas sound, who helped tweak their lines: Coffee isn't just cold, it's "as cold as Kansas well water."

Add the politics of relations with Mexico (which takes the place of France in Shakespeare's play), race, greed, sex, cattle drives and the memory of the Alamo, and Stewart has his first "King Lear."

The real thing is still in his future. His legacy demands it.

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