Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following interview with the distinguished and accomplished actor, writer, and director PAXTON WHITEHEAD
Paxton will be appearing in Lettice and Lovage at Westport Country Playhouse
Paxton Whitehead is one of the most prolific and distinguished actors today. He has celebrated his sixtieth year in the business and is still going strong. Although he admits that he has a definite predilection towards farces, his experience as an actor and director is vast. Indeed, his resume reads like a theatre history text book, covering classics like Hamlet, Heartbreak House, The Importance of Being Earnest, Camelot, My Fair Lady, Richard III, Noises Off, and countless others. He has worked with just about everyone in the business and admits “that he gets on with almost everyone.” He also has appeared in film and television, including some of the most popular TV shows in history — Mad About You, Friends and The West Wing. He has an excellent sense of humor, he is humble to a fault, and most importantly, he was simply a delight to chat with about the business of theatre and acting.
Pillow Talking was thrilled and honored to have the chance to talk to Paxton Whitehead.
PT: Hello, Paxton?
PW: (in a booming voice) Yes, Here I am!
PT: (Wayne) Wow – So Shakespearean in just the way you answered. You just gave me chills!
PW: (Laughs) How extraordinary!
PT: (Stephanie) You have the most incredible voice. Your voice would be so perfect for audiobooks. I could just listen to your voice forever.
PW: (Laughs) I’ve never done one of those.
PW: I’ve done voiceovers and things like that and narrations for TV and film. But I’ve never done an audio book.
PT: Paxton, thank you. It really is a pleasure and an honor for us to interview you.
PW: Thank you.
PR: (Wayne) I’ve seen you several times in the past. I’ve seen you with Richard Chamberlain in My Fair Lady and Camelot and many others. My wife and I saw you recently in What the Butler Saw [at Westport].
PW: Yes, I know you did and you interviewed Patricia [Kalember].
PT: Yes, we did. And now we have the opportunity to interview you. (Wayne) I’m a lawyer but I really didn’t like the law – I wanted to get back to theatre and film. I know your father was a lawyer.
PW: Yes, my father was a lawyer all his life. I’m the younger son, so I never felt it was my obligation to take over the family firm. I left that to my brother. He didn’t like it either.
PT: (Laughs) What did your father say when you told him you wanted to go into the theatre and acting?
PW: Both he and my mother pointed out the dangers, the pitfalls, the difficulties of going into the theatre. But on the other hand, they themselves were great theatre enthusiasts. And my mother had been an actress before she married. Once she married, she never acted again.
PW: But we use to go to the theatre a lot. That was our – you know – amusement, rewards and celebrations. Once the war was over and the West End came back, that’s what we did as children. So we were always very involved. Once that decision was made, they were very supportive indeed. They said go to drama school and that takes two years and you’ll only be nineteen. I went to drama school right out of high school at 17, a bit earlier than most. And they said see what happens. I got a little work very quickly. So one thing led to another and here I am – sixty-plus years later.
PW: I made my professional Equity first appearance in a theatre in Eastbourne, England in 1956. So last year, while we were doing What the Butler Saw, I had my actual sixtieth anniversary of being a working actor.
PT: That’s fantastic! Congratulations!
PW: I thought it was a reasonable achievement.
PT: (Laughs) It’s more than a reasonable achievement. You’re the most prolific actor out there – you’ve done TV, film, theatre.
PW: Not an enormous amount of film. A couple of ones that were quite good, but not a lot. I was on TV, but never for any length of time. Of course, a lot of theatre which is what I enjoy most of all.
PT: (Stephanie) But you were on some of my favorite TV shows. I was an avid Friends watcher and Mad About You. And I saw that and said, “Oh my goodness.”
PW: Yes, that was very nice. I think I did about eight episodes of that over the years. They were nice people – Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt. It was a good thing. My other favorite was Frasier.
PW: I thought that was good. It’s all in the writing. And I did one episode of The West Wing that was terrific to do – because the writing was good.
PT: (Stephanie) And how many episodes of Friends did you do?
PW: Friends, oh yes that was good, too. I did two and they were good.
PW: Well, it was a great show. How they managed to do it, episode after episode, year after year, I don’t know. It was wonderful. They had a wonderful writing crew. I did one show – Marblehead Manor – which is now in syndication in which we did twenty-four episodes in one year.
PW: The problem was that some of the early shows were really quite good, but then you had to keep churning them out week after week – and that was difficult to do. That show – Marblehead Manor – was always compared to (laughs) rather unfavorably to the British show Fawlty Towers with John Cleese.
PT: Yes, we know it.
PW: It is the same sort of style – a rather farcical concept – but Fawlty Towers had thirteen episodes. That’s it. That’s all they did. Seven one year – they then waited for two more years and did six more – over four years. So you can polish the writing when you have a two-year gap. If they’d had to churn it out next week, you might find possibly diminishing quality. That’s why the ones that do last like M*A*S*H and Friends and the ones that go on and on with consistently good quality – I think it’s amazing. I think it’s simply miraculous.
PT: Absolutely. (Wayne) I did a Titanic project years ago with David McCallum and he told me how they use to do thirty-six episodes in a season – and that was mind boggling.
PW: Right, absolutely.
PT: While you may have done more theatre than anything else, you have worked in the other mediums. What are some of the differences that you find working in the different mediums – [between] theatre, TV, and film?
PW: It’s hard really to put it into a nutshell except the obvious clichés – you know – theatre is about projection and into the size of the theatre. Film is not about projection at all. It’s about internalism and what you’re thinking – it’s minimalist. Nowadays a lot of television is actually filmed. And then there was the different kind of thing when it was done with four cameras on videotape. That was more like theatre because it was one directional – all the cameras were in front of you on a staged set. And although they angled in, you were still looking as if you were looking at a proscenium. It was like doing a small one-act play without the projection required for a Broadway house or a large scale theatre like Westport.
PW: I’m not sure I was ever any good on film because I never learned anything. I was never taught anything. When I went to drama school in 1955 – in those days – although there was a film industry in Britain and had been going on for twenty years, we didn’t have a single class about film.
PT: Wow! That’s interesting.
PW: We didn’t even have television. Occasionally, we were introduced by someone to a TV studio to watch what was going on – but no real classes and absolutely no classes about film technique. I find that terrible. So when I started to make films, I really had no idea.
PT: (Stephanie) Well, they called you back, so you must have impressed some people (laughs)!
PW: (Laughs) Everybody said, “No, don’t do too much!”
PT: (Wayne) As you know, from a directorial standpoint, and I know you’ve done quite a bit of directing, it’s always easier to pull an actor back than to push then forward.
PE: Oh, that’s very true. That is true. Very often you can scale it down. But if somebody says you need more, that is harder. You’re absolutely right.
PT: Who were some of your earlier influences growing up?
PW: I don’t know really. Well, everybody that I saw, I think. Some people you really would not have heard of – they were West End stars. Nut I used to go and see Hugh Williams, Wilfrid Hyde-White, and Edith Evans. Then of course there were the great ones, [Sir Laurence] Olivier and [Sir John] Gielgud who were the Knights of the Realm who I always went to see whenever I possibly could – along with [Sir Ralph] Richardson. You saw some wonderful acting – which was daunting in a way. “Can I do that?” I said, “I don’t know.” I learned by observing a lot.
PT: We know most of the actors you mentioned. (Wayne) I think they were all in an Agatha Christie movie at some point.
PW: (Laughs) Yes, yes.
PT: Speaking of Olivier, we heard that he would not really discuss his acting techniques all that much. Do you mind discussing your approach or technique to a project?
PW: That’s rather hard. When I was younger, I would try very hard to get the vocal point right. If I felt the rhythm and sound of the character – if I got that right – and usually the difference is very subtle – but if I got that right, then I think everything else seemed to follow, the movement and so on. I confess that when I started – you were doing plays very frequently – because you might join a company and do a play a week for a period of time. That was my first job out of drama school was to go to Farnham Rep – which isn’t a repertory theatre at all – it’s a weekly stock. You put on a new play each week. So you had to learn quickly and be a very quick study.
PW: I only did it for a month and then I got another job on the road. But you had to come up with a pretty snap characterization. I did that by thinking who would be an ideal actor for this part? And then I would imitate him.
PW: Yes. I’d say, ”This is a Wilfrid Hyde part. So then I would sort of imitate Wilfrid Hyde-White – which I used to do quite well, but it’s been a long time (laughs). (Imitating Wilfrid Hyde-White) Ah, my dear boy, how are you?
PT: (Laughs) That was really good!
PW: So that’s what I did. If you thought it was a Gielgud part, you sang the notes a little bit more. That’s how I did it. I didn’t have a personality of my own I felt. So you just copied who you liked and then eventually you would come into your own. At least that was my theory.
PT: It obviously worked. It worked really well. You are masterful.
PW: Thank you. Thank you, very much (laughs)! Not always I think, but you must have seen the better things!
PW: Yes, early on. My first days in New York. I came over in the fall of 1960. I think I arrived in October – completely unprepared, not knowing what was going on. I was able to come because my mother was American, so I had dual nationality. So I thought I would come over while I could and still have the rights to work in the U.S. and perhaps spend a year seeing what happens and seeing the country. I could travel – if I got work even as a waiter or bartender – I thought I would come. I was unemployed in England at the time. Well, that was 1960. And I’m still here (laughs).
PW: So I met Doric Wilson at a theatre group that was trying out young people. He was a writer and I was obviously an unemployed actor. I got to know him. And he was writing [plays] and he got them put on at the Cino down on Cornelius Street. He asked me if I would direct. I said, “Yes, okay.” And I did. And one or two people came to see those shows—
PW: (Laughs) You passed the hat. You weren’t paid, but you passed the hat at the performance. And one producer came to see the show and gave me a job in Jack Richardson’s Gallows Humor [: A Play in Two Parts] which was in the beginning of ’61. That was my first Equity job. It was Off-Broadway, but it was professional. I still went back to the Cino every now and then to do one of Doric’s play or something else. I did a production of a two-man play by John Mortimer. So they didn’t always do avant-garde, original plays. Somebody would come by and say, “I got this,” and Joe Cino would look at it and say, “Okay we’ll do it,” or “That is not going to work with my coffeehouse crowd.” I think I did about four or five shows at the Cino. You only played for a couple of weekends, unless it was a big success like Doric’s first one, And He Made a Her. That was very successful and went on. [Cino] kept bringing it back – sometimes with a change of cast because you lost someone who got work, of course. That was way, way Off-Broadway.
PT: Well, Caffe Cino is credited with the start of Off-Off-Broadway.
PW: Absolutely, yes. I never did anything past 1961 there, but they went on from 1962 to 1965. They did a lot of ground breaking stuff.
PT: (Stephanie) And then in 1962 you made your Broadway debut, is that correct?
PW: Yes, that was C.P. Snow’s The Affair. You are right.
PT: How was the leap to Broadway for you?
PW: (Laughs) It really wasn’t a leap. I hadn’t just come from the Cino. I had done other things Off-Broadway in larger theatres. It wasn’t a major step and of course I had done a lot of stage in England before that. It was just where I wanted to be. And then Beyond the Fringe happened and that changed a lot of things.
PT: How so?
PW: Well, getting into Beyond the Fringe and touring for six months, and then playing in New York for eight months or so including all of the original cast – all except for Jonathan Miller who I replaced – that taught me about comedy. I’d done some comedy, but I thought I was a serious actor (laughs). But Beyond the Fringe taught me to create a known personality and I learned how to time. I found I was fascinated with the business of timing lines for comedy and comic effect. I learned a lot during that. For the most part, that’s what I’ve done since, really. Not in revue, like Fringe, but in comic plays and farces.
PT: (Stephanie) That’s one thing I wanted to ask you – what are you drawn to? We know that you’ve done a lot of farces.
PW: Yes, yes. I found I liked that. And Fringe was the start of it. Then more and more I began to seek out or be cast in those sort of roles and I found I enjoyed it very much. Then I got one or two pure farce – of course, Noises Off being the most famous one or [most] successful anyway. I did some Ray Cooney farces and I enjoyed them very much. Everybody says farces are difficult to do, but it depends. You either have a knack for it or you don’t. I think it is hard for some people. I found it not so difficult. I don’t know. I just seemed to respond to it.
PT: We loved you in What the Butler Saw.
PW: You take it very seriously when you do farce. You take your predicament very seriously. That’s what makes it funny really. You don’t do jokes. [Cooney’s] Run for Your Wife was very successful, not so much on Broadway, but it was in England. And then there’s Ray Cooney’s Two into One which I thought was superb. But it’s not always to the American taste.
PT: (Stephanie) I love them. When I find out we’re going to see a farce, I’m giddy.
PW: How excellent. So do I! The great farces by the Frenchman Georges Feydeau are just superb. There are five absolute classic farces. Everybody takes it very seriously.
PT: (Wayne) Didn’t you edit and do some writing with Feydeau’s work?
PW: I did, I did. I translated or adapted with my partner who was the French speaker of the two of us. We did three plays of Feydeau’s. The first one I sort of arranged for myself. I wanted to do one up at the Shaw Festival in Canada which I was running at the time. We wanted to incorporate one other author per season. We did Somerset Maugham for the first year I was there. And the second year I wanted to do Feydeau, [who was] a contemporary of Shaw, believe it or not. I thought I wanted to do a new one. So I got the rights to do a little play called the Mon Pas and Suzanne Grossman translated it for me. And then we worked on it together and found we enjoyed that. It was very successful in Niagra under the title Chemin de Fer. I wanted to do Le Dindon because I thought that was probably the best one he ever wrote, but we couldn’t get the rights; they wouldn’t allow it. And I couldn’t have done it at the Shaw Festival because the theatre at that time was small and we couldn’t have accommodated it. But now they have a new theater at Niagra, so they could. But we gave it to Stratford Ontario for them to put on which they keenly did. David Merrick brought it in to Broadway where, alas, it didn’t run too long. It got some excellent notices, but it didn’t catch on. I think they lost all their money. It was a shame, because it was rather good. I don’t think people knew what to make of it. It was a big production, three huge sets, period costumes and people came out saying, “Why wasn’t there music?” It was almost the scale of a musical, but it wasn’t. It was a farce.
PT: (Stephanie) We saw An Absolute Turkey at Connecticut Repertory Theatre.
PW: That would be Le Dindon then. That’s a literal translation (laughs). We didn’t think we could use that because “turkey” in America means that it’s a disaster! When you say “an absolute turkey” in the theatre, you’re thinking that’s absolutely dreadful (laughs)!
PT: (Stephanie) (Laughs) What was interesting was that it was right around the holidays and neither Wayne nor I were familiar with the production. So we were thinking it was some sort of Thanksgiving or holiday thing – so we had no idea what we were getting into.
PW: (Laughs) I get you. You thought it was a holiday play. It’s a funny play. I hope it was funny.
PT: Very much so. It was really good. We really enjoyed it. You’ve played at Westport quite a bit. What do you like about Westport?
PW: I think it’s a beautiful theatre. I love what Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward did in restoring it, and yet keeping the atmosphere of a country barn playhouse – but with comfort. It is quite superb, the dimensions are wonderful and it’s a great house to play. I think I was first there in 1978.
PW: But in those days you did a tour of New England. You went to about six theatres – some in Massachusetts, the Cape [Cod], Westport, and so on. You’d play for the summer but in a different town and theater each week. They don’t do that anymore. The theatres mount their own things.
PT: You’ve worked with just about everybody. We don’t want to put you on the spot, but can you tell us some of the people with whom you really enjoyed working?
PW: I seem to get on with most people. I’ve had very, very few, if any, bad experiences in the theatre. I was intimidated working with Maggie Smith because she was such a major talent. You were nervous about it, but it was a wonderful experience. She was delightful. Same with Richard Burton on Camelot. They were just charming people. No temperament at all.
PT: (Wayne) I saw Burton in Equus as well as Camelot and he had such presence. As soon as he came on stage, he just radiated this commanding performance.
PW: He did. When he did Camelot, he wasn’t terribly well. And it was a long tour – a full year. He was not strong. But even if he was not feeling well, he would somehow turn it on at the end of each act of Camelot and everyone left the theatre thinking “Fantastic,” even though he was rather walking through it a little bit in the early parts because he was preserving his energy so that he could do the climax of each act which Arthur has. He always rose to that occasion. It was terrific.
PT: Let’s talk about Lettice and Lovage. What can the audience expect from it?
PW: Well, we hope it’s funny.
PW: (Laughs) It should be. I liked it a lot. When I saw it and I liked being in it. It’s terribly well-written. It’s not a farce, although there are one or two farcical elements in it. It’s a story, a comedy, and a little bit of satire about modern architecture. It is rather English. It ran for a very long time in London. Maggie Smith started it. And then Geraldine McEwan took over for another year. [In the U.S.] Maggie Smith wanted to go home after a year – she wanted to be back home for Christmas. It could have run another year, easily, if she stayed. But they never could find someone to take over, who was willing to come in right after. Now it’s different. Julie Harris took the show out on the road. It doesn’t seem like obvious casting, but she was terrific and it was very successful. But that was two years after Maggie had left. It was twenty-seven years ago. I’m playing the same part.
PT: You are playing the lawyer.
PW: Yes, I come on in the last act and it’s a lovely little part and I’m enjoying it – or will – once we get to do it. We’ve only read it so far.
PT: (Wayne) How does it feel being in the same part in the same play so many years later?
PW: It feels fine. Since the character is ageless, it doesn’t matter. There’s no reference to his age or anything. I did have to learn it all over again. Sometimes when you do a role again the words come back quickly because they are already there. But this was twenty-seven years ago and I really had to start again.
PT: (Wayne) My question really wasn’t directed to the age of the part. Clark Gable played the same role in Mogambo twenty-one years after he starred in the original, Red Dust. My question was directed more to your approach to the part so many years later. Do feel differently about the play than when you first did it? Did you get new insight, new inspiration perhaps?
PW: We did a reading for it over a year ago just before we started rehearsals for What the Butler Saw. We did it for the acting company in New York. Mark [Lamos, Artistic Director of Westport Country Playhouse] himself, directed – just the reading – for a charity gala. It was a fundraiser for the acting company out of Juilliard. It was with Angela Lansbury and Dana Ivey, myself, and Trish [Patricia] Conolly playing the other part. It went very well and that didn’t surprise me, but pleased me. It was very funny. And I thought, “Oh, this is nice to know that it holds up twenty-seven years later.” I’ve never seen it. I know it’s been done a number of places around the country. It was very refreshing to come in and notice that it still works. And it was from that [reading] that Mark said, “Let’s schedule it and do it properly.”
PT: We know you’re busy preparing, so we’ll let you get back to it. We do have one last signature question that we’ve asked all of our interviewees. They always say it’s the hardest question. Are you ready?
PT: If you were to sum up your life and career to date in one word, what would it be?
PT: (Stephanie) That was so quick! That was great! Usually people hem and haw and get so upset with us for doing that to them.
PW: (Laughs) That’s it. You can put whatever interpretation you want on it. There were some rough parts in life as well as in the theatre. The death of my wife, of course, was a hard one.
PT: So sorry—
PW: But all in all, I have to say, it’s been okay.
PT: That’s a wonderful answer. Thank you so much for granting us this interview. We look forward to seeing you again in Lettice and Lovage!