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The Tony winner talks about his illustrious theatre career and his return to the New York stage in the dramedy Harry Townsend's Last Stand
Veteran theatregoers know Len Cariou as a stage star, equally adept at Shakespeare and Sondheim. From the late '60s through the '90s, he was a regular on Broadway and off, headlining straight plays (Measure for Measure, King Henry V) and musicals (Applause, A Little Night Music), finally winning a Tony Award in 1979 for his bloody great performance as the vengeful title character in Sweeney Todd.
But since the turn of the century, he's turned up more on screen than on the New York stage, tackling supporting roles in movies (Spotlight, Flags of Our Fathers) and even juicier parts on TV -- he's played Henry Reagan, the commanding patriarch of a law enforcement family on CBS' Blue Bloods for the past decade. That ongoing commitment notwithstanding, Cariou, who turned 80 this fall, found himself longing for the footlights. So he's currently at New York City Center portraying the stubborn title character in George Eastman's dramedy Harry Townsend's Last Stand, about a battle of wills between an octogenarian widower and his concerned middle-aged son, played by Tony nominee Craig Bierko. In a freewheeling conversation with TDF Stages, Cariou recounted his career high points and how he hit them, why he's a terrible audience member, his affair with a Hollywood legend and why he can't stay away from the stage.
Sandy MacDonald: You've done so much over your 60 years as an actor, it's hard to know where to start! I guess we might as well go back to the beginning: You started out in Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada -- not exactly a cultural hotbed.
Len Cariou: I got lucky. A Hungarian WWII refugee by the name of John Hirsch came to Canada as a teenager. His grandmother had said to him, "Go to a place that's landlocked so you can't be invaded by ship." Within three years he was teaching English at the University of Manitoba, that's how brilliant a guy he was. He became my mentor. He hired me to be part of a musical theatre company called Rainbow Stage, which still exists, and then, unbeknownst to me, engineered my going to the Shakespeare Festival [now the Stratford Festival] in Ontario. I got there not knowing who I would even play. I didn't know what the Shakespeare canon was. I thought, we've got to translate it somehow, or nobody's going to know what we're doing up there. But these guys were masters. I went to every rehearsal just to see how they played it.
I learned an awful lot in about eight months. When I got back, John asked me, "How was it?" I told him, "Educational, and that's what I want to do." And he said, "You're taking the high road there! But you have to make me a promise: Do not give up the musical, because very few people that I know can do both. You must never give it up." And so I said, "Okay, I won't."
MacDonald: How did A Little Night Music come about?
Cariou: Harold Prince had seen me in Applause and said, "I'd like to work with you one day." I was in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theater playing Oedipus and, lo and behold, he called and said, "I'd like you to audition for a new musical. Stephen Sondheim is writing the music, and Hugh Wheeler has written the book. There are no lyrics in this version yet, but we want you to come in and audition for the role of Carl-Magnus."
I read it and thought, what a beautiful book! It read like an Anouilh novel. But I also thought, I've played Carl-Magnus six or seven different times in my life already. I don't want to play him -- but I'm not going to miss the opportunity to sing for Sondheim. I did, and Hal said, "We've got a script now, with some lyrics in it. Read it and we'll talk in the morning."
The first song in the show was Fredrik's song, and the lyric was so brilliant:
"Now, as the sweet imbecilities
Tumble so lavishly
Onto her lap…
There are two possibilities:
A, I could ravish her,
B, I could nap…"
I thought, that is too funny for words! This is going to be really something. Anyway, cut to: Hal called me the next day and said, "Fredrik's the role we want you to play."
For about a month, I did a weekly commute between Minneapolis and New York. I never missed a performance and I never missed a rehearsal. In the dead of winter -- there is a god! And so Sweeney happened as a result of that.
MacDonald: Sweeney had such a shocking subject matter for its time, and you were among the first to know about it. What was the public reaction like?
Cariou: There was no out-of-town tryout. We previewed it and opened it at the Uris Theatre [now the Gershwin Theatre]. But the creators knew that they were on the cutting edge.
Cariou: Yeah! After the first preview, Stephen was waiting backstage at my dressing room door and he said, "They understood it, they fucking understood it!" and we had a big embrace. Then, of course, the feedback started to come in. We'd lost people, obviously, at the intermission.
MacDonald: Their loss!
Cariou: Right? We persevered and we cleared up all the technical problems -- the pie shop was not obeying what we were trying to do -- and the rest is history.
MacDonald: I dug up a clip of you singing "Pretty Women." It's so contained, there's nothing to say this guy's a maniac. And what a voice! Did you study when you were young?
Cariou: I studied in Winnipeg, and when I got to the Stratford Festival. As you start doing these roles, the instrument just gets bigger and bigger. When I came to do Night Music, I asked Victoria Mallory, who was playing Anne, for a recommendation and was introduced to Paul Gavert, who was a wonderful teacher. He taught the Battistini method. We just exercised the voice -- we did scales for the most part.
MacDonald: It looks effortless. But let's dish: Best/worst costars? Obviously you hit it off with Angela Lansbury. After Sweeney you had a recurring role as a troublemaking Irish secret agent on her TV show Murder, She Wrote.
Cariou: Yeah, Angela and I got on very well. We were very proud, because we could have really easily gone over-the-top with Sweeney. We realized that and said: "Let's just keep ourselves in check here, because it's going to be a long run." And it was!
Miss Bacall and I had a love affair while we were doing Applause.
MacDonald: Oh! Lauren Bacall was notoriously difficult, but I gather you didn't find her to be so.
Cariou: Oh sure, she was difficult -- that was just her nature. And she had a big responsibility, playing a leading role in a Broadway musical, and she wasn't a very good singer. I think she was a little trepidatious about it. But she persevered just because it was something that she had always wanted to do in her life. And it was a big hit: she won a Tony Award, and I was nominated, too. It was a wonderful introduction to New York for me.
MacDonald: Do you keep up with the theatre now? I realize you're a little busy between shooting Blue Bloods and doing this new play.
Cariou: I don't go a lot. I'm not a very good audience, I'm afraid. I always question: Why would you choose to do it that way? I'm a little better now; I'm not as judgmental as I once was. I go and see friends of mine, colleagues, all the time. I like to see really fine actors work.
MacDonald: You've done nearly 200 episodes of Blue Bloods so far?
Cariou: Over 200! We're in production right now. We're on an eight-day schedule, and I work maybe two out of the eight. I have a lot of free time. And so I thought, well, I can do some theatre while we're doing this.
MacDonald: You've been packing your schedule ever since your Guthrie days, apparently.
Cariou: I like to work! I'm a theatre animal, so I just enjoy it. I've never really had any idle time as an actor.
MacDonald: What a blessing that is -- and how rare!
Cariou: Yeah, it is. I've never had to work at anything but being an actor since I started. It's a muscle, and you've got to exercise it.
MacDonald: Do you have any suggestions for actors just starting out?
Cariou: Just make sure that you really want it bad, because you're going to get rejections for the rest of your life. You're going to be out of work more than you're in work, for the most part. I've been very, very lucky. But I'll go anywhere to work! When you're a gypsy, you've got to take what's there. And the more you work, the better you get.
MacDonald: What particularly appeals to you about your current role in Harry Townsend's Last Stand?
Cariou: It's very funny and very poignant. It's about what everybody is going to go through sometime in their life. It affects even the young audiences that we're getting -- and there have been a few -- because their parents or their grandparents are getting into the "deficit age," as it were.
Cariou: The little, little chips.
MacDonald: Can't do this anymore, can't quite do that…
Cariou: Exactly. And I figured, I'm getting to be in that area, too. Maybe if I do this play, that won't happen! The play rings a lot of bells; it's a little close to home. But it's reality, and I think everybody responds to it in that way.
Top image: Len Cariou in Harry Townsend's Last Stand. Photos by Maria Baranova.