LADY BRACKNELL, that unbending arbiter of social correctness, would surely not approve of Brian Bedford, who portrays her in his new production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the American Airlines Theater.
It’s not just that Mr. Bedford, born to an English postal worker and an Irish factory weaver in a Yorkshire market town, grew up far from anywhere Lady Bracknell might consider a fashionable address. Her Ladyship, you see, likes people to fit snugly into categories, and Mr. Bedford is quite unclassifiable.
He is perhaps the finest English-language interpreter of classical comedy of his generation, and he seems to pick up a Tony nomination every time he steps on a Broadway stage. Yet he is as likely to be found on a cruise ship, performing a one-man show about Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde, or in Prague, in high summer, appearing in a supporting role in a traveling musical production of “A Christmas Carol,” starring Kelsey Grammer. Raised in poverty, trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and subsequently part of a glittering West End clique that included John Gielgud and the all-powerful theater mogul Hugh Beaumont, Mr. Bedford, 75, now lives in Ontario, where he has been a member of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for 27 seasons. He wound up at Stratford, he says, because “while I wanted to live in America, I also wanted to have a British actor’s career.”
To say Mr. Bedford’s existence has been worldly is an understatement. Yet he retains the open, delighted mien of a provincial schoolboy newly arrived in the wicked big city. As he recounts the diverse chapters of his life, he still seems astonished by the turns it has taken. “My life has started in very, very different ways, again and again,” he says. One could imagine Lady Bracknell’s rejoinder. “To begin life once,” she might say, “is an unfortunate necessity. To do so repeatedly recalls the worst excesses of the French Revolution.”
Lady Bracknell had been Mr. Bedford’s follow-up role at Stratford to King Lear (which he also directed). Des McAnuff, the artistic director of the festival, who describes Mr. Bedford as “our most vital link to the illustrious past,” recalled the actor asking him, “What do you do after King Lear?” Mr. McAnuff’s answer: “Play Lady Bracknell.” He added, “I wanted Brian to do ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ not only because I looked forward to his delicious interpretation of Lady Bracknell, but because I very much wanted the emerging actors of the company to have direct access to him the way he had to Gielgud.”
The last time Mr. Bedford played a woman was 62 years ago, when he was the Virgin Mary in a school pageant; though he points out that his character did die wearing a wedding dress in the 1968 Tennessee Williams play “The Seven Descents of Myrtle.” Now Mr. Bedford is donning the full regalia of a doughty Victorian dowager. Well, except the corset. Tight undergarments give him claustrophobia. “I do think I act as if I have a corset on,” he adds obligingly.
Mr. Bedford is pleased that, in full Bracknell drag, he finds himself “looking rather pleasantly” like his departed friend Brooke Astor, the longtime doyenne of New York society. “Brooke wasn’t really Lady Bracknell at all,” he says. “She was just innately, frighteningly grand. But through her I did meet some real Lady Bracknells, mad Englishwomen who looked as if they’d made their own clothes — big flowered stuff — and lived at hysterical houses in England.”
Consorting with Lady Bracknell types was not something his childhood prepared him for. “The house I was born in had no hot water,” he says. “The loo was about 30 yards outside.” (He pauses to observe that he is sounding dangerously like the Monty Python sketch in which prosperous men swap competitive accounts of childhood adversity.) “There was an atmosphere of terminal illness,” he says. With two of his brothers dying slowly of tuberculosis, he spent a lot of time alone in the bathroom, “pretending to be a radio,” softly speaking lines he had heard in broadcasts. He says he wanted to be an actor “before I knew there was such a thing as the theater.”
He left school at 15 and joined an amateur theater group in Bradford. Among the people he met then was a “stage-door Johnny” named Brian Epstein, who also wanted to be an actor but became famous as the manager of the Beatles. “Brian gave me my first record player,” he says, “and my first classical album, which was the Sibelius violin concerto.” His education was well under way.
Mr. Bedford was subsequently accepted at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, that most venerable cradle of actors, where his classmates included Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney and Alan Bates, who was “the first person I ever lived with” and, “though that didn’t work out so well,” became a lifelong friend. “Unbeknownst to us,” he says, “we were part of a historical moment in theater, because we were all working-class boys.” It was the mid-1950s, the age of the “angry young man” and the New York school of Method acting. Mr. Bedford remembers going several times with Mr. Finney to see Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront.” He says, “To this day I still see the influence that Brando had on Albert in every performance.”
It wasn’t Brando whom Mr. Bedford channeled in his 1956 West End debut, an American import called “The Young and Beautiful,” based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. “I sort of copied Noël Coward, which was rather audacious,” he says. As it turned out, this was appropriate training for the life he would soon be leading.
Mr. Bedford caught the attention of the theater impresario Hugh Beaumont (known as Binkie) and his companion, John Perry. “They really kind of adopted me,” Mr. Bedford says. “They were the parents I always wanted.” He entered into what he describes as a “most rarefied world,” of sumptuous country houses and gilded repartee, feeling “like Alice in Wonderland.” He remembers once visiting Beaumont, who announced “a couple of friends” were coming over. They turned out to be Coward and Marlene Dietrich. “So I am sitting there listening to Noël and Marlene talking about, ‘Remember when we had to change into evening clothes in a taxi?’ I could have sat there for weeks. What I was for these fancy people was the perfect audience.”
His most influential and enduring mentor was the great John Gielgud, whom Mr. Bedford met at 18 by “using all my sly finagling” to get invited to a dinner party. He remembers walking Gielgud home that night, and the older man saying to him, “Do you mind being so small?” (Mr. Bedford is 5 foot 10; Gielgud was about four inches taller.) When at only 21 Mr. Bedford played Hamlet at the Liverpool Repertory Theater, Gielgud sent him a 10-page letter (“on both sides of thick note paper”) of advice. At 22 Mr. Bedford portrayed Ariel to Gielgud’s Prospero in “The Tempest,” under the direction of a very young Peter Brook.
It was Gielgud who directed Mr. Bedford in Peter Shaffer’s “Five Finger Exercise,” the play that brought him to Broadway in 1959. Mr. Bedford says he knew even then that he wanted to stay in the States: “I found England dreary. I suppose it’s understandable if your childhood was as mean as mine.” And he had always loved American films: “Even theDoris Day movies. I thought, ‘Yes, I should be in that kitchen.’”
Mr. Bedford says he also knew it was time to break from the life he had been leading. “I felt I was becoming a little Binkie, or a little John, a little bit of all of them,” he says. “I knew that wasn’t me. I didn’t want to be a social creature, always trying to be witty. You did have to play the game. That was part of the rules.”
And so Mr. Bedford has remained on this continent. He has appeared occasionally in films (including the splashy 1966 racing movie “Grand Prix” and the 1974 animated film “Robin Hood,” as the voice of the title character, a fox). And he has memorably created roles on Broadway in Richard Nelson’s “Two Shakespearean Actors” and as the effete, dying bridegroom in the fabled flop “The Seven Descents of Myrtle,” a rudderless production he describes in hilarious, harrowing detail. (“I didn’t know what to do, so I just did an out-and-out imitation of Tennessee.”)
But he is best known as a classical actor of uncommon emotional transparency and hair-trigger timing, particularly in plays by Shakespeare and Molière. (He won the best actor Tony in 1971 for Molière’s “School for Wives,” over competitors who included Gielgud.)
On Broadway he was a heartbreakingly disenchanted Timon of Athens in 1994, a blissfully fatuous old fop in Dion Boucicault’s “London Assurance” in 1997 and a touchingly gullible Orgon in Molière’s “Tartuffe” in 2003. “I do like playing totally blinkered, deluded people,” he says. “I find them funny.” He has regularly added to that gallery in Stratford, where he shares a house with the actor Tim MacDonald, his partner of 25 years, who plays the manservant Merriman in Mr. Bedford’s “Earnest.”
Mr. Bedford remembers visiting Gielgud toward the end of the older actor’s life. “There he was, sitting on a little outside terrace, in the sun, and he’d got himself up in a tie and suit and everything, but he could hardly move. I’d never known his spirits so low. I said, ‘John, I know it’s your birthday in two weeks, and I’d like to come and have lunch with you.’ He said,” — and here Mr. Bedford’s voice becomes a faint but exact replica of Gielgud’s — “ ‘That would be very nice, but I’m filming.’ ” It was only at that mention of work, Mr. Bedford says, that the infirm Gielgud showed a spark of the old animation. “All he cared about was acting.”
Is that true of Mr. Bedford as well? “Well, I’m most alive when I’m acting,” he says. “No, I can’t deny it. It’s where I belong.” His father, who committed suicide when Mr. Bedford was a young man, was “a neurotic, complicated man, and I’ve consequently inherited a few, very wonky genes.” He smiles reassuringly. “But I’m O.K. I’m especially O.K. when I’m working.”