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ACTOR FINDS BIG SATISFACTION IN SMALL N.Y. THEATER

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When he was growing up in Emmett, Idaho, watching "The Mike Douglas Show" and dreaming of coming to New York to be a performer, Arnie Burton had no idea that one day he would take a job as dog walker for the daughter of the Shah of Iran.

The job came during what the 37-year-old Burton calls "the dark years" of his acting career, that inevitable period in the life of a struggling actor when he can't buy a part. "It paid $6 a half-hour," he said, shuddering. "I even had keys to her apartment."Eventually Burton curbed the day job and found an actor's paradise: the Pearl Theater Company, a small playhouse on the Lower East Side where Burton has now been doing the classics for five years.

It's not the highest-profile work in the theater, and it hasn't led to fame or fortune. But it's a living.

"Acting in New York, you feel like such an itinerant day worker, going from place to place," he said. "To have a family to go to, that's been great."

Last month, Burton was singled out by critics for his portrayal of Gustave in the Pearl's well-received production of "When Ladies Battle."

He recently began performances in yet another classical role, that of Leontes in the Pearl's new production, "The Winter's Tale." How many New York actors go from French farce to Shakespearean romance in a single bound?

- Peter Marks