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Tony winner is happy being a ‘company man’

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NEW YORK — Richard Easton insists that he's not a Broadway star. But at age 68, and after more than 50 years in the theater, he knows how to command a stage.

Tony voters think so, too. Easton galvanizes Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love," winning a 2001 Tony Award for best actor against such formidable and better-known competition as Gary Sinise and Brian Stokes Mitchell.

In Stoppard's drama of unrequited love, Easton portrays English poet A.E. Housman at age 77, looking back at what he did — and did not — do with his life. A brilliant scholar, Housman confronts his younger self, played by Robert Sean Leonard, and his lifelong yearning for another student at Oxford.

For Easton, the role marks a return to Broadway after an absence of more than three decades. It was a homecoming that coincidentally occurred at the Lyceum Theatre, which is where the actor last played on Broadway in 1969.

At the time, Easton was a member of APA-Phoenix, a celebrated New York City repertory company that during its existence included such performers as Rosemary Harris, Helen Hayes, Uta Hagen, Brian Bedford, Frances Sternhagen and Donald Moffat.

"I have always been a company person," the Canadian-born Easton says. "I like companies. I like the work — and playing in rep is the dream of any actor.

"Some of the first directors I ever worked with were people like Tyrone Guthrie, Peter Brook, Alec Guinness, John Gielgud. I was spoiled immediately for the feeling of community that I like in the theater. The idea of making a career of my own is not interesting to me. I don't have the energy a star has."

Easton has the look, though. On a sweltering June afternoon, the actor, sporting John L. Lewis eyebrows and a bushy mustache, is nattily turned out. Checkered sports jacket. Crisply knotted blue paisley tie. Pressed tan slacks.

He sits in his tiny Lyceum dressing room where posters from old APA-Phoenix productions, including "Exit the King" (his last appearance there), adorn the wall.

His is a career that began on the radio in Montreal when he was 14 years old.

"I fell into it by accident," he recalls. "A Montreal children's theater had a Saturday morning radio program for children by children and had a contest, awarding a scholarship to the child who wrote the best letter."

Easton won.

At 17, he moved to Ottawa to become a professional actor and do weekly rep — 33 plays in 35 weeks, the best stage education possible. "What you learn is a respect for the word," Easton says. "You learn the lines. You never rehearse without knowing the lines."

In 1953, he was present at the founding by Tyrone Guthrie of the Stratford Festival in Canada. From there, he went on to study acting in England on a scholarship, eventually joining the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Easton also worked in the United States at the Stratford Festival in Connecticut as well as at the Williamstown Festival Theatre in Massachusetts. At one point in his long career, he went to San Diego for a holiday and stayed — for 10 years, acting at the Old Globe and teaching at the University of San Diego.

"They invented this job for me — being a mentor in their MFA (master of fine arts) program connected with the Old Globe. I would do three or four plays a year at the theater and teach and just be around as a kind of warning, a lesson to the students," he says with a laugh.

He eventually grew tired of teaching and returned to New York. "The Invention of Love" finally lured him back to Broadway. A London hit several seasons ago, it needed critically praised productions at regional theaters in San Francisco and Philadelphia before a nonprofit New York company, Lincoln Center Theater, decided to produce it here. The delay puzzled Easton.

" 'The Invention of Love' is not an inaccessible play," he says. "It's a difficult play, but all of Stoppard's plays are difficult because they are so packed. He shovels stuff into them. Too many things of interest — and they are glorious for that reason.

"This is a play about a man meeting himself at 18, a meeting filled with pride, amazement and horror."

Yet Easton manages to distill the essence of all that dense writing, adding a layer of humanity to the intellectual richness found in this cerebral work.

"The part is difficult (to learn) in the sense that there's an awful lot of it. And a lot of it is spoken alone on the stage. There's nobody to give you a cue."

Despite glowing reviews, Tonys for Easton and Leonard and a best play award from the New York Drama Critics' Circle, "The Invention of Love" closed June 30. With a large cast — 20 actors on stage — and a small theater, economics made a long run unlikely.

Still, Easton is optimistic about the theater.

"All my life, people have always said about the theater, 'Oh, it's the worst year, the worst year. No work.' I've heard that since I was 14." What's new for Easton is the celebrity.

"Suddenly, I'm recognized on the street," he says with a chuckle. "It's very nice, but I've never envied it or wanted it.

"I've never done anything I didn't want to do. I've never had to endure the tedium of a long run. But as a result, of course, I have never become a star. But I've done an awful lot of interesting things, and I've worked with some wonderful people."