By the end of his five-year run on the hit screwball sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, French Stewart found himself at a career crossroads. The problem was that his success as the series' hilariously harebrained extraterrestrial with the quizzical squint, Harry Solomon, had in the eyes of Hollywood typecast him. He was effectively the new Gilligan.
Stewart huddled with his agent. "I asked him, 'What can I expect?'" Stewart recalls. "He said, 'If you want to be in a big movie, you can have a small part as a retarded guy. If you want to be in a small movie, you can play a lead retarded guy. And if you want to be in the theater, you can play King Lear because you've been on a TV show.' And it was really true, you know?"
Opting for none of the above (including his now-former agent), Stewart returned to the stage, paying for the privilege with a steady stream of solid character work in TV and films.
A decade later, the actor nurses a beer around the corner from the Sacred Fools Theater, where he is finally getting his chance to tackle what may be the Lear of comedy -- portraying silent-film legend Buster Keaton in the new play Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton.
The notion of somehow cracking Keaton on the stage has been something of on obsession for Stewart. A lifelong fan, it was only after seeing the 1924, metacinematic masterpiece Sherlock, Jr. in his early '20s that Stewart was swept away. "I remember seeing it and just thinking, 'Oh my God! What do we have that's like him today?'" Stewart says. "He's like this great athlete and great comedian. I mean the closest thing I always say is [somebody] like Jackie Chan....But the fact that this guy could go this long and sort of move to a second tier in a way -- I just couldn't understand it. I just thought he was an elegant artist."
For Stewart, playing Keaton is both intimidating ("because I'm pushing 50, and I just can't do what he does") and a gift -- literally. The playwright is Stewart's wife, Vanessa Claire Stewart (the costar and co-writer of Sacred Fools' 2008 hit Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara), who dropped the finished play in his lap last year as a surprise for his 47th birthday. "She had been working on it quietly," he says. "And she just gave it to me. And I sat there and I read it, and it was exactly what I wanted. ... She just has a way of taking reality and bending it so it's not mimicry, and finding something else in it that's relevant for people right now."
What finally clinched the deal was Vanessa's idea of telling Keaton's story from the perspective of "the middle part" -- the period after the great silent work, when the advent of sound, the creativity-constricting tyranny of the studio system and the traumatic break-up of Keaton's first marriage sent the star into a spiraling free-fall of alcoholic self-destruction. "So it's really starting from the bottom and then, through a variety of ways, we're using bits -- classic bits -- and bending them to sort of tell the story of what he was and what he is now, and then just getting to a point of redemption," Stewart says.
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For a mid-career comic actor, the middle approach is inspired. For the fanatically protective Buster community, however, still smarting from 1957's execrable Donald O'Connor biopic fantasy The Buster Keaton Story, the announcement set off alarm bells on the blogosphere. "We started getting phone calls and letters from people who were just really invested in Keaton and didn't want to sit through another bad Donald O'Connor movie; they didn't want a sad drunk movie," Stewart says. "You know, they wanted the actual story, and the hardest part about that story is that he's really interesting from cradle to grave. ... So we have to balance paying tribute to him with telling kind of the rough part of his life, which is a lot."
Whether the play will appease the Buster fans remains to be seen. For his part, Stewart is refreshingly humble and realistic. "I can't be Keaton, you know?" he says. "All I can do is warp his bits to illustrate his life. And that's it. Anybody who thinks they can be Keaton, they haven't done it so far. ... But I think if you just sort of concentrate on your strengths and tell the story and don't get too far off the reservation in terms of what you can and can't do then you're okay."
Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton plays at Sacred Fools Theater through June 30. (310) 281-8337 or www.sacredfools.org/mainstage/12/stoneface/