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Broadway's Character Actors Shine Behind the Stars - 2002-03-29


The names of many of Hollywood's brightest stars are lighting up Broadway marquees this season: Kathleen Turner and Alicia Silverstone in The Graduate, Kevin Bacon in An Almost Holy Picture, Bill Pullman in Edward Albee's latest, The Goat or Who is Sylvia and John Lithgow in the new musical version of Sweet Smell of Success. But behind those stars are scores of less well-known actors, whose performances are just as important to the production's success.

When producer David Richenthal was casting the current revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, his first priority was lining up the stars. Then, with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney signed on, he turned his attention to the supporting players. "As soon as I was confident that we had the elements, the essential elements to plan the production, Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, the very first question was who could play Deputy Governor Danforth, the character who drives the third and fourth act, the entire second half of the production," Mr. Richenthal recalls.

The first name that came to his mind was Brian Murray. "We didn't ask him to audition," he says. "We all knew his work and if we hadn't found the right Danforth, we could not have done this production. He said yes immediately and has done a job that I hope and think should win a Tony award and every other award. He's brilliant in the part."

'Brilliant' is an adjective that is often paired with Brian Murray's name he's proven again and again to be one of the most reliable and respected supporting actors on the New York stage. He says he never sought the spotlight.

"At one time I thought I was only ever going to do Shakespeare," Mr. Murray explains. "And that's not happened at all. When I was younger I always thought of myself as a juvenile character actor. I was never a juvenile lead. And then for a while I was a leading man and now a character actor and very happy to be it."

His characters have won him acclaim from critics like the New York Post's Clive Barnes. "Murray is a wonderful showbiz paradigm or showbiz exemplar of so many showbiz clichés," says Mr. Barnes, "one is that there are no small roles, only small actors and gives that cliché a certain amount of life because he doesn't play very small roles although one feels even if he were just a standby he would probably do some little piece of business... not exactly scene stealing but shall we say scene borrowing... like so many great actors, he has that quality."

Character actors like Brian Murray and Marian Seldes, who appeared with him last year in the Off Broadway production of The Play About Baby, are not well-known names outside New York's theater community. But Ms. Seldes says that doesn't matter.

"The acclaim you get is from the audience," she says. "If they remember what you did or what your character did, that's it. I never had a discussion with Brian about stardom or fame. I don't think either of us feel that's part of the journey of actor. We are the servants to the play. And the responsibility of having your name in bright lights over the title is so enormous and so frightening and in the case of people who have done a lot of film and television, I can't imagine the strain it adds to the work. Brian and I just come in and do our work."

And work they do. While he was in rehearsal for The Crucible during the day, Brian Murray was performing nightly in Hobson's Choice. Theater critic Clive Barnes says this isn't unusual. "His career has been rather like that... running like a billiard ball from one excellent portrayal to the other. I think he has not done much in the way of film or television. He has become sort of Broadway's resident Englishman," says Mr. Barnes.

And that's the way Brian Murray likes it. "I think an actor in the theater is sort of, by definition, a workaholic. He has to be. And I'm never so happy as when I'm working," he exclaims.

And it's the work of actors like Brian Murray and Marion Seldes who have chosen a life in the theater, that sets the stage for the biggest stars on Broadway to shine so brightly.

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