When Frank Langella speaks, his deep and rolling voice makes it easy to recall all the less-than-perfect characters he has immortalized on stage and screen.
He has played a disgraced U.S. President and a diabolical White House chief-of-staff. He’s been a sultry, sophisticated Count Dracula and a mysterious, malevolent Clare Quilty. And, much to his own delight, he has stepped into the shoes — or bones — of the villainous Skeletor in a live-action version of the popular 1980s cartoon, “He-Man.”
It makes one wonder how he’ll handle the beloved and bittersweet “Casey at the Bat.”
Fortunately, Neapolitans don’t have to wait long to find out. At 8 p.m. on Saturday, Nov.6, Langella will help kick off the Philharmonic Center for the Arts’ 2010-11 season. The three-time Tony Award winner will join the Phil’s orchestra to narrate Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” a musical piece that also incorporates the 16th president’s own words. Langella will take a swing at Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s classic baseball poem, too.
Langella has previously performed “Lincoln Portrait” and can offer opening night audiences a sneak peek about what to expect. “It just brings the house down. It’s a beautiful combination of music and the Gettysburg address,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I’ve never done ‘Casey at the Bat,’ so it should be sort of fun.”
Langella’s stage career began in New York City in 1968, in “A Cry of Players.” Cast opposite actress Anne Bancroft, Langella portrayed a young, fictionalized version of playwright William Shakespeare. Two years later, he was starring in films, including Frank Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” for which he earned a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer.
He was born and raised in New Jersey, and it’s a bit of Langella lore that the young actor blunted his regional accent by listening to tapes of legendary British actor John Gielgud and mimicking Gielgud’s elegant manner of speech. Langella doesn’t deny it — nor did he deny it when he finally met Gielgud many years later.
Gielgud was flattered at Langella’s revelation. And flattering, too.
“He looked at me, dumbfounded, and said, ‘You’re well over me, dear boy,’” Langella recalls.
In 1975, Langella received his first Tony Award for his role in Edward Albee’s “Seascape.” Since then, he has been nominated four more times and won twice — in 2002, for “Fortune’s Fool” and 2007’s “Frost/Nixon.” The latter, based on the series of 1977 interviews between President Nixon and British TV star David Frost, was also turned into a film by director Ron Howard.
Langella received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Nixon, a memorable characterization that’s best described as both unrelentingly repellent and yet completely compelling. The film was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Langella admits he was surprised by the success of “Frost/Nixon.” On paper, the play could be construed as slightly dry, or purely political. He expected “Frost/Nixon” would gobble up eight weeks of his life, no more. But when the play began its London run, the production was imaginative and brilliant, and audiences loved it. Perhaps that’s partly because of its subject matter, Langella notes.
With his quirks, flaws and idiosyncrasies, “Nixon has always been one of the most fascinating political figures of the 20th century,” Langella says.
Playing characters that audiences love to loathe — or, at least, know they shouldn’t be rooting for — is nothing new for Langella. In Ivan Reitman’s “Dave,” Langella played corrupt White House Chief-of-Staff Bob Alexander, a man who conspires to replace the U.S. President with a ringer.
“Dave” is a comedy, and Alexander’s schemes and double-crosses are for laughs. Langella says he would never dream of playing a part that way, though, which is why their wickedness always comes scorching through. As an actor, he must be sympathetic to his characters, even when they are at their most terrible. When you’re playing a bad guy, he explains, he’s bad to everyone but you.
“There’s a lot of me that’s on their side,” he says. “I can play them with quotation marks around them.”
One of his most recent films is “Wall Street II: Money Never Sleeps.” In it, Langella plays Louis Zabel, the head of a prominent investment firm and mentor to young trader Jake Moore, played by Shia LeBeouf. The film was directed by Oliver Stone, and making it was a “totally 100 percent perfect experience,” Langella says. He calls Stone “one of a dozen great American filmmakers.”
“He wants you to be great and he wants his film to be great,” Langella says. “We had a terrific relationship.”
Even after four decades of film, Langella still has his favorites. Among them was playing the part of Skeletor, He-Man’s ossified nemesis from 1987’s “Masters of the Universe.” The film was not a critical success, but that’s not why Langella signed on for the role.
“It’s one of my favorite parts,” he says. “I did it for my four-year-old son, who was in love with Skeletor.”
Unfortunately, when his children finally saw the film, their reaction was rather subdued: They fell asleep. Langella didn’t care.
“It was just wonderful to be able to play that,” he says.