New York -- It was the first public performance of the National Actors Theatre. Martin Sheen was ready. Michael York was ready. But Fritz Weaver had laryngitis and couldn't go on.
Just before "The Crucible" was to begin last week, Tony Randall went onstage to tell the packed Belasco Theatre audience about Mr. Weaver's unexpected illness. And when Deputy Governor Danforth made his appearance in the second act, Mr. Randall was playing Mr. Weaver's part.
So what if Mr. Randall was reading from a script? As Mr. York and Mr. Sheen had told him earlier, it was the first preview of his theater company. After decades of talk about starting a national theater company, the TV, film and stage actor has actually pulled it off.
Arthur Miller's Tony-winning 1953 play about the Salem witch hunt kicks off the National Actors Theatre's three-play inaugural season. Mr. Sheen, who plays doomed farmer John Proctor and considers Mr. Miller one of his "all-time heroes," chose the play.
Mr. Sheen says "The Crucible" is "the one play I should have done 15 years ago," and Mr. Randall has been waiting even longer to launch his theater company. The 71-year-old actor swears he's been thinking about it since he left the Neighborhood Playhouse School 50 years ago, and few people who know Mr. Randall can remember a time he wasn't talking about a national theater.
"A lot of people think I'm just a talker," says Mr. Randall, founder and artistic director of the new company. "It took millions of dollars and I had to go out and raise it. The longer it took, the more people thought I was a flake."
Mr. Randall envisions an American company along the lines of France's Comedie-Francaise, the Moscow Art Theatre and Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company.
"Our mission is to build a great acting company and present great plays at a price that families can afford," Mr. Randall says. "People ask if there's an audience for it, and my argument is we imported the Royal Shakespeare Company 35 times. We always walk out saying, 'Gee, they're good. Why aren't we doing that?' "
Mr. Randall isn't the first American actor who has tried to organize his colleagues. New York's APA-Phoenix sponsored a Broadway repertory company in the '60s, for instance, while in the '70s came SOLAR -- the Society of Loose Actors Revolving -- which brought such actors as Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Maureen Stapleton and Mr. Weaver together in what Mr. Weaver describes as "hot little rooms to discuss how we were going to revolutionize the theater."
With the regional theater movement in the '60s came a different sort of "national" theater, a tapestry of not-for-profit producing centers from New York and Washington to Minneapolis, Dallas and Los Angeles. People and productions travel among those theaters, which, over time, have become prime providers of Broadway fare as well.
Despite all this, Mr. Randall kept plugging his dream, trying to put together the people, plays, theater and cash that would create a sort of super-repertory company presenting season after season of classic literature. And now, with his National Actors Theatre, he put his own money -- $1 million of it -- where his dreams are and persuaded plenty of people to go along with him.
Earlier this year, the Shubert Organization offered the frequently dark, 1,032-seat Belasco Theatre to Mr. Randall "practically for nothing."
Mr. Randall has drawn together some of the most recognizable names in show business, ranging from this year's Mr. Sheen and Mr. York, to promised future appearances by Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Lauren Bacall and others. Rob Lowe, Lynn Redgrave and Mr. Randall will headline the season's second play, Georges Feydeau's farce "A Little Hotel on the Side," directed by Tom Moore. Earle Hyman stars in the third play, Henrik Ibsen's "The Master Builder," which Mr. Randall will direct. (Israeli director Yossi Yzraely makes his New York theater debut with "The Crucible.")
Last summer, the fledgling institution took over the Belasco one evening for a benefit performance featuring Mr. Randall and Jack Klugman reprising their TV success in Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple." The play was followed by a party at the Pierre Hotel where Bill Cosby entertained and, says Mr. Randall, the event took in $1.2 million, netted $750,000.