The Man Behind The Mask 'Phantom' Finds Stardom Perplexing And Amusing

January 05, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck

When Michael Crawford finally achieved international stardom, his face was hidden behind three layers of latex and a mask.

Even now, most people know him as "the Phantom" -- that is, the originator of the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera."

In fact, the telephone seems a fitting way to interview this actor. After all, the Phantom initially revealed only his disembodied voice to his beloved Christine.

But this is just the sort of romantic claptrap that amuses -- and perplexes -- the 49-year-old British actor, who, after spending the bulk of his career in comedies, has suddenly become an object of adulation, with fan clubs in both England and the United States.

On Tuesday, Mr. Crawford arrives at the Lyric Opera House in a one-week run of the concert performance, "The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber." Reached during the show's engagement in Minneapolis, he reveals a self-deprecating sense of humor.

Born Michael Dumbell-Smith, he says his name has been a lifelong "string of catastrophes." When he began his professional career, he chose the name "Crawford" from a brand of British biscuits. "Unfortunately, one of their main products is crackers, so they often have 'Crawford's Crackers' on the side of a truck," he says. Regrettably, he adds, that phrase occasionally shows up in his English reviews.

Then there's the matter of the Phantom's disfiguring makeup. For more than 1,300 performances, Mr. Crawford's face was covered with rubber -- a claustrophobic sensation he has compared to being trapped in an elevator.

He doesn't wear the Phantom's makeup in "The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber," but he has worn it offstage on rare occasions. One of the most memorable was his appearance at President Bush's inauguration. "I hid in the middle of the orchestra, then pounced up," he recalls. "I scared the heck out of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir."

Despite his comic banter, for a long time Mr. Crawford had a reputation as a workaholic. "I think that's been slightly misconstrued," he says now. "I'm dedicated to what I do, but if I've got a chance to stay in bed all day, I stay in bed all day."

Maybe so, but his "dedication" -- coupled with financial problems -- led to the breakup of his marriage in 1975. More recently, in an attempt to expand his vocal range to meet the baritone-to-falsetto demands of the Phantom role, he added three inches to his diaphragm -- and in the process acquired a hiatal hernia. The added inches make his new physique look "very much the same shape as a chicken," he jokes.

But if he's got the body of a chicken, it hasn't deterred his fans. In London, the faithful call themselves OGRE, an acronym that stands for Opera Ghost Return Enthusiasts and refers to repeat "Phantom"-goers, some of whom, he says, came over for both his New York and Los Angeles engagements. In addition, there is a California-based group, known as MCIFA (the Michael Crawford International Fan Association), with a membership of more than 2,000.

Mr. Crawford admits he finds this attention flattering, and he's pleased that, instead of showering him with flowers and gifts, both clubs raise money for his favorite charities -- those that help needy children and their families. But, he says, "fan clubs can frighten me slightly." In the United States, he routinely shredded the Phantom's latex makeup after each performance to ward off souvenir hunters, like those who used to raid the garbage in London.

Mr. Crawford's matinee-idol status could scarcely have been predicted from the roles on which he founded his career. On the large screen, he played such insipid juveniles as Hero in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and Cornelius Hackl in "Hello, Dolly!"; on stage he was in the long-running London hit "No Sex Please -- We're British"; and on British television, he starred in the popular series "Some Mothers Do 'ave 'em," for which he was voted "Funniest Man on TV" by readers of London's TV Times.

But if Mr. Crawford once was in danger of being typecast as a comedian, he is now in greater danger of being typecast as the Phantom. Though he is reluctant to make the Phantom his life's work, he still hopes to star in the Warners Bros. movie, which is currently on hold. (Its postponement made it possible for him to appear in "The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.")

These days he is concentrating more on singing than acting; in November, Atlantic released his latest album, "Michael Crawford Performs Andrew Lloyd Webber," which quickly made the Billboard chart. One cut is a duet -- "The First Man You Remember" from "Aspects of Love" -- sung with Lucy Crawford, 23, the younger of his two daughters. The album was Lucy's recording debut, as well as the first time father and daughter performed together. "It was very nerve-wracking. She was nervous and I was nervous. The [recording] booth misted up with perspiration," he kids.

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