Keith Carradine out of character Search for something different drew actor to title role of 'Will Rogers Follies'

May 02, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

CHICAGO — Chicago--If Will Rogers was the archetypal common man, Keith Carradine is the uncommon man.

At least that's the way he seemed before he created the role of the legendary cowboy-philosopher in "The Will Rogers Follies," the Tony Award-winning musical that opens Tuesday at the Lyric Opera House.

Before "Will Rogers" came along, words like "loner," "outsider," "laconic" and "enigmatic" were usually used to describe the characters Carradine played -- characters like the harsh, womanizing folk singer in "Nashville" (for which he wrote the Academy Award-winning song, "I'm Easy"), the taciturn whorehouse photographer in "Pretty Baby," or the cagey art forger in "The Moderns."

But now the 43-year-old actor has taken on so much of Will Rogers' aw-shucks, Everyman persona that watching him eat a bowl of pasta in an Italian restaurant calls to mind the simple familiarity of -- dare we say it? -- a spaghetti Western.

And it's not just his cowboy boots, Chevy pickup or Western-cut sport coat that convey this comfortable impression. There's genuineness underlying the toothy grin and hank of chestnut hair that keeps flopping onto his forehead.

In fact, Carradine admits that one reason he was so eager to play Will Rogers was because of the disparity between the beloved "poet lariat," as Rogers was called, and most of the actor's previous roles.

"I felt it would give me the chance to show a side of myself that I've never been given the opportunity to show. It gives me a chance to be funny. Most people certainly don't think of me that way. I've always known I had a sense of humor, but most of the film work that I've done has not paid particular attention to that," he says, in all seriousness.

The role also gave Carradine a chance to do something on stage that he's always enjoyed off stage. "I have loved horses and things Western all my life. You're talking to somebody who was weaned on the Warner Bros. television westerns of the '50s and '60s," the lanky actor explains.

"Playing cowboy has been a big part of my life, and I'm still at it. I have horses now, and my permanent home is in the Colorado Rockies," he says, referring to the 690-acre ranch he shares with his wife, Sandra Will, their two children, four horses, three dogs, two cats, five goldfish and three rabbits. (Carradine also has a grown daughter, actress Martha Plimpton, from a previous relationship.)

Gum and attitude

Despite his affinity for the West, Carradine felt a need to learn a few rope tricks before auditioning for "Will Rogers," and he taught himself to sing while chewing gum. "I think that's the key to my success, actually," he says. "I'd never been a gum-chewer in my life, and I suddenly discovered when I put a wad of gum in my mouth that it changed my whole attitude. There was just something about chewing gum that enhances the sort of I-don't-give-a-damn side of my nature."

This might sound like unusual preparation for an audition, but Carradine knew going in that, largely owing to his string of quirky film credits, neither the show's creative team nor its producers felt he was right for the role.

Director and choreographer Tommy Tune recalls, "From his film work we all thought he was just wrong for the part. But the moment he walked in and started talking, I said, 'He is Will Rogers.' "

But initially, even Carradine had doubts. "We actors tend to think that appearances are important, and the first response I had was that I didn't look anything like Will Rogers," he says.

Will Rogers, of course, not only twirled a rope and chewed gum, he also was, first and foremost, a storyteller and social commentator -- abilities demonstrated at length by the star of "The Will Rogers Follies," which is structured as an amalgam of Rogers' biography and a Ziegfeld Follies extravaganza.

With that in mind, Carradine also spun a tale or two at his audition. And sure 'nuff, his folksy quality immediately surfaces when he recalls a story he told -- a story that had previously been told to him by his brother Robert, one of several thespian members of the Carradine clan.

"Bobby was on the set when they were shooting 'The Cowboys,' " he says with a sly sparkle in his eye. "[John Wayne] walked out of his trailer, and a gust of wind blew his toupee off into the dirt. He wasn't the least bit nonplused or flustered by this. He just simply turned around, and he pulled out his gun and shot it."

The mention of Robert brings up the matter of the rest of the theatrical Carradines. The acting tradition began with father John, the prolific character actor. Three of John's five sons are also actors. Besides Keith and Robert, there's their older half brother, David -- probably the most widely recognized Carradine, thanks to his exposure on the television series "Kung Fu" (a sequel called "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues" began this season).

Carradine confusion

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