Returning Royalty: Alvin Epstein

Photo: Globe

Still hard at work at 81, Alvin Epstein—one of the great classical actors of his generation—moved back to New York last year, after decades on the regional-theater circuit. Since then, he’s drawn praise for supporting roles in Chekhov and Beckett, and this week, the Boston Actors Theater’s King Lear transfers here. He spoke to Jeremy McCarter.

The last time you were in Lear in New York, in 1956, it was a debacle. You played the Fool and Orson Welles played the king …
It was a major disaster for Orson Welles. He was undeniably some sort of genius, but he undertook too much. He was playing Lear; he was directing; he really designed the set but couldn’t claim credit because he wasn’t a member of the union. Instead of rehearsing, he was sitting out there watching us, and that’s not a good thing to do when you’re playing King Lear.

I’ve read that he sprained one ankle during previews and the other on opening night. What’d he do?
The next night, Orson just sat in a wheelchair and entertained the audience with stories and magic tricks. The third day, we restaged the entire show with Orson in a wheelchair. Now, how can you play King Lear in a wheelchair?

You tell me.
I don’t know! I was too close to see how he was doing it. He had staged a lot of the play with me hugging his ankles. Now I was hugging the wheels of his chair. Theatrical life is an absurdity.

And that same year, you played Lucky in the U.S. premiere of Waiting for Godot.
Well, yes, but it came from Florida first. In Florida, they called it the laugh riot of two continents. The silver foxes and blue-hairs started storming out of the theater after the first six minutes. Then [the producers] made the opposite mistake in New York. They advertised “Needed: 60,000 Intellectuals.” That tells you a lot.

Having just turned 81, how do you stay in performing shape?
Good genes. My father lived until he was almost 91. I grew up as a pudgy, not-athletic-and-aware-of-it Bronx boy. After the war, when I went to study mime in Paris, I made it a challenge to turn myself around. My true nature is to be like a pillow.

Yet you’re onstage seven times a week.
I know my resources, physical and whatever else. I’m happy to be able to do it. [Though] until this production, I never really liked the play.

Really? Most people say it’s one of the great works …
It is. But it wasn’t until I was able to approach the role myself that I learned to love it. In the few productions I’ve seen, it’s a Cinderella story with a tragic ending: the good girl and the wicked sisters. This is blanket good and evil, which I don’t think Shakespeare wrote. What he writes is so deeply rich and human, and so contradictory, that I think there’s a tendency to flatten it out.

So what do you do differently?
I can’t describe a production I’m in. People are going to see it and say, “He said he wasn’t going to do that.”

King Lear
At La Mama Etc Annex, June 16 Through July 2

Returning Royalty: Alvin Epstein