Sunday, May 19

Keach steps out of character with role in ‘Inspector’

Monday, June 3, 1996

Actor plays everything he is not with latest characterBy
Jennifer Richmond

Daily Bruin Contributor

He’s an upstart Brit who’d rather die than have a scandal.

He commands attention as he struts around in his tux and
expounds on the differences between him and the lower classes.

He is Arthur Birling, the lead character in J. B. Priestly’s "An
Inspector Calls," and the absolute opposite of the man playing him
­ Stacy Keach.

Where Birling is pompous, Keach demure. Where Birling is
intimidating, Keach exudes warmth and kindness. The two are polar
opposites and Keach makes that even clearer once you meet him.

Dressed in jeans, moccasins and a flannel shirt, the actor, best
known for playing Mike Hammer in the television series, says he has
a good time playing the character.

"It wasn’t so much the character I was drawn to even though he
is fun," Keach explains from his dressing room at the Ahmanson.
"It’s fun to play that kind of pompous Englishman who’s a
narrow-minded father. I had fun with it."

While Birling starts off too big for his britches, his nemesis,
the Inspector, makes him realize his short comings. But before the
Inspector arrives Birling is confident and carefree.

"In the beginning we hear him articulate what his point of view
toward the world is…He says you have to look after your own
family, make your own way, and you cannot be responsible for
society at large.

"He’s also very self-serving in the sense that his main
objective and goal seems to be achieving social status, becoming a
knight. And his worst fear is a scandal, anything that disrupts
that perfectly constructed dream that he has for himself and his

But that’s only half the story. Birling’s world begins to
crumble when "An Inspector Calls" and blames the Englishman for a
young girl’s death. As the play unfolds it comes out that the girl,
Eva Smith, had a position in Birling’s factory. He dismissed her
when she started a strike because he wouldn’t agree to give her a

Birling’s change becomes obvious once the Inspector tells him
the girl’s name. Keach believes part of the reason Birling is so
shocked by her death is because he had feelings for her.

"I always felt that (Birling) probably had been attracted to Eva
Smith," he explains. "There seems to be a moment ­ it isn’t in
the text, it’s a subtextual thing ­ that his involvement with
Eva Smith runs deeper than what is clearly said on stage. I think
it also gives a certain resonance and depth to that relationship
more than just the fact that she was causing trouble at the works.
He’s sort of the Clarence Thomas of the industrial world of

Once all the information comes out about Eva Smith, Birling
changes drastically.

"He’s disillusioned," the actor explains. But that doesn’t last

"He really doesn’t come to an awareness. He really doesn’t grow;
none of the characters do. They retreat into a world almost of
madness, sort of an infantile state of non-recognition, they just
refuse to accept what the inspector says. And Sheila (Birling’s
daughter) is really the voice of reason in the play. She’s the one
who seems to acknowledge that the family hasn’t changed and they
haven’t grown."

Author Priestly makes that point clear in the second act. It’s
come out that the whole event was a fake and there was never any
death. Realizing all this, Birling can crawl back to his high life
on the second floor of an upper crust society.

"He goes back to the way he was because he’s incapable of
accepting that premise," Keach says. "I mean the relief that is
offered him through the fact that this isn’t a real inspector is
threatened with that last phone call.

"The last phone call is where I think Priestly is really saying
that if you don’t change you’re doomed to repeat your own mistakes.
If you don’t wake up and smell the coffee, you’re destined to a
life of cold tea," the actor chuckles.

Keach is positive that Birling’s mentality will doom him to
repeat the scenario over and over again; another difference between
the actor and his character. Where Birling is caught in a vicious
cycle of his own creation, Keach recreates the role every night
with a slight difference, thanks to the crowd.

"The audience provides a certain response mechanism that kicks
you into different gears," Keach says. "The characters are very
stylized and the difficulty with that is you have to be very
careful it doesn’t become frivolous or empty. So, you need to fill
that with a kind of reality to make it work on that level so that
it doesn’t work against the audience’s willing suspension of

"And I think that’s another reason why setting the opening scene
inside the house is very dynamic. You’re not sure. You’re hearing
bits and snatches of an argument. You’re automatically curious. You
want to know more."

STAGE: "An Inspector Calls." Running through June 30 at the
Ahmanson Theatre. TIX: $50-15. For more info., call (213)

J.B. Priestly’s "An Inspector Calls" holds the stage at the
Ahmanson Theater. The play stars Stacey Keach.

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