Though David Suchet played Agatha Christie's brilliantly eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot for more than 25 years, the British actor never had a long-term contract with the series.
"Every time a Poirot series finished, I never knew if I was going to do another one," said Suchet, who has written a book, "Poirot and Me" about his quarter-century as the rotund super-sleuth.
"Actually, looking back rather like a spider at his web at my life, I am actually grateful," Suchet said.
"I was free to choose and accept theater engagements, Hollywood films and other television. Although Poirot did come back every now and again, they always worked around my other commitments."
When he wasn't putting Poirot's "little gray cells" to work, Suchet, 67, appeared in London's West End in Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and David Mamet's "Oleanna." And he earned a Tony nomination in 2000 for a revival of "Amadeus."
Suchet is now touring in Roger Crane's "The Last Confession," a political thriller the actor originally did in England in 2007. The play revolves around the sudden and mysterious death of Pope John Paul I in 1978 just 33 days after his election and before he could set his liberal reforms in motion. Suchet plays the politically adept Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, who had been instrumental in getting the former Cardinal Albino Luciani elected as pope.
"The Last Confession" opens its only U.S. stop Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre, where it plays through July 6. The production then heads to Australia for a multicity tour.
Benelli, who died of a heart attack in Florence, Italy, in 1982, also was "one for political change in the Vatican," Suchet said. "He was not very popular with the traditionalists. I call him a bit of a political Rottweiler."
Conspiracy theories surrounding the pope's sudden demise ran rampant after his death and continue to this day. "I remember it vividly," Suchet said with a charming smile during an interview last week at the downtown L.A. apartment complex where he's residing during the engagement.
"Different stories were coming out of the Vatican about who found him and when he was found. He was buried without an autopsy — the quickest burial of any pope in living history. We will never know to this day what happened."
"The Last Confession," Suchet said, "opens doors and holds the Vatican possibly accountable for its actions."
Suchet believes the play is even more timely now because of the election last year of Pope Francis, who is also leading reforms in the Catholic Church.
When "The Last Confession" premiered in 2007, some critics referred to Benelli as an Hercule Poirot without a Belgian accent because he launches his own investigation into John Paul I's death. But Suchet sees the play as less of a mystery and more a story about Benelli's distress and sadness over the loss of his good friend.
"He also has his own guilt because he didn't go for the papacy," Suchet said. "After John Paul died, he actually went for the papacy himself. He struggled with his faith. This play is as much about that as anything."
Brian Bedford was set to play Pope John Paul I until illness forced him to withdraw earlier this year. Richard O'Callaghan, who originated the role, took over for Bedford and said he's thrilled to be working with Suchet once more.
"He's more than an acting partner," O'Callaghan said. "He is kind of the company leader. He looks after every single person in the company and makes sure everyone is happy."
Sheila Ferris, Suchet's wife of 39 years, plays a nun in the play. They two met in 1972 in a production of "Dracula." Ferris was playing the ingenue Lucy, and Suchet was Renfield, the "guy who eats flies."
"I thought, 'Am I never going to get this girl?'" he said. "But in the end we got together."
Ferris gave up her career to raise their two children, now grown. Working together onstage after all these years is great, Suchet said with a twinkle in his eyes. "We even have a scene together."
It's been nearly a year since Suchet completed "Agatha Christie's Poirot," whose 70th and final episode was titled "Curtain: Poirot's Last Case." Though the series concluded last fall in England, the final five installments will air in the U.S. this summer. Under the series named "Hercule Poirot," PBS will debut episodes titled "The Big Four" on July 27 and "Dead Man's Folly" on Aug. 3. The final three installments — "Elephants Can Remember," "Labours of Hercules" and "Curtain" — will stream in August on Acorn TV.
"I have people say, 'How could you do that role for so long?'" Suchet said, providing his own answer: "I was never bored with the man." Fans would fly in from China, Japan and Russia to see him in the West End because they were Poirot fans, he said. "Aren't I lucky? Such a gift of a role."
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 601 W. Temple St., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays to Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays. Also 6: p.m. June 22 and July 6. Ends July 6.
Tickets: $40 to $105
Information: (213) 628-2772, http://www.centertheatregroup.org