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For Richard Doyle, an Actor’s Life Is Driving

Richard Doyle didn’t exactly sweep into the Costa Mesa restaurant like a Hollywood star, but he might have. In a sweater the color of lime sherbet, with a pair of sunglasses dangling from his collar and his hair slicked down, he looked as though he had just taken a meeting at the Polo Lounge.

Doyle’s Tinseltown meetings usually take place on the San Diego Freeway in his phone-equipped Volkswagen. On the road five mornings a week, he sometimes leaves his Santa Ana home before dawn to beat the rush-hour traffic into Los Angeles.

Even after 24 seasons as a founding member of South Coast Repertory--where he currently has a co-starring role in the hit revival of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible"--Doyle can make more money in an hour at a recording studio doing the ho-ho-ho voice of a bear in a Kellogg’s cereal commercial than he makes in a week on the stage.

“I do a lot of voice-over work,” he explained recently, sliding into a booth and ordering a cup of black coffee. “The car phone is a product of that. Sometimes I have to go to four or five locations. So my agent keeps in touch with me and tells me where to go for my next stop. Saves time.”

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That day had been “kind of light,” Doyle recounted. He had driven to a sound studio on Melrose Avenue called Buzzy’s, where he spent two hours narrating a health-care video program. Then he stopped at his agent’s office on Sunset Boulevard and recorded some audition tapes. “A normal day would have carried me out to Burbank,” he added, “and back down the freeway just in time to make it to the theater.”

Indeed, for all his daytime moonlighting, Doyle’s real work begins when the curtain goes up. Although he has dabbled in television since the 1960s--playing an assortment of characters in “Charlie’s Angels,” “MASH,” “Cannon,” “The Mod Squad” and “Dallas"--the 43-year-old actor says he has never truly aspired to anything but the stage.

“I very easily could have made a career of television,” Doyle said. “The carrot was offered me. I even lived in North Hollywood for a while, thinking I would try to balance it with the theater. But I got to wondering: How do I want to be remembered? As the guy in the Von’s supermarket commercial?”

At one point, he co-starred with Ernest Borgnine in a series called “Future Cop,” which, as it turned out, had no future at all. “Nothing I’ve ever done on television has ever approached the excitement of the stage,” said Doyle, who has also been featured in such major studio movies as “Mass Appeal” with Jack Lemmon and “Coma” with Michael Douglas.

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“I had to ask myself: Should all my training and experience add up to being the second-banana cop on some show?” Doyle shook his head and ordered a second cup of black coffee, his mood waxing nostalgic as he remembered how his love of the stage was awakened.

A recreation director at a naval base in Norfolk, Va., put him in a talent show when he was 6 years old. She dressed him in a straw hat and striped jacket and asked him to sing “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” to an audience of Navy wives whose husbands were away at sea.

“There I was,” Doyle recalled, “me, little Ricky, the center of attraction. I was hooked.”

The image of the spit-curled child vaudevillian is a far cry from Doyle’s current role as a 17th-Century Puritan in “The Crucible.” He plays the Rev. John Hale of Beverly, whom Miller describes as “a tight-skinned, eager-eyed intellectual.”

Because of his scholarship in witchcraft, Hale is summoned to Salem, Mass., to discern whether a mysterious ailment afflicting the town’s children is the result of “unnatural” causes.

Having recently encountered an alleged witch in his own parish who turned out not to be one, Hale isn’t easily persuaded by the claim that various Salem women are casting spells on the children. He needs empirical evidence. If the women have been seduced by Lucifer, there will be clear signs.

In one of the play’s hallmark lines, Hale warns: “We cannot look to superstition in this. The devil is precise.” The reverend is not a man to let his learning go unused.

“He’s a catalyst in the play,” Doyle said, “and his story actually has as great an arc as (the tragic hero) John Proctor’s. There’s a duality in Hale. He realizes a witch hunt has begun and is liable to get out of hand. But he wants to vindicate his study and find the real thing. He’s looking for a witching.”

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One of the play’s momentous ironies is that Hale comes to the realization that the women are unjustly accused, yet he has helped provide the proof to convict them. In the end, he experiences a sense of revulsion and disillusionment no less intense than Proctor’s, although with less tragic consequences for himself.

Doyle, who was born in Brockton, Mass., said he delved into his own New England roots to prepare for the role. He visited relatives in Duxbury, near Salem, and read historical accounts of the witchcraft trials.

He also viewed a documentary about two women who tried to prove their innocence with maps of Salem that persuaded him “the whole witch thing was a land-grabbing scheme,” just as one of the accused characters in the play tells the hanging judge to no avail.

“Everybody on one side of a particular line had been accused and everybody on the other side had not,” Doyle explained. “After seeing that documentary, I somehow got it in my mind that I owed it to those people to tell their story in as dynamic, truthful and realistic way as I could. It became, well, not a quest, but I was inspired.”

Over the years, Doyle has become one of SCR’s most dynamic artistic forces in a kaleidoscope of roles embracing the spectrum of humanity.

Last season, he starred as the quintessential real-estate hustler Richard Roma in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” turning in a performance that rivaled the original given by Joe Mantegna at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The season before, he played an English stand-up comic in Terry Johnson’s “Unsuitable for Adults,” doing 14 impressions in 15 minutes.

If you ask Doyle to cite the roles he considers significant, he points to the vagabond he played in George M. Cohan’s “The Tavern” (1973); the Cockney orderly in Peter Nichols’ “The National Health” (1975); the salesman in D.B. Gillis’ “Men’s Singles” (1983), and the abusive alcoholic in Tad Mosel’s “All the Way Home” (1986).

“Roles that are important often have more to do with where you are in your life than what the play is about,” said Doyle, who is married to Diane Doyle, director of the SCR Young Conservatory. (They have a daughter Sarah, 5. He has a son, Brennan, 18, from a former marriage).

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Staying with SCR for a quarter-century has not always been easy, he said. During the mid-1970s, he nearly walked out after a bitter argument over casting with producing artistic director David Emmes, his former teacher at Long Beach City College.

“I was impetuous and David was right,” said Doyle, who shares ownership of a sailboat with Emmes and still considers him his mentor. “Little contretemps like that can prevent you from going down the wrong road in your life. I guess I’ve stuck here so long because this theater is basically my extended family.”

Indeed, if he were to achieve nothing more than being a major force in the SCR ensemble, he would feel that his “goal in life has been fulfilled.”

But he still gets a pang when reviewers focus on the guest stars and gloss over performances by company regulars.

“They’ll say, ‘The SCR stalwarts were good as usual,’ or something like that,” he said. “That hurts.”


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