Edward Herrmann, America's favorite acting preppy, is once again wearing a suit and tie on-stage, but that's an occupational hazard when you're thin and well-educated and take naturally to the look.
"I can wear a suit; it's the kiss of death," joked Herrmann, who dons one nightly opposite Alec Guinness in Lee Blessing's two-character play "A Walk in the Woods," now at the Comedy Theater.
He plays a U.S. arms negotiator named Honeyman strolling through the woods of Geneva enmeshed in talks with his Soviet counterpart, Andrey Botvinnik, played by Guinness.
"I don't know how I got stuck in this preppy mold," said the actor, who specializes in playing the clenched, close-to-the-chest emotions that go with Honeyman's starched, well-heeled appearance.
He played similar types as T.S. Eliot in the 1984 play "Tom and Viv," and as Brock, the stuffy upper-class Briton, in David Hare's "Plenty," opposite Kate Nelligan, for which both he and Nelligan received Tony nominations.
He played Franklin D. Roosevelt in two TV movies, with Jane Alexander as Eleanor.
"I didn't go to prep school. If anything, after playing FDR, I was afraid I was going to be typed in comedies, loony comedies," Herrmann said.
Herrmann, 45, turned up for an interview at a Chelsea pub dressed in the natty style his latest role demands. "The character in the play wears a tie, and there's a value in keeping in the clothes you are going to play in," he said.
He took the role solely for the chance of acting opposite the great Guinness, having turned down offers to play the role at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, and on Broadway in February.
"When I heard Sir Alec wanted to do it, it was something I wanted to put my hat in the ring for," Herrmann said. "The way Alec does it, it's just a charmer."
Robert Prosky and Sam Waterston performed "A Walk in the Woods" for 4 months in New York, where it received a Tony nomination for best play. The British production, directed by Ronald Eyre, received mixed reviews for the writing but near-raves for the stars. Herrmann is contracted for 6 months, plus a British tour if Guinness is willing.
A New York stage veteran, Herrmann won a 1976 Tony for "Mrs. Warren's Profession" at Lincoln Center. He appeared last winter with Al Pacino and Martin Sheen in "Julius Caesar," the second in Joseph Papp's series of Shakespeare productions at the Public Theater.
All three actors, and the production itself, were panned.
Herrmann said: "I was crushed. I'd been vain about my ability to speak blank verse because I really could, (and) the other guys didn't know what it was."
But after the reviews, he said, "I banged my head around for a long time."
He has been banging about on the screen, as well.
A familiar movie face for more than a decade, he appeared in "A Little Sex," "Annie" and "Reds" and, more recently, in "Overboard," "The Lost Boys," and the Bette Midler-Lily Tomlin comedy "Big Business."
The latter movies offered the chance to play "three absolutely whacked-out people," especially the role of a vampire in "Lost Boys."
"People asked, 'Aren't you afraid of playing a vampire?' " he recalled. "Are you kidding? I'd kill to play a vampire. It was great."
Herrmann likes equally working in movies and theater.
"Acting is acting. It's just the way you pitch it," he said. "In a movie, the room is the size of the room. On the stage, the room is the size of the stage. It's a question, I think, of technique rather than difference in kind. You just have to use a different set of muscles."
Herrmann studied on a Fulbright scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 1968-69.
"England has had a big influence on my life; I feel very at home here," he said. "They listen much better here. They're keyed to language.
"(But) that has its dangers. They've seen so much theater, they may not be aware you're trying something really new. They may expect a performance to fit a certain pattern."