'Country Girl' Makes a Comeback : The revival at Tiffany Theatre brings its lead actor back to the boards after a 30-year absence

T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for Calendar.

Frank Elgin, the alcoholic actor who is the central character in Clifford Odets' play "The Country Girl," is making a comeback. So, in a way, is the play, which was last seen locally in 1982.

But the actor who's playing Elgin under Ron Satloff's direction at the Tiffany Theatre in West Hollywood beginning Thursday is definitely not making a comeback. He's Stuart Whitman, who appears in the soon-to-be-released film "The Color of Evening," with Martin Landau, Ellen Burstyn and Roddy McDowall.

He's never been away. Whitman was in 1990's "Common Ground" and "Smooth Talker," but will also be remembered for his late '60s TV series "Cimarron Strip," now in syndication internationally. Film fans remember his 1961 Academy Award nomination for a sensitive, empathic portrait of a reforming child molester in "The Mark."

Whitman's career has been steady, if bumpy. "I was bankable for a while," he says with an ironic smile, "then I did a couple of shows that didn't make any money. Then I wasn't bankable." It didn't keep him from working steadily. "As an actor you've got to keep working. You've got to do something to feed the family, put the kids through school, things like that."

What Whitman is coming back to is theater. "I've done theater--years ago. I started on the stage, but I haven't been on the boards in 30 years. So this is a challenge, and that's what I think I need at this point in my career, a challenging role. And, boy, this is it."

Whitman and "Country Girl" producer Bob Kane have known each other for 25 years, and it was a chance phone call that got the project going. "He called me," says Whitman, "and I'd been thinking about getting back on the boards. I didn't know if I wanted to tackle this monumental task, but here we are."

Kane has had a pretty busy career too. He's creative consultant on the currently filming "Batman" feature (with Danny DeVito as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman), as he was on 1989's blockbuster "Batman." He also created and wrote the tongue-in-cheek Batman television series that starred Adam West and Burt Ward, which can still be seen in syndication. There's a good reason for his involvement in the Batworld. He originally created Batman and Robin back in 1939.

"I stopped drawing Batman about 20 years ago," he says. "I retired from drawing Batman in comic books. I still paint Batman. I've had one-man shows all over the world of my Batman art."

Kane didn't totally retire. He was responsible for the NBC cartoon series "Cool McCool," along with an animated Batman TV series, and he wrote the 1969 Paramount feature "The Silent Gun," starring Lloyd Bridges.

To Kane, theater is a natural progression. "Theater to me is an extension of the comic strip. A comic strip is in a square box. I was literally the producer, the director and the actors when I drew my comic strip of Batman. The extension is to bring that into a play or a motion picture. Then I can see the still characters move and talk and emulate real people. It's really an extension of my drawing career."

Kane's father was involved in show business. "He was a theater manager and things like that. I love theater, because as a kid I went to a lot of theater in New York. I was imbued with it. Theater and motion pictures extend my creativity. This is my first adventure producing a live play. You're always apprehensive that everything won't come off exactly as planned. It's like a cake--will it jell and bake well? We have all the ingredients, now we have to put a light in the oven and see how it will come out."

The producer is optimistic about his cake. "What I'd like to do is take the play into a larger theater, maybe the Westwood Playhouse. If it's successful at the Tiffany, we can always extend the run in a larger theater. What can I tell you? We're always looking for successful plays. And your appetite gets whetted to go into new plays."

Whitman agrees. "I'd like to do some original plays next."

He says he has been thinking about theater for a while. "I've gone to New York a couple of times, popping in and out. I'm not quite sure the people take me seriously back there yet. You really have to hang around for the people to think you're serious about it. This might kick off a whole brand-new way for me to go."

It's a brand-new way for both Whitman and Kane, but they're both keeping their fingers in the world that's been supporting them.

"I've got other things going on here in town," Whitman admits. "I've been chasing money, trying to put films together. I own some scripts." With a laugh, he adds, "It's a rat race here, no question about that." If he wanted to, he could relax in his Santa Barbara home. "I more or less don't have to work," he says, "but here I am, back again!"

Kane has a script of his own ready to fly. "It's called 'The Silver Fox,' which I intend to produce next year sometime. The Silver Fox is a new kind of super-hero, that's all I can reveal about it. It's a surprise, with kind of a Hitchcockian twist to it. It's for adults, not children. Hopefully there'll be parts for a lot of actors I know. Like a Bob Kane road company."

He's used to the Hollywood rat race. "Did you ever have a 'power lunch' for ideas, and everyone is going, 'Pass the ketchup, where's the salt?' Food is a terrible scene-stealer!"

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