ROBERT HARDY'S PATH TO 'MIDDLEMARCH'

Robert Hardy begins to chuckle when asked to describe his character in "Middlemarch."

"He is a ninny. He is a damned fool. It was great fun looking for the center of a man who is absolutely unable to make up his mind."

In the lavish six-part adaptation of George Eliot's classic 19th-Century novel, Hardy plays the buffoonish Arthur Brooke, the eccentric but simple-minded lord of Tipton Grange, whose tenants live in horrible conditions. Brooke's attempt to run for Parliament fails miserably and he quite literally ends up with egg on his face when he's spattered while delivering a speech to taunting villagers.

Hardy was surprised when he was offered the role of Brooke. He didn't think the lengthy "Middlemarch" could be adapted for the small screen.

"I had read the book at school, but as little of it as I could get away with because it seemed overly thick to me," he says with a twinkle of his blue eyes. "I thought at that age, 16 or 17, this was big, heavy stuff."

He read the book after he got the miniseries and, much to his surprise, loved it. "It's like any slice of life at any time," Hardy says, relaxing in a Pasadena hotel suite. "That's what we found when we got into it--it's absolutely accessible and juicy and great fun."

Hardy is a familiar face to fans of PBS and cable's Arts & Entertainment Network. He was the star of the "Masterpiece Theatre" series "Churchill: The Wilderness Years" and the long-running PBS and A&E; series "All Creatures Great and Small," in which he played a stubborn, strong-willed Yorkshire vet.

Doing "Creatures" was a "way of life" for Hardy and his co-stars. "It was extraordinary. From 1977 to 1990, we did seven series and three or four 'Creatures' films in the process. There is one film left in the bank, undone. I think they were going to make the film, but it was the absolute bottom of the recession."

Hardy's acting career has been affected before by unstoppable events: He was studying as a thespian at Oxford University when World War II broke out. He joined the Royal Air Force and was sent to Texas for pilot training. During a leave, Hardy made his first visit to Los Angeles. After the war, he returned to acting studies.

"The next time I came to California, I went to Ronald Colman's funeral in Santa Barbara," Hardy recalls. 'I was staying with my mother-in-law because I was engaged to her daughter. My mother-in-law was Gladys Cooper ("Now, Voyager"), who used to live in Pacific Palisades. This was 1956."

Hardy remained in L.A. for the next few years, doing a lot of guest shots on TV and one feature, "Torpedo Run," with Glenn Ford and Ernest Borgnine. "There weren't many movies going. When we made the movie at the MGM sound stages there, that was the only stage on the whole of the MGM lot that was working. It was the only English part that came up in any movie. That particular time was not good for British interests."

Over the years, Hardy has thought about coming back to L.A., "because I had such a good time. But, on the other hand, I'm very English and unless there is a particular call for an English actor ..."

Though the British film, TV and radio industries are going through a recession, Hardy's career is going strong. "It's not so bad if you are an aged thing like me and have been at it for a long time," Hardy explains with a smile. "People tend to say, 'We will get him. We know he will do it.' "

In fact, Hardy jumped at the chance when actor-director Kenneth Branagh offered him a part in his upcoming feature version of "Frankenstein." Hardy plays the professor in charge of a university medical program who suspects Dr. Frankenstein is up to no good. "He said, 'Come along and do this.' It was fun to be in."

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