The first movie that actor Ron Campbell ever saw was "Richard III." He was 9. His grandmother took him to see Laurence Olivier in the title role.
"She used to read Shakespeare to me when I went to bed," he recalled. "She read me practically the entire canon. I loved it."
Even so, Campbell was worried he wouldn't understand the movie, so he insisted on taking the text of the play to follow.
"Well, you know the opening," he said in a recent interview, launching into Richard's famous soliloquy: "Now is the winter of our discontent . . . "
Who could forget? Out comes Richard, a hunchback with a limp and a crippled arm--and, as Olivier played him, with an oily, insinuating presence.
"I," says Richard, "that am curtail'd of this fair proportion . . . / Deform'd, unfinished, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up . . . / Have no delight . . . / Unless to see my shadow in the sun / And descant on mine own deformity. / And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover . . . / I am determined to prove a villain. . ."
Campbell, who will star in Shakespeare Orange County's "The Tragedy of King Richard III," opening tonight at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre, said that as he watched that scene, his book fell into his lap. He never needed it.
"I understood who everybody was and what they were saying and doing," he said. "Afterward, I limped around the house for weeks. I thought the best thing in that movie, though, was the sword fight. I still have a rule that if a movie comes out and has swords in it, I see it."
If the play isn't strictly a swashbuckler, it will be as close to an action movie as Campbell can make it.
"Look," he said, "that's what it is--and it was very, very popular in Shakespeare's time. We've talked of it in rehearsal as a tragedy, a tragedy for our time and all that. I accept that. But it really moves. Every scene is a turning point. Every single one is a great linchpin. It moves like hell."
Campbell also speaks of the play not just as Richard's quest for power and domination--which is the standard take on it because Richard hungers with a psychopathic drive for both--but as "a quest for love."
Asked to elaborate, he said: "This caper that Richard embarks on from the first syllable is an adventure story to find his joy. He's got this wonderful plan. Regardless of the fact that lives will be lost, children will be killed, women will be decimated, the plan is a joy to him.
"He says, 'OK, folks, here's the plan. This is what I'm going to do.' And the audience watches to see if he can do it. One of the things he wants to do is infect the audience with his joy. He wants to be loved."
Anybody familiar with Campbell's versatility on stage knows he is nothing if not an imaginative actor capable of expressing a wide range of unusual ideas.
SOC artistic director Thomas F. Bradac says he cast Campbell as Richard on the strength of a "strange but brilliant" audition for "Hamlet" that he remembered from a few seasons ago. In it, Campbell played both Hamlet and the Ghost of Hamlet's father in their scene together on the castle rampart--as if Hamlet were a ventriloquist, the Ghost a hallucinatory manifestation of Hamlet's conscience. (Bradac was not in the market for that concept and didn't cast him.)
Campbell has had a busy and remarkable theatrical career throughout Southern California since the early 1980s. In addition to founding the Actors' Gang with Tim Robbins and others at UCLA in 1981, he did nine shows at the Los Angeles Theater Center over the years, playing leads and major roles in everything from "The Inspector General" to "Death of a Salesman" to "Antony and Cleopatra."
At the Mark Taper Forum he did "Ghetto," "Temptation," Sam Shepard's "Red Cross," Eugene Ionesco's "The Lesson" and Samuel Beckett's one-man piece "Eh, Joe," which earned him a nomination for a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award.
He won a 1993 LADCC award for his solo performance in "Monsieur Shaherazad" at the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove, subsequently taking that show to London, where it won critical accolades and the top prize at the 1994 London Fringe Festival as best one-man show of the year.
Before then, Campbell was often seen at the Grove Shakespeare Festival, most recently in 1992 as Caliban in "The Tempest" and Dr. Caius in "The Merry Wives of Windsor."
During the past two seasons, he has starred at the Laguna Playhouse in a farce ("The Mystery of Irma Vep"), a drama ("Strange Snow") and a postmodern commedia dell'arte update ("The Liar").
Basically self-taught, Campbell dropped out of UCLA and served his stage apprenticeship as a mime in the capitals of Europe. He says he cut his teeth working the crowds in Rome's Piazza Nivone, Madrid's Piazza Majore, Venice's Piazza San Marcos, the Tuileries in Paris and in front of the Uffizi in Florence.
"I made a pretty good living passing the hat," the Santa Monica native said. "I was traveling with a girlfriend, and we always stayed in good hotels near the main squares. We never had to stay in the youth hostels.
"In Europe, there is generally a respect for the street performer. I had a loose kind of intro that let me basically do anything. I did 'transformation work.' I would make fun of people who were there by slowly transforming them into whatever animal I wanted. Usually it was an ape, and the ape would make fun of the person. As soon as that happened, a crowd would gather to watch.
"In the Tuileries, I would have 500 people around me," he continued. "I didn't have set routines. But one piece I had was travelers in a car. I'd play all the people in the car: father, mother, old woman, talkative kid and so on. Then I'd get pulled over by a cop and have to get out. I would take out my wallet. Then my wife would start flirting with the cop. Nothing gets a bigger crowd than that. By then the real cops would come."
The notion of animal transformation apparently underlies Campbell's portrayal of Richard. The actor says he thinks of the character as "a vulture, a scavenger with a talon." In fact, Richard has just one powerful arm. The other is crippled "like a wither'd shrub," according to his own description.
"I'll probably touch every other character in the play at some point," Campbell noted. "I try to get a little touch on them, so later I can go for my kill. Richard needs love, but he doesn't give it."
There are other transformations as well. At the beginning of the play, Richard is almost the court jester, far beneath consideration as a threat to the crown. Nobody takes him seriously, which wounds his vanity, of course. And despite his physical deformities, indeed, because of them, Richard is a man of immense vanity.
"The thing about my Richard," Campbell said, "is that when you first see him, he has mastered the ability to smooth his gait. You hardly notice he's got a limp. He's very smooth about it. And he has just a little bit of a problem with his hand.
"The way I'm trying to play it is that he's got neural scoliosis, which is lateral curvature of the spine. There are different forms of scoliosis, but neural scoliosis continues to hurt and gets worse. He starts out with almost full range of movement, but he has less range and more pain as time goes on."
As Campbell initially saw the role, the physical malady gave Richard the option to play the victim at any moment and to make a bravura show of it.
"I thought, 'Boy, Ron--here's your chance to go out there and really pump it, just rule the floor. But then you realize Richard is all about containment."
Consequently, "energy and economy have become my mantra," Campbell said. "I have to keep it all inside. I'll probably get an ulcer from doing it, but I want to pare things down to just three explosive moments showing all the pressure he's under."
Repressing Richard's volcanic temperament will make him seem far more dangerous, he concluded, "and that's what I want to express--the danger."
* The Shakespeare Orange County production of "The Tragedy of King Richard III" opens today at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre, 301 E. Palm Ave., Orange. Performances Thursday to Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.; also July 16 at 8 p.m. Through Aug. 12. $19 to $23. (714) 744-7016.