'What the hell happened to Ned Beatty?" someone asked during the intermission of "Show Boat" at the Music Center. The question, as phrased, was not a judgment but an exclamation of wonder. Beatty, the unapologetic redneck stock player from Kentucky who for more than 20 years has charmed moviegoers in the many guises of good ol' boys with a girth, suddenly is onstage at the Ahmanson minus about 50 pounds. And he's dancing. Whoa.
Indeed, the question of what has happened to Ned Beatty might be extended to the vehicle in which he finds himself at this juncture of a fecund career that includes what a fellow thespian calls "maybe the one truly great one-day part in cinema history": his cameo as a stupefying corporate tycoon in "Network" that earned him an Oscar nomination in 1977. Not to mention "Deliverance," the John Boorman-James Dickey classic that started it all a few years before. Now, at 59, he has returned to the theater, whence he came, in a musical no less--the tour of Harold Prince's Tony Award-winning revival of Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern's prized 1927 Mississippi-sized antique, "Show Boat," encamped at the Ahmanson through April 3.
Starring as Cap'n Andy, the turn-of-the-century riverboat carny man who presides over love and loss in a family of theater folk, Beatty is pulling down great notices and helping attract crowds to the Music Center.
"This is basically what I started out to do," the actor says one afternoon in the simply furnished living room of the Spanish house in Beachwood Canyon where he lives with his third wife, Tinker, and two of his children. Lucinda, a basset hound, lounges at his feet. Beatty's pants look a little loose, and he is wearing a plaid tie. "My background was as a singer--singing in church, having that grow into singing in a bigger chorus, a few operettas."
He auditioned for a professional musical theater company in his hometown of Louisville when he was 16. They liked his voice but found him too short to be paired with the women in the company. "I'm 5-8 but I used to be 5-9," he says. "I thought I was going to be a comedian-singer-actor in musical comedy, but I could not get arrested."
He settled for accompanying himself on guitar at home, and when he's not doing eight performances a week in a show, he still plays after dinner on many a night--folk songs and blues mostly.
Cap'n Andy in "Show Boat" is an unconventional starring role in that Beatty has no big solo numbers and is even offstage a good bit. Yet as the wisecracking father figure whose unquenchable optimism shines a beacon through the murk of life's calamities and disappointments, he seems to hold everyone together, ever improvising to keep the show on the road--or, in this case, the river.
His best scene is the one in which he does not sing but single-handedly acts out each character in a hasty plot summary of a melodrama's remaining story line after a violent rube in the audience scares some of the actors out of the theater. It is a virtuoso bit of mimicry and movement, and it customarily brings down the house.
"The joy that Cap'n Andy gets from the show and putting on the show and bringing the show to these towns," Beatty says, "is the real center of the energy. It's a big deal for me."
Initially approached by the producers of "Show Boat" when he was still a cast member of NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," playing a lovelorn Baltimore police detective, Beatty was unable to accept the offer. He was eventually written out of the show, allowing him to grow mutton-chop sideburns and join the "Show Boat" tour in Vancouver last spring, paired with Cloris Leachman as Cap'n Andy's unsentimental wife, Parthy.
It's interesting to hear that his backstage role in the huge "Show Boat" company--68 strong--mirrors what he is doing out front for the audience. Michel Bell, the powerful bass who has been in the show for two years playing Joe, the voice of "Old Man River," says about Beatty: "He rallies people together backstage, he sets the tone. He's the epitome of a leader. He's the guy everyone thinks of as poppa. He's always coming around with candy and snacks, peanuts.
"Sometimes he'll ad-lib just a bit--throw in some new words--maybe in the first show of the week and the last show of the week just to wake us up. He knows when to give us a boost."
Beatty's had some practice in real life as a father figure. He has eight children by three wives. Which sounds complicated.
"It is," he says.
'Show Boat" has offered Beatty his own education in the ways of the modern mega-musical. He has had to get used to the body microphones, for example (there's one in his hair), as well as to the phantom presence of a star director.
"When I first came to the production, I was very funky about this business of having a microphone. I said, 'You know, I'm Ned Beatty, I've got a big voice, I've worked in some big theaters and in my day we used to fill the theaters by ourselves. We didn't need all this help.' But the truth is, what the audience hears in a modern musical is a mixed version of the sound, and you can't not have a microphone."
Then there's the matter of the absent Harold Prince. Ever one to worry about the efficiency of the stories he helps tell on stage and screen, Beatty had an idea for improving one of his scenes in Act 2. "I had them this close, this close," he says, squinting his eyes at the memory. "And then they pulled the Hal Prince card on me. Hal, you know, he lives in France or something, and they said, 'We got a fax from Hal and he said "no." ' I've been in the show for 10 months, and he's been there once.
"He's a sweet man, and his work on the show is obviously quite wonderful. I stepped into a picture that he had created. But the truth of the matter is, if you don't really work with the director, you don't really work with the director, and I haven't worked with the director."
Although Beatty spent eight seasons at the Arena Stage in Washington before being cast in "Deliverance" and heading to Hollywood, he has been away from the theater for a long time. He did his last play, at the Mark Taper Forum in 1983, "The Accidental Death of an Anarchist," which he remembers "was sort of a disaster."
It turns out he hasn't really missed the theater. "One of the reasons I got tired of doing regional theater--and why when I landed in film it was easy to go with it--was that you get tired of acting for the same people. If you're working in a place like the Dallas Theater Center or the [Houston] Alley or whatever, where it's a subscription audience that comes back again and again, what tends to happen after a while is, you know how they're gonna react and you know how to get them to react. And before you know it, you're doing it.
"You're also preaching to the converted. They've figured out that 1% of the population of any major city in America--1% has the money, the educational level and the desire to come to the theater. And when you're working these theaters after a while, you get to thinking, 'Wait a minute, I'm working for 1% of the population. What does that say about what I'm doing?'
"It's one of the things that I get very excited about with 'Show Boat,' that it somehow breaks barriers and you get people in the theater who have not been in the theater in a long time or maybe ever. I was in Toronto and went to the theater and bought a ticket just to see it. And it was kind of wonderful because I could tell I was in an audience full of people who weren't necessarily theatergoers, who, you know, talked and got excited by things like the scenery moving. That was important to me."
His break with "Homicide: Life on the Street" was not entirely amicable. "I wanted out but it wasn't about money. I loved it in the beginning. Some of it was the best thing I've ever done. But it got to where they wanted to see people get shot and car chases and all that. Which is not what homicide detectives really do. It's my basic problem with series shows: You start out thinking you know the story they're telling, and then you get to where you don't."
Beatty's supporting roles in movies are too numerous to mention but include, besides that multinational grand wizard in "Network," the small-town politician in "Nashville" who arranged a memorable striptease fund-raiser, Lex Luthor's bungling underground sidekick Otis in "Superman" and "Superman II," the sincere police chief in "The Big Easy" and, of course, Bobby, the smug Atlanta businessman in "Deliverance," whom Burt Reynolds calls "Chubby" until Bobby gets raped by a demonic mountain man.
But the Hollywood roles offered to him have not gotten better, leading him to accept parts in small, independent films such as "Hear My Song" (1991) and forgettable big studio fare like "Just Cause" (1995), in which he had one scene as a Florida lawyer.
"Hear My Song," which gave him a rare top billing in the romantic role of tax fugitive-Irish tenor Josef Locke, brought him good notices, a Golden Globe nomination and probably revived his career. (Beatty's range is bass-baritone; the tenor notes in the movie were dubbed.)
William Hootkins, the London-based actor who played Beatty's look-alike impersonator in "Hear My Song," remembers director Peter Chelsom goading Beatty at the dailies by saying, "Yeah that's good, but you've got to be better."
"Ned's a traditional kind of guy," Hootkins says, "and I don't think Chelsom was sure he could play as close to madness as Josef Locke needed to get at the fulcrum of the movie. But in the end he got an extraordinary performance from him."
Is he traditional? He describes himself as "a maternal sort," who has always liked babies and cooking and staying at home. He's not afraid of the term "redneck." "Yeah, I'm a redneck," he says. "I did work on a farm when I was young and bend my head over land. I did get my neck red. That's all it means: You're a working person who happens to have white-pigmented skin."
He says he can get angry quickly, and if he needs anger for a role all he has to do is think of the song "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby." "I can just start humming that tune and, bam, I'm pumped." He doesn't know why this is true.
Beatty is an easy man to talk to--easily engaged and engaging, unstudied and un-star-like. He can rap for hours about acting and actors and has been quoted more than once about his belief that Marlon Brando is overrated. "He's a completely commanding performer," he explains, "but what he does doesn't always tell the story.
"Acting styles are going through a change now. It's hard to be an older actor because you see it moving on and you don't quite want to go with it because it's not your way. Right now, there's a lot of what we used to call 'attitudinal acting.' We were always told never to do that because if you're putting forth attitude, it keeps you from putting forth behavior, which is what you really want."
But back to the question of how Beatty lost all that weight. In answering, he edges up to the mystical. "Yeah, I guess it was fairly dramatic. Looks like cancer or something. The way I like to explain it to people is I think my body does what I tell it to do. In this instance, the actor in me wanted to give a particular kind of performance that was very energetic. I just asked my body to do it and it decided, OK, in order to do this, we're going to have to lose some weight."
He developed a new eating regimen almost by accident, he says. To protect his voice, he could not eat and then go right to bed for fear that, lying down, the stomach acid would creep up and fry his vocal cords. "What I do now is I try to eat around 5 o'clock and don't go to bed until 1 or 2, so it's a long, long time between when I eat and when I go to bed. That seems to be very important to the weight loss thing."
Beatty's commitment of 14 months to "Show Boat" will end with the Los Angeles engagement.
More than a year in one show. Eight performances a week, two each on Saturday and Sunday. How do you do that?
"Part of it is that this is a job of work, as we used to say in Kentucky. And doing work is a macho thing. The fact that we were told that's what little boys are supposed to do.
"There's heart, there's a lot of soul in this production. People in the show and around it are very special to me. It's a family to me."
Cap'n Andy has spoken.
* "Show Boat," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. Holiday schedule: today and next Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Mondays, Wednesday through Saturday, and Dec. 31, 8 p.m.; Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Regular schedule, after Dec. 31: Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends April 3. $35-$75 (except Dec. 31, $55-$95). (213) 628-2772.