If there were an honor society for dedicated stage comedians, Paxton Whitehead might well be its grand pooh-bah. With more than three decades' worth of Broadway outings to his credit--well as myriad Shaws, spoofs and even sitcoms--he's tickled more funny bones than you can shake a stick at.
Yet the British-born thespian, who first made his mark in 1964 by replacing Jonathan Miller in the classic comedy revue "Beyond the Fringe," hasn't lost his passion for the punch line.
"Simply, what you do when you first read a thing is [ask], 'Where is it funny?' " explains the affably elegant Whitehead, during a recent conversation in the Old Globe Theatre's rehearsal hall. "That's what interests me. I seek it out because to me, that is the most interesting part of doing a play. I find it endlessly fascinating, just the technique of making people laugh."
Essentially, it's about finding a way to connect with the audience. "You always have to find the core of humor in a character--at least I like to, the same way some people will say, 'I like to find the good in him, even though he is a villain,' " Whitehead says. "I think it's humanizing. Everybody has some humor in them."
Also known for his 12-year stint as the artistic director of the Ontario, Canada, Shaw Festival during the late 1960s and '70s, Whitehead was a familiar face on the Globe stage during the 1980s. He returns to the San Diego theater this week, starring as Sherlock Holmes in Hugh Leonard's "The Mask of Moriarty," which opens on Saturday.
Set in 1880s London, the play is a takeoff of classic Sherlock Holmes material in which the famous detective and his sidekick, Dr. Watson (Tom Lacy), investigate a case involving a murder on Waterloo bridge.
Of the many types of comedy both subtle and silly in which Whitehead, 59, has been seen, this project leans toward the spoof end of the scale. "It's a sendup," he says. "You can get laughs, but it is a bit of a tightrope because the play does have a story. There is a line where you mustn't lose the play because of the jokes."
An unassuming man with chiseled features and a reverberant basso that rolls forth periodically to underscore his replies, Whitehead is initially reluctant to offer any theories about comedy. And yet when he warms to the topic, the insights flow freely.
He subscribes, for instance, to the maxim that good timing is vital. "You can say, 'What?' and get as big a laugh as someone can with an Oscar Wilde epigram," Whitehead says. "It's all a question of the timing and positioning of the expression of that particular moment. Timing is absolutely essential. Mistime something and you ruin it."
Yet timing alone isn't enough--particularly in a play such as "The Mask of Moriarty" where narrative and character are involved. Even a spoof, it seems, calls for a certain amount of believability.
"You can go very far, but you must bring people along with you," Whitehead says. "The essence of a well-written, compressed farce is that this character has gone down that line. But you must make every audience member believe that that was a logical choice at the time.
"That's a delicate thing," he continues. "[You have] to build very carefully to that moment, so the audience is with you and they trust you. Then, when you make rather a sharp turn, they will still go with you. It's an ear to the rhythm of the play that you have to have."
If he has an ear attuned to the particular requirements of "The Mask of Moriarty," it may be because Whitehead has assayed Sherlock Holmes before, in "Crucifer of Blood," on Broadway in 1978.
That, however, was a more sober take on the famous sleuth. "That was a play that, although it had its comedy moments, was pretty much an authentic Conan Doyle story," Whitehead recalls. "There were some lines that were absolutely funny, but only because they were said absolutely straight and seriously.
"I remember one--'People tend to remember a one-legged man traveling with a pygmy'--which of course did get a big laugh. But you had to say it as an absolute observation, as a truth, and then it was funny."
"The Mask of Moriarty," on the other hand, is clearly a sendup. "This one I liked because it combined my affection for Sherlock Holmes and 'Crucifer of Blood' and what we had achieved there, but then gave it a comic twist and satisfied my propensity for comedy and farce at the same time," Whitehead says.
The play had its U.S. premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1994, also with Whitehead as Holmes. The Globe production, directed by Nicholas Martin, is set to move to the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in January.
It won't be Whitehead's first trip back East, nor likely his last. The Kent, England-born actor first came to New York in 1960 and made his Broadway debut in C.P. Snow's "The Affair" in 1961. Since then, he has played Broadway often, appearing in such shows as "London Suite," "Lettice & Lovage," "Run for Your Wife," "Noises Off," "Camelot," "Habeas Corpus," "Candida" and others, including a 1993 "My Fair Lady."
From 1965 to 1977, he held the post of artistic director at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. Only 28 when he accepted the job, Whitehead took the festival from a one-theater summer event to a highly respected three-theater operation with year-round programming.
In 1978, however, he felt drawn to return to the boards. He left Canada and returned to New York. "I was of such an age that I thought, 'Well, if you stay on, then you might as well do that for the rest of your life,' " Whitehead says. "I didn't necessarily want to retire there, so I thought I'd get back to acting."
In 1981, Whitehead came out to California as part of a touring company of "Camelot." "My contract finished up in Los Angeles and I decided to stay," he says. "Also, my wife [Kate Whitehead, a former stage manager] was pregnant with our first child, and we didn't really want to go back to Manhattan with a small child."
The young family settled temporarily in L.A. Then, in 1982, Whitehead was asked to lend his Shavian expertise to the Globe, directing a production of "Misalliance." Soon after that, he and his family moved to San Diego, where he appeared in a variety of roles at the Globe between 1982 and 1989.
In 1987, the family, which now included two children, relocated to Irvine. "We moved a little closer to L.A.," Whitehead says. "My kids were just going into elementary at the time and the schools were reputedly good. Of course, this is before Orange County went bankrupt."
In part, the move enabled Whitehead to move more easily between TV and film assignments--which he'd first starting taking in the early 1980s--and theater jobs.
Recently he's appeared in guest spots on such television shows as "Ellen" and "Frasier." And while his experience of the medium in general has been a mixed bag, he speaks positively of those efforts. "It depends entirely how you're used and how much you have to do, and that can change from week to week," Whitehead says.
Unlike some actors, however, Whitehead isn't eager to forsake the stage for the screen. His recent Southern California theater outings have included Alan Ayckbourn's "How the Other Half Loves" in June at South Coast Repertory. On that occasion, The Times' Laurie Winer noted that Whitehead and his co-star Kandis Chappell "play off each other like the total pros they are; their pairing is a pleasure to watch."
It was a pleasure as well for Whitehead, who still finds the stage his most satisfying outlet. "Theater is still my favorite form. Not because it's live--it's the degree of responsibility that you have, and the degree of choice," he explains.
"You take the risk and you take the responsibility of the whole, not just your own performance. When you're playing a lead role, the structure of the whole evening is partly in your hands. An actor's responsibility is so much greater onstage than it is in any other form, and that's fun."
"THE MASK OF MORIARTY," Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Dates Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 25. Prices: $22-$39. Phone: (619) 239-2255.