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Versatile, Not Vain, That’s Ron Eldard

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ron Eldard was caught in a yo-yo diet.

For his role in the 1999 off-Broadway production of “Bash,” the normally fitness-conscious actor had stopped working out and let nature take its course to help emphasize his character’s moral as well as physical flabbiness.

While still in that show, he was chosen to replace Kevin Anderson as elder son Biff, opposite Brian Dennehy’s Willy Loman, in the hot Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman.” Because Biff is a former high school football star now earning his living as a farmhand, Eldard--a former Golden Gloves boxer--began working out again and trimmed himself down.

Then, with only about a week’s turnaround--which is all he’d had initially--he rejoined “Bash” for its Los Angeles run last fall. On went the pounds again.

The 34-year-old actor smiles as he remembers his chameleonic transformation, which he enhanced on stage in “Bash” by wearing a bulky suit and stooping his shoulders. Some people who encountered him out of costume after the shows “were very confused, which I liked,” he says.

Filmed for television at the end of the Los Angeles run, “Bash” reaches the small screen tonight, on pay cable channel Showtime. The three short plays by writer-director Neil LaBute (“Your Friends & Neighbors,” the upcoming “Nurse Betty”) also feature Calista Flockhart and Paul Rudd.

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Eldard’s turn in “Salesman” was seen on Showtime in January, and he returns to the stage with the Arthur Miller drama when it plays at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre Sept. 20-Nov. 5.

The confluence of events should intensify the spotlight on this actor, who has amassed a long list of stage, television and film credits over the last decade yet hasn’t reached the A-list of leading men.

“A lot of the actors I’ve always admired tend to have a wide range,” Eldard says, elbows resting casually on a conference table at the Canon Theatre, where he performed in “Bash.” “That’s what interests me: playing a wide scope. But in the short haul, it can be confusing. I think people like to be able to put you in a box, or label you. I like to try to disappear more.”

A rugged blond of Scottish and Irish stock, Eldard is probably best known for his recurring role as Shep during the 1995-96 season of the NBC drama “ER.” The swashbuckling paramedic romanced Nurse Carol Hathaway, played by Eldard’s real-life girlfriend, Julianna Margulies.

The next season, Eldard co-starred as a guy’s guy--read: a complete Neanderthal--opposite Rob Schneider on the NBC sitcom “Men Behaving Badly.” Also on TV, he gave chilling performances as an abusive stepfather in the 1996 Showtime movie “Bastard Out of Carolina” and as a World War II private hardened by battle in the 1998 HBO movie “When Trumpets Fade.”

He Has Played Both Good Guys and Bad

On the big screen, he played a creepy killer in 1996’s “Sleepers,” the heroic mission commander in 1998’s “Deep Impact” and an oversexed hockey player in 1999’s “Mystery, Alaska.”

“Death of a Salesman” director Robert Falls describes Eldard as a performer of “amazing simplicity and ease--you never catch Ron Eldard ‘acting.’ ”

“Maybe,” the director adds by telephone from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where he is artistic director, “that’s his curse as well as his strength,” since talent that doesn’t advertise itself can be all too easy to overlook.

Falls is convinced, however, that when the right role comes along, “Ron will have a great breakthrough and will become a star. I think he’s one of the great actors of that age range.”

LaBute agrees. “If [stardom] is what he’s looking for, I wouldn’t put anything past him,” the “Bash” writer-director says from London, where he’s readying a new movie. “But what I think the future holds is good work.”

He notes that there aren’t many actors of Eldard’s stature who would have spent most of last year on stage instead of in higher-paying film or television projects. “I think he is in love with what he does, the craft of it,” LaBute says. “He’s interested in his connection with an audience, not a connection with a studio or a publicist or whatever. And that’s the only connection that’s worth having, really.”

In each of the three short plays that constitute “Bash,” a seemingly average person confesses to a dark deed. Eldard performs the last piece, in which a traveling salesman tells his story to an unseen stranger. Laughing nervously and trying a bit too earnestly to prove that he’s an OK sort of guy, he comes across as a fairly typical family man who, under duress, once made a horrific decision.

“There’s a sweetness to him,” the actor says. “There’s a discomfort with himself, that he tries not to burden you with. There’s a gentleness.

“There’s also the opposite side of all this,” Eldard adds, laughing. “That’s what’s great about playing that guy, is that all that other stuff comes out too.”

LaBute says he was knocked out by Eldard’s ability to “seduce” the audience--"to find a facade of harmlessness that could lull an audience into a sense of safety, and then, very bravely, turn on them.”

Eldard’s character in “Death of a Salesman” is also haunted by the past. Biff is a onetime football hero whose worldview was shattered when he paid a surprise visit to his salesman father on the road--an interesting parallel to the “Bash” character, by the way--and found him with another woman.

In the aftermath, “he’s trying to find truth in his life,” Eldard explains, “and trying to come out from the shadows of his times, and of that family.”

Falls, the show’s director, says that Eldard brings a “sweetness to his performance and a sort of clueless quality as well. . . . Ron captures the sadness and loss of the golden boy who never made it. It’s a very delicate performance.”

Some of the roles that have garnered Eldard the most acclaim, however, have been the creepiest ones, including those in “Bastard Out of Carolina,” “Sleeper” and even “Bash.” Perhaps that’s because it’s striking to see so much darkness embodied in such a wholesome-looking person.

“I’m obviously darker and weirder than I think,” Eldard says, laughing. “Darker characters, more complicated characters, tend to interest me more,” he goes on to explain. “They’re just more fun to play.”

The actor’s challenge, he says, is to find the good as well as the bad in such characters, so that the audience can’t just write them off. “So you look at that guy--where did he come from, why is he the way he is--and can you find a way to connect with that? [You look for] just a couple of flashes, a couple of snapshots, where you recognize the soul of someone, their true heart. . . . I like to think that everyone had the option of being good.”

A Teacher Helped to Point the Way

Growing up in the New York City boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn, as well as the Utah towns of Roy and Ogden, Eldard played contact sports, including martial arts and football, and he later advanced to the New York City finals in the light heavyweight division of the amateur Golden Gloves competition. “I always thought I’d pursue athletics,” he says.

But a junior high school English teacher in Queens, impressed with the job he’d done of directing and videotaping class readings of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” encouraged him to audition for New York’s High School of the Performing Arts. “Once I started studying acting, I knew immediately: This is what I do,” he says.

Eldard met Margulies in New York in 1991, in an acting class. They now share homes in Santa Monica and Manhattan. Although her career has vaulted higher than his, he laughs off any notion of a rivalry between them, joking that he’s “almost positive” she’s never stolen a part for which he was being considered.

“I think the business still, sometimes, has a little trouble understanding exactly what to do with me,” he concedes. “I’m really proud of my body of work. But I’m a very ambitious guy. I have a long way to go.”

Then, poking some of the air out of that statement, he adds: “I haven’t blown anything yet. You’re not going to see me on ‘Behind the Music’ yet.”

* “Bash” can be seen tonight at 8 on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17).


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