Donovan Leitch stands frozen in a rehearsal room at the Geffen Playhouse, practicing his portrayal of someone who has just seen a ghost come back to life. The apparition, draped in a green bathrobe, is Clarence Williams III -- a mountain of sternness with a stone-faced glare.
Leitch’s left hand hovers near the garish, orange-and-black fish-patterned scarf around his neck, as if he’s considering whether loosening it might free his constricted voice. This flouncy, Mick Jagger-like talisman is the perfect accouterment for the role he’s playing: a British mega-star barnstorming through the South on a stadium rock tour during 1975. In this moment of shock and recognition, Leitch’s character, Karl, sets eyes for the first time on his hero, Jesse “The Man” Davidson, the 75-year-old Delta blues legend played by Williams.
Karl has intuited that Davidson did not die with his wife in a 1961 Chicago car wreck, as the coroner assumed, but disappeared while they buried somebody else. The rocker, lost and desperate despite his wealth and fame, needs to reconnect with his creative fountainhead. And here it is.
The question, for the rest of Stephen Jeffreys’ play “I Just Stopped By to See the Man,” having its West Coast premiere Sept. 17 at the Geffen, is whether Karl can convince Jesse that he is a legitimate inheritor of the blues -- and whether the old man, whose guitar has hung on the wall untouched for 14 years while he embraced religion, can be tempted back to the stage.
The show marks a real-life return of sorts for Williams -- it’s his first stage role in more than 20 years. And it’s a first shot on a major regional stage for Leitch, who has gained notice since the late 1980s as a fashion model, a thus-far hitless glam-rock singer, an occasional film actor and a man of impressive bloodlines (Donovan, the ‘60s folk-rock star, is his father, and actress Ione Skye is his younger sister).
Randall Arney, the Geffen’s artistic director, staged the U.S. premiere of “The Man” last fall for his alma mater, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, and decided to bring it to L.A. with a different cast. The play originated in London in 2000. Jeffreys, an Englishman, weaves a story of three people motivated by pride, guilt and fear; along the way he delves into blues myth (did the genre’s founding eminences really conjure with the devil?) and questions of creative and cultural authenticity (can white musicians, or those who haven’t suffered, truly play the blues?).
As a baby boomer, Arney grew up watching “The Mod Squad,” the hit TV series from 1968 to 1973 in which Williams, Peggy Lipton and Michael Cole were a hip trio of undercover cops, kids of the counterculture working for another version of The Man. But Williams’ path to playing Lincoln Hayes on “The Mod Squad” was paved on the boards -- including a Tony-nominated turn in the 1964 Broadway drama “Slow Dance on the Killing Ground.”
Conflicts with his screen work, or lack of interest in the parts offered, had prompted Williams to turn down plays. But when Arney sent him Jeffreys’ script, he bit. Jazz is his musical love -- as a kid in New York City, he hung out at clubs where his father, organist Clay Williams, had gigs. But he was captured by the characters in “The Man,” including Jesse’s daughter, a professor and radical black activist who has her own reasons for hiding out in his Mississippi shack.
Now Williams sleeps with several hundred dollars’ worth of recently purchased blues CDs by his bed, immersion in Blind Lemon Jefferson, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and the rest of the pantheon being a requisite for playing their fictional peer.
“The blues gives this play its weight, but to me it’s a metaphor, a canvas,” he says. “The music is the starting point. Then you start getting into the people’s lives.”
Music was Leitch’s “in.” Arney didn’t know of his work, but as he asked about possible Karls, Leitch’s name kept popping up -- partly on the strength of his brief hitch in 1999-2000 playing the lead as a transsexual glam-rocker in the off-Broadway hit “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” It’s a plus, Arney says, that Leitch grew up around the rock royalty that playwright Jeffreys tries to personify in Karl.
“I saw from a very early age what that whole life was like, how these guys can be adored by so many people, and at the same time they’re human as well,” Leitch says, swiveling in an office chair upstairs from the theater while Williams plants himself on a nearby couch. “These guys surround themselves with people who are pretty much yes men, and Karl has anything right at his fingertips. But coming to meet his idol just turns the whole thing upside down.”
Leitch, 36, has a couple of stories about how nerve-racking it can be to meet The Man. One was an encounter with his idol, David Bowie, at an awards show.
“He came out of the dressing room and said, ‘So you’re the one who wants to sound like me,’ or something like that. I almost wish I hadn’t had that with him. I wanted to keep the fantasy.”
The other was with his father.
Leitch’s parents met in Los Angeles in 1965; Enid Stulberger worked at the Whisky, and Donovan was headlining there on his first U.S. tour. They broke up when their son was a toddler, and the two Donovans didn’t reconnect until the boy was in his late teens. Not long ago, Leitch says, he was visiting his father in Ireland. At Dad’s behest, they played guitar together for the first time. Nervously, he got through it, and they wound up doing some songwriting and recording. Lately, Leitch has turned to his father for some phoned-in guitar-picking tips, because playing Karl requires him to do a persuasive impersonation of a blues-guitar ace on two numbers, including Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues.”
“It’s kind of scary. I’m a fan of the blues, but I’ve never really played the blues. Even though I have that musical background, it’s all virgin territory.”
A period of renewal
If Leitch has an inkling of what it’s like to meet The Man, Williams, like his character in the play, knows what it means deliberately to quit being The Man. After “The Mod Squad,” which at its peak was seen by 30 million viewers weekly, he dropped out of the public eye for about 10 years and didn’t resurface in a prominent screen vehicle until 1984, when he played Prince’s abusive father in “Purple Rain.” Since then he has had a steady stream of film and television parts, including a recurring role as a gangster in “Skin,” a series about the world of pornography scheduled to premiere this fall on Fox.
The long layoff, says the youthful-looking 64-year-old, was a time to enjoy and broaden himself through reading, traveling, visiting museums and tending to friendships. “I have no regrets about that period. If you’re attempting to be a serious actor, you have to ingest before you can regurgitate, and so you take some time to fill up , to read and listen to music and interface with other people.”
Leitch was heartened to hear that a respected actor’s career can take such a wide detour. His hasn’t gained any steady traction yet. In 1994, a New York Times feature snippily dismissed him as a glamorous but directionless lightweight.
Maybe, he muses, he would have made more headway as an actor if he had stayed in L.A., where he grew up, instead of spending seven years in New York modeling and fronting a glam-rock revival band, Nancy Boy.
Nevertheless, he’s still fronting a band, Camp Freddy, with Dave Navarro, the Jane’s Addiction guitarist, and former Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum. He has auditioned, unsuccessfully, for leading parts in “Cabaret,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Boy George’s autobiographical musical, “Taboo.” Think of it as his immersion in the actors’ branch of the blues.
Director Arney hopes that “I Just Stopped By to See the Man” won’t be just a theatrical courtesy call for his leading men.
“I think it’s a great turn for both of them. I think if they want that door to open, it certainly can from here.”
‘I Just Stopped By to See the Man’
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood
When: Opens Sept. 17. Regular schedule: Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., Fridays, 8 p.m., Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m., Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.
Ends: Oct. 19
Contact: (310) 208-5454