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Erasing the tarnish

Special to The Times

“I knew you were going to get to this,” James Farentino is saying.

Farentino’s past has preceded him, and it’s oddly relevant to his present, which has been percolating on the Geffen Playhouse stage. There Farentino, the toast of ‘60s movieland, is resurrecting one of the decade’s hangovers in the Rebecca Gilman play “Boy Gets Girl,” which runs through next Sunday. Farentino’s tour de force performance as the earthy but cuddly Les Kennkat, a soft-core porn king modeled after Russ Meyer, seems to be spinning off another revival -- it’s resuscitating the actor’s moribund career.

By the ‘90s Farentino’s heady run as a leading man on Broadway, in such ‘60s films as “The Pad and How to Use It” as well as television’s “The Bold Ones: The Lawyers,” was long behind him. But even he hadn’t anticipated the blow that would be dealt to his career by press reports of his 1994 conviction for stalking his ex-girlfriend, Tina Sinatra. By the late ‘90s, he was being cast in clunkers like 2000’s “Women of the Night” and “The Last Producer.”

“I’ve got a resume that could choke a horse,” says Farentino, 65. “I’m impressed by it. Producers who are casting people, they’re all in their 20s now. You show it to somebody in the motion picture industry or television, they don’t know and they don’t care. So I thought, ‘If I can’t get personal satisfaction out of going to a movie set or a play and giving the audience something special for that moment, then what am I doing?’ And I used to feel that way a lot. A lot. The roles started to get smaller and smaller with less value, and it was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”

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So Farentino dropped out of the business in 1999, eventually returning after three years to take the succulent stage role of Kennkat, who’s interviewed and befriended by Theresa Bedell (Nancy Travis), a journalist stalked by a spurned admirer. And the voluble actor has clearly been enjoying his return to the spotlight. “It’s like people are rediscovering me,” he says. “Come on, I was under contract in 1964 to Universal.”

But since stalking contributed to his professional undoing, it’s curious that it should also be the subject of the play leading to his resurrection. And now Farentino, who managed to avoid the press during his ordeal, is facing the same questions nine years later.

“I knew you were going to get to this,” he says softly. “That’s OK.”

Farentino is slouching in an armchair in the Geffen’s cavernous lounge, where his throaty voice ricochets off the marble floor. He’s dressed in a green sweatshirt, khaki cargo pants and jaunty silver goatee, which he grew to play the slick Kennkat, much to the delight of Stella, his fourth wife, whom he married nine years ago.

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By the time Farentino pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor count of stalking in 1994, he had barraged Sinatra with phone calls and faxes -- some threatening -- after their five-year, off-and-on relationship came to a stormy close. The actor, who was placed on three years’ probation and ordered to undergo alcohol counseling, is philosophical about the episode, which gave him uncomfortably close insight into the “Boy Gets Girl” stalker played by Mark Deakins.

“My behavior was appalling -- feeling so hurt and rejected that I was the victim when I really wasn’t. So you inflict your pain on someone else to make them identify with you. That’s what I recognize in this character,” says Farentino, who’s still in AA.

“I regret doing that. I’ve grown a lot since then. And I still think about her. I love my wife extremely. But I remember those days, because I did write her a letter seven years later apologizing to her family, to clear up my soul. And I didn’t hear from her -- I haven’t to this day. But I have the greatest deal of respect for her.”

Farentino is not so forgiving of the industry honchos who he says marginalized him during that period. “There are people in this business that for years said, ‘He’s an alcoholic. He’s a drunk. He stalked Tina.’ And the clamps were put on me in many ways,” he says. “Unless you’re making big box office, they’re going to kill you. And that’s OK because one thing they can’t take away from me is whatever talent I feel I have, that people feel I have.”

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Geffen artistic director Randall Arney, who directed “Boy Gets Girl,” says he had heard rumors of Farentino’s stalking conviction but considered it irrelevant to his casting and never asked the actor about it. Arney was impressed by Farentino’s Broadway credits, which included a Tony-nominated performance as Stanley Kowalski in 1973’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” as well as more recent guest spots on “ER” as George Clooney’s father.

“I saw James’ name and immediately thought it sounded so right,” Arney says. “He was well steeped in Hollywood history, and he’s a guy who seems brusque on the outside but ultimately has a heart.”

Farentino’s hilarious turn as a breast-obsessed filmmaker who’s vulgar yet little-boyish boasts a genuine porn-world pedigree. He modeled the character partly after Meyer, whom he knew through Meyer’s former wife, Edy Williams, Farentino’s buxom co-star in “The Pad.”

“He’s not as gregarious as I play it,” Farentino says. “Russ had bravado. His work was all breasts. It was not porn, porn. His scripts were terrible, but his camerawork was wonderful. And he was the king of it.”

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Farentino also infused the character with the ghosts of some of his unpolished relatives whom he remembers from his Brooklyn childhood. “I’d watch them and see this gregarious, bravado phony stuff going on, and I’d be repulsed by it but awed by the open shirts and the gold. And as I got older I realized that these people -- not these people, just people in general -- have their own manners and their own way of dealing with life, and it’s sincere.” Farentino says he identified with Kennkat’s “crassness, his honesty, his loneliness.” When rehearsals began, he’d bring in props to try on his character -- a cigar, sunglasses -- all of which he ended up tossing. To get to the heart of Kennkat, Farentino zeroed in on his troubled colon, which lands the character in the hospital. “I had the pants made a little too big so it comes naturally that I have to pick them up, and also to remind me that my colon is bothering me,” Farentino says. “It’s very important to the end of the play.”

Arney says Farentino spent a lot of his own time working on Kennkat’s believability.

“He always came in with things to try,” says Arney. “It was a matter of picking and choosing the great ideas he was bringing to the table, and finding the right balance of all the colors he was presenting.”

One of which has to be the exuberant hue of vindication. Says Farentino: “When I get on the stage every night, what I do is prove to these people who are out there saying, ‘He’s an alcoholic’ or ‘He did this,’ you come here and do eight shows a week like I do. Good, bad or indifferent. Come and do it. It’s a killer.”

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‘Boy Gets Girl’

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886

Le Conte Ave., Westwood

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When: Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.

Ends: Next Sunday

Price: $34-$46

Contact: (310) 208-5454

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