Rattling Kevin Tighe’s cage


Kevin Tighe doesn’t mention “Emergency!” in his biography in the program for the Mark Taper Forum’s production of the acclaimed dark comedy “Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo.”

The 65-year-old actor originated the title role in Rajiv Joseph’s audacious, Iraqi War-themed play when it premiered last year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Currently in previews at the Taper with the original cast, the Pulitzer Prize finalist officially opens April 25 and continues through May 30.

So is Tighe embarrassed over his starring role as L.A. fireman-paramedic Roy DeSoto in the 1972-77 series from producer Jack Webb that also starred Randolph Mantooth as his partner, along with singer Julie London and her husband, “Route 66” composer Bobby Troup.

“No, I feel a great deal of pride that I was able to be a paramedic,” Tighe says. “Randolph and I have stayed good friends. I was the best man at his wedding. I didn’t want to scurry away from it. But it was something I did in my 20s. It didn’t require a lot of acting. It didn’t require a lot of great dialogue … I don’t list it in the program because it doesn’t really link with what I am doing now.”

Truth be told, he admits he has always had a serious problem with being a celebrity, especially during the “Emergency” era.

“I didn’t know how to deal with it,” he says, “I couldn’t small talk. I would go to parties and my glasses would fog. I was truly miserable. I am a character actor. I am not a celebrity.”

For the last 23 years, Tighe has been building up a résumé of terrific character parts on film and television, including John Sayles’ “Matewan” and “Eight Men Out,” Lasse Hallstrom’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and John Locke’s contemptible con man father on “Lost.” The majority of his roles have been bad guys, like his hateful union buster in “Matewan.”

In “Bengal Tiger,” the burly Tighe commands the stage as an angry Bengal tiger in the bomb-ridden Bagdad zoo that is shot to death by an American soldier after he bites the hand off of another American when the soldier teases him with food. Unable to die, the tiger prowls the streets of Baghdad, encountering other ghosts, human and animal, and haunting the soldier who shot him to death.

“It’s a lot of work for me doing this show,” says the bespectacled Tighe in his Taper dressing room before a performance. He may be a man-eating tiger in the play, but in person he’s more of a pussy cat — soft-spoken, thoughtful and whip smart. “It’s a very physical show with a lot of dialogue. It’s been very much a play in progress in the development.”

There have been changes in his part at the Taper. “There’s a new 21/2-page monologue to begin the second act that wasn’t there before and there’s a new ending.”

His journey as an actor began as a young boy. “I grew up in downtown L.A. on West 7th Street near Lafayette Park. When I was 5 we moved to Pasadena. My father was a bit actor. He got me going when I was about 9 or 10 — I auditioned for something at the Pasadena Playhouse and I started playing juvenile leads.

Tighe, who has an MFA in acting from the University of Southern California, also got bit parts in 1967’s “The Graduate” and 1968’s “Yours, Mine and Ours.” Then he was drafted into the Army and was about to go to Vietnam. “But through an odd series of events I was hospitalized for a while,” Tighe explains. “I injured my finger and it got infected. I was pulled off orders and I spent my two years at Fort Knox [Ky.].”

After getting out of the Army, Tighe appeared at the Taper in “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine” and opposite Maggie Smith and her then husband Robert Stephens in Noel Coward’s “Design for Living” at the Ahmanson.

“We were supposed to do it in New York, but something happened,” Tighe explains. “So I went to Europe. I worked at Cambridge for a while. I ran out of money.”

So he came back to Los Angeles to “refuel.” That’s when he was called in to audition for “Emergency!” which was executive produced by Webb. “I came into his office and spoke four lines,” he recalls. “They did a quick screen-test on me. I was scared to death. In two or three days, I was on the set and I am doing a pilot. I didn’t even know what a pilot was.”

While the series aired, Tighe managed to direct plays and was allowed to direct the opening episode of the show every season. But he admits when the series ended, he was dead in the water in Hollywood. “I was married on the show and I wore a uniform,” he says. “I played a rather boring character.”

Tighe got work on the summer stock circuit back East. “Then I studied acting with Bobby Lewis and Stella Adler and I really started to come back. I did a little off-Broadway and Broadway and I did regional theater. Then I auditioned for ‘Matewan.’ ”

There was a time Tighe thought he could become a character actor/leading man in the vein of Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman. But Tighe decided to move from L.A. to a small logging town in Washington state.

“I defused a lot of the energy that might have been going on,” he says. “But I felt like I could work better and be a better actor and bring a lot more to a role living with people in real-life situations.”