Playing Leonardo da Vinci in 'Divine Rivalry' Brings Out Actor's Passions
February 26, 2011
Peter Strauss is trying to understand genius.
Not his but that of Leonardo da Vinci, whom he plays in the world premiere of Michael Kramer's "Divine Rivalry" at Hartford Stage. The play, now in previews and opening Wednesday, centers on a painting competition between da Vinci and Michelangelo, as orchestrated by Machiavelli.
"After 'He enters from stage right,' what? Lo and behold, here comes the world's greatest genius!" says Strauss during a day off from rehearsals in New York.
"We know very little of the man. And the notes of Leonardo are curiously devoid of emotion and attitude."
But the actor has nevertheless immersed himself in as much art and history of the period that he could find.
Strauss rattles off the facts about the great artist-scientist-inventor born in Vinci near Florence: He lived from 1452 to 1519. He was the out-of-wedlock son of a notary and a peasant woman. He stood trial for sodomy when he was 26 and was acquitted. He was a vegetarian, an agnostic and anti-clerical. He died at 67. Strauss acknowledges that after all the Googling of facts and ogling of masterpieces, "You can't play your research."
The rest, he says, he must find in his own imagination and the script. "The play is about powerful men who use art for their own ends, and that's a pretty powerful theme."
The 64-year-old Strauss is a Renaissance man himself. Besides being an actor for more than 40 years, he is also a writer, a conservationist, a landscaper, a farmer, a businessman and a person with a passion for classical music, especially the works of Gustav Mahler.
But mostly people know the Emmy Award-winning actor through his roles in TV movies ("The Jericho Mile," "Young Joe, The Forgotten Kennedy"), network series ("Moloney") and especially the miniseries "Masada," "Kane and Abel" and "Rich Man, Poor Man," which became a sensation when it aired in 1976.
"But this is where I want to be now," he says, referring to working in the theater on a new play. "There's nothing out there — he said pointing west — for me.
"It's gone because I got older; it's gone because I value my creativity more; it's gone because I have enough financial security that I can be over here doing this; it's gone because I'm at a different stage of my life. I had a conversation with my wife [Rachel Ticotin], who is shooting a show now in L.A. ['Law & Order: Los Angeles'], and she said I've never been happier."
Life wasn't so happy for the Manhattan-borm Strauss when he was growing up in Croton-on-Hudson as the son of one of the great wine experts in the world.
"My father traveled a great deal," says Strauss. "I had what you would call a European upbringing. I went to Hackley School for Boys in Tarrytown, N.Y. It was a very troubled family. My family went through a horrible Holocaust situation. I was just not a happy kid."
Acting provided escape and inspiration.
"I still remember the day my life changed. A teacher, Fred Blais, approached me. He wore a corduroy jacket with a suede patch on his shoulder, which intrigued me, and he asked me if I wanted to be in a play. It was 'The Taming of the Shrew,' and I ended up playing the tailor."
Once on stage in front of an audience, he thought, "This was home. It was a better home than the one I was in. And I just knew this is where I belonged. At 12, I knew what I wanted to do."
At Hackney, he started his own drama club called Workshop 14 "because I convinced 14 boys to be in it." After high school, he went to Northwestern University in the mid-'60s, where he majored in theater and American literature.
After his junior year, he was invited to Los Angeles by a friend whose father was a Hollywood agent who introduced Strauss around and sent him to auditions."I didn't know anything about the camera, about auditioning. I went to auditions in a suit."
He returned to Northwestern, but one screen test he made was seen the following year, and he finished school early in order to return to Hollywood to play Michael Douglas' brother in the 1969 film "Hail, Hero!"
In a matter of days, he was flown out, fitted for Western wear and then put on a horse for his first day of filming. "I don't think my heart could have pounded harder," he says. "I said I sort of know how to ride a horse, but I didn't."
What should have been a short day's shoot for his scene lasted hours, and when it was over, he got off his horse, went over to a nearby tree and sobbed.
"I didn't know what I was doing," he says. "But I decided I would learn, and I asked permission to go every day just to watch how the cameraman works, how the other actors worked," among them Arthur Kennedy, Theresa Wright and Douglas, who was also making his film debut.
Strauss got better and then started getting booked on a series of Quinn-Martin TV shows. "That's where I learned to act," he says.
Breakneck At Tiffany's
But life changed dramatically when three little-known actors — Strauss, Nick Nolte and Susan Blakely — were cast in the 12-week miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man," based on the Irwin Shaw novel. Strauss played the titular "rich man," Rudy Jordache, an ambitious entrepreneur who triumphed over his poor background.
"The success [of the show] was terrifying," he says. "And I didn't know how to handle it. I had to run away. I remember being here in New York to do publicity, and the second show had just aired, and I decided to walk a bit. I had broken my leg auditioning for [the film] 'Slap Shot,' and I was on crutches outside Tiffany's, and all of a sudden it starts. People see me, and they come around me, asking for autographs and touching me and wanting pictures — and I panicked. I went into Tiffany's and asked a sales girl to help me get out of there, and she took me out the back alley, and I was running all the way back to the Sherry-Netherlands Hotel on my crutches.
"I was not hip to fame. I didn't know how to handle it. Neither did some of my peers — and many of them went down in flames. Fame is a really tough thing to handle. If you grow up in Hollywood, that's one thing. You're exposed to it. Michael Douglas knows how to handle it. You could deal with it if you had a benign indifference and could just shrug it off. But it wasn't in my nature. I wasn't comfortable enough in myself to handle that.
"I just had to learn that the public is not an enemy. People come up to me now, and it's pretty astonishing that people can reference a show from 1976 and say to me, 'That was the best show I ever saw.' Oh, my God. I can't remember where I was two days ago. But 'Rich Man, Poor Man,' 'Roots' and "The Thorn Birds' were magic for people."
What made "Rich Man, Poor Man" so special?
"The word is 'story.' Great stories work on screen. Concepts don't. And when you have 12 hours to tell a good story, you've got something. Now you have the terror of the clicker, and everything has to happen in the first 20 seconds."
Strauss says it's hard to imagine that kind of televised event's success today.
Wiith hundreds of channels, TiVo and endless programming choices, "'Mad Man' is a sensation with just 2 million viewers. Thirty years ago, if you only had 2 million viewers, they'd yank you off the air while you were still on."
Strauss changed, he says, when he realized ultimate satisfaction wasn't going to be in acting but in parenting. "I learned to be a man of character. My wife changed my life."
He also found passion in landscaping, botany, conservation and music. "I'm writing a book about classical music for teenagers, finding ways for them to appreciate classical music." (To help him with the play, he created a mix-tape for Leonardo.)
The subject of music quickly brings him to the subject of his favorite composer.
"Mahler is my god. His music just rips me up. My wife can no longer go to a Mahler concert with me because I embarrass her. At the end, I'm a pool of water.
He also owns and operates a citrus ranch that produces 448 tons of oranges a year in Ojai, Calif., growing navel and Valencia oranges. "I'm a Sunkist farmer," he says.
DIVINE RIVALRY, now in previews, opens Wednesday at Hartford Stage, 50 Church. St. The run continues through March 20. Information: 860-527-5151 or http://www.hartfordstage.org.
Read Frank Rizzo's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain. And be the first to know by following him on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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