Serious actor

Benicio Del Toro draws raves for his dramatic work, but how about some slapstick? Just imagine the possibilities. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

"I love the Three Stooges, man, are you kidding?" Benicio Del Toro says. "Yeah, if the Three Stooges come up right now" -- he gestures at a wall cabinet, which presumably holds a TV -- "we stop this conversation."

The 40-year-old Puerto Rico-born actor had been talking mostly about his just released "Things We Lost in the Fire," in which he plays a drug addict opposite Halle Berry, but then looked forward to his coming projects, his now-filming doubleheader with Steven Soderbergh on the revolutionary Che Guevara, and then a remake of "The Wolf Man."

And that last project led naturally to the Stooges, for if he could shoot two movies at once with Soderbergh ("The Argentine" and "Guerrilla") why couldn't they do the same with "The Wolf Man," and remake not only the straight account of the unfortunate nobleman whose form morphs under a full moon, but also the version in which the hairy fellow terrorizes Abbott and Costello?

Yes, of course, they're not the Stooges . . . but they're close enough, all cinch occupants of the Slapstick Hall of Fame, if there is such a thing.

"Yeah, that's a cool movie," Del Toro says of "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," the 1948 flick that includes the Wolf Man encounter. "[But] the Three Stooges were a little more edgy."

Make no mistake, Del Toro's acting role models are, as he terms them, "the usual suspects" -- Brando, Nicholson, Bogart, Anthony Quinn.

Yet we often talk about how comedians thirst to do serious drama, the Bill Murrays and Steve Martins. Why shouldn't our best dramatic actors get a chance to tiptoe onto their turf of physical comedy?

In "Things We Lost in the Fire," Del Toro did get to do one bit, when he's hit in the face with a ball, from kids playing outside.

"We did that 10 times and he loved it," recalls the director, Susanne Bier, who was aware of the actor's passion -- he hardly keeps it a secret -- for such lower-brow antics.

When it comes to the Stooges, no surprise, his favorite is Curly, the skinheaded nyuck-nyucker. "Curly's a genius," Del Toro says, recalling the scene from "Dutiful but Dumb" in which Curly is eating oyster soup "and the oyster spits up the soup in his face and he starts to, like, go crazy and eventually he gets his gun and starts shooting the plate. It's masterful," Del Toro says.

"There's another one, they're in some house and a little monkey shows up. 'Larry, I'm seein' gorillas!' "

OK, maybe we have to concede that the boys weren't perfect, that for starters "the treatment of women is not so correct," Del Toro notes. "That's why the Stooges have kind of like been kept in the back -- they were in their own club and it was the boys club."

But we could fix that, throw in a little semi-adult flirtation, totally plausible with Del Toro playing, say, Moe.

Sure, he'd better do the straight "Wolf Man" first -- Anthony Hopkins has signed on to play his dad, Sir John Talbot, and he wouldn't want to miss that acting interplay. But afterward, keep the sets, keep the crew and go on to remake the Abbott and Costello classic, or tweak it to sub in the Stooges.

"There's a lot of good actors that could do it too," Del Toro says. He doesn't name names, but hasn't De Niro shown he can mug with the best of 'em?

The danger, obviously, is the same one the comedians experience when they try to be serious -- it ain't so easy to cross over.

"I don't know," Del Toro says finally. "I might not be able to do it as good as somebody else."

Maybe, maybe not. Maybe someday we'll see him do slapstick. Or maybe, after playing all those drug dealers and drug users and one Oscar-winning Mexican drug cop, in Soderbergh's "Traffic," he'll try a romance first.

paul.lieberman@latimes.com