THE SETTING IS the elegant Grand Hotel, cosmopolitan hub of 1928 Berlin. Rumbles of Germany's coming unrest are safely kept at bay as the beautiful people -- wealthy businessmen, acclaimed artists, impoverished nobility and the bourgeois hopeful -- try to fulfill unrealistic dreams.
Overseeing all this is an embittered observer, Colonel Doctor Otternschlag, maimed in heart and body, who acts as a kind of solo Greek chorus, introducing the hotel's guests and staff. In song and prose he comments with ironic insight on their secrets, schemes and fates.
Beneath the stage makeup and black eye patch of the disenchanted physician is Anthony Franciosa, a veteran actor who is undertaking his first singing role in the international tour of Tommy Tune's extravagant "Grand Hotel, The Musical," playing at the Mechanic Theatre through March 17.
Relaxing in his dressing room a few hours before the evening performance, Franciosa cuts a dapper figure in a soft gray sweater, neatly pressed slacks and gleaming white sneakers.
The familiar smile is as engaging as ever and the voice even more melodious with the passing of time.
"This part is a real challenge for me," he says. "I'm not a singer. How it happened, Tommy Tune was in Los Angeles and said he was interested in me for the role. I said 'But I don't sing, Tommy.' He said, 'Tony, this is a musical. You have to sing. Sing something you know for me.'"
Franciosa smiles. "I remembered in one of my films I played a pianist who was shot down over Italy. I had to sing 'Pennies from Heaven.'" That was the only song I could take out of my trunk. Tommy said 'Terrific. I would like you to do the tour.'"
"I still wasn't decided," he says, "until my son, Chris, said 'Dad, get off your duff and do it.'"
"What I really do is descriptive singing," he says. "I don't have to make sounds like Pavarotti. I am enjoying the role, but every night it is nip and tuck -- Will I make it? How will it sound?"
How does the actor interpret this pivotal role? "I have a whole play going on in my head on stage to keep me emotionally alive," he says. "I see the doctor as the conscience of the piece. He has been hurt mentally and physically -- the loss of an eye and leg. He sees the Grand Hotel as a place of frivolity which people are using as an escape from the real world."
Franciosa's big theater break came in 1955 when a workshop production of "A Hatful of Rain" at the Actors Studio (under Lee Strasberg) moved to Broadway and finally to the movie screen.
For his acclaimed stage performance in that compelling work about drug addiction, he was awarded an Outer Critics Circle Award. When he reprised the role on film, he received an Academy Award nomination and the Venice Film Festival award for "Best Actor."
"The awards are all at home in California gathering dust," he says.
The actor says the so-called Actors Studio "method" is misunderstood by the public. "Every actor has his or her way of working," he explains. "Actors Studio showed that acting is not all instinctive. Strasberg gave us ways of thinking about things on a conscious level to help us develop our characters."
Franciosa has had a long career in movies. Among his films: "Wild is the Wind" with Anna Magnani and Anthony Quinn, "The Long Hot Summer" with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and "The Drowning Pool."
On television he headlined five series including "Matt Helm." He was a major part of the live early days of television, appearing on such venerable programs as "Playhouse 90," "Philco Playhouse" and "Kraft Theatre."
"Technologically TV is very sophisticated today," he says. "In those experimental days of live dramatic television, we could not reproduce the programs. We rehearsed six weeks, like a play. There were five or six cameras and the show was performed live -- no stopping and starting over. But they were exciting times."
Commenting on the difference between stage and film performance, he shrugs and says, "You often have to act to the camera. There is no flesh and blood actor to say your words to and get feedback."
A native New Yorker, the actor makes his home in California with his wife of 21 years, Rita, and their two sons, Christopher and Marco, both college students. His daughter, Nina, a graduate of USC, is an acting student.
Once the --ing TV hero rescuing the fair damsel, Franciosa says he is now really enjoying playing a variety of character roles. "Now I'm the fellow with the wooden leg and glass eye."