Chicago--If Will Rogers was the archetypal common man, Keith Carradine is the uncommon man.
At least that's the way he seemed before he created the role of the legendary cowboy-philosopher in "The Will Rogers Follies," the Tony Award-winning musical that opens Tuesday at the Lyric Opera House.
Before "Will Rogers" came along, words like "loner," "outsider," "laconic" and "enigmatic" were usually used to describe the characters Carradine played -- characters like the harsh, womanizing folk singer in "Nashville" (for which he wrote the Academy Award-winning song, "I'm Easy"), the taciturn whorehouse photographer in "Pretty Baby," or the cagey art forger in "The Moderns."
But now the 43-year-old actor has taken on so much of Will Rogers' aw-shucks, Everyman persona that watching him eat a bowl of pasta in an Italian restaurant calls to mind the simple familiarity of -- dare we say it? -- a spaghetti Western.
And it's not just his cowboy boots, Chevy pickup or Western-cut sport coat that convey this comfortable impression. There's genuineness underlying the toothy grin and hank of chestnut hair that keeps flopping onto his forehead.
In fact, Carradine admits that one reason he was so eager to play Will Rogers was because of the disparity between the beloved "poet lariat," as Rogers was called, and most of the actor's previous roles.
"I felt it would give me the chance to show a side of myself that I've never been given the opportunity to show. It gives me a chance to be funny. Most people certainly don't think of me that way. I've always known I had a sense of humor, but most of the film work that I've done has not paid particular attention to that," he says, in all seriousness.
The role also gave Carradine a chance to do something on stage that he's always enjoyed off stage. "I have loved horses and things Western all my life. You're talking to somebody who was weaned on the Warner Bros. television westerns of the '50s and '60s," the lanky actor explains.
"Playing cowboy has been a big part of my life, and I'm still at it. I have horses now, and my permanent home is in the Colorado Rockies," he says, referring to the 690-acre ranch he shares with his wife, Sandra Will, their two children, four horses, three dogs, two cats, five goldfish and three rabbits. (Carradine also has a grown daughter, actress Martha Plimpton, from a previous relationship.)
Gum and attitude
Despite his affinity for the West, Carradine felt a need to learn a few rope tricks before auditioning for "Will Rogers," and he taught himself to sing while chewing gum. "I think that's the key to my success, actually," he says. "I'd never been a gum-chewer in my life, and I suddenly discovered when I put a wad of gum in my mouth that it changed my whole attitude. There was just something about chewing gum that enhances the sort of I-don't-give-a-damn side of my nature."
This might sound like unusual preparation for an audition, but Carradine knew going in that, largely owing to his string of quirky film credits, neither the show's creative team nor its producers felt he was right for the role.
Director and choreographer Tommy Tune recalls, "From his film work we all thought he was just wrong for the part. But the moment he walked in and started talking, I said, 'He is Will Rogers.' "
But initially, even Carradine had doubts. "We actors tend to think that appearances are important, and the first response I had was that I didn't look anything like Will Rogers," he says.
Will Rogers, of course, not only twirled a rope and chewed gum, he also was, first and foremost, a storyteller and social commentator -- abilities demonstrated at length by the star of "The Will Rogers Follies," which is structured as an amalgam of Rogers' biography and a Ziegfeld Follies extravaganza.
With that in mind, Carradine also spun a tale or two at his audition. And sure 'nuff, his folksy quality immediately surfaces when he recalls a story he told -- a story that had previously been told to him by his brother Robert, one of several thespian members of the Carradine clan.
"Bobby was on the set when they were shooting 'The Cowboys,' " he says with a sly sparkle in his eye. "[John Wayne] walked out of his trailer, and a gust of wind blew his toupee off into the dirt. He wasn't the least bit nonplused or flustered by this. He just simply turned around, and he pulled out his gun and shot it."
The mention of Robert brings up the matter of the rest of the theatrical Carradines. The acting tradition began with father John, the prolific character actor. Three of John's five sons are also actors. Besides Keith and Robert, there's their older half brother, David -- probably the most widely recognized Carradine, thanks to his exposure on the television series "Kung Fu" (a sequel called "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues" began this season).
Perhaps not surprisingly, sharing a surname and a profession with several relatives has created a certain amount of confusion. But like the affable character he is currently portraying, Keith shrugs it off and even jokes about it. Consider this example from a post-performance AIDS benefit presented by the cast on the next-to-last night of the show's Chicago engagement:
After Carradine had entertained the audience with an atypical spoof of a top-hat-and-tails soft-shoe number, cast member Victoria L. Waggoner looked longingly after him and proclaimed, "You know who I think that was? That was that David Carradine -- 'Kung Fu'!"
"I don't suppose that the confusion will ever vanish completely -- there's just too many of us. It's just too difficult to grasp," he acknowledges. "I suppose that the confusion will persist, but I guess that also really depends on how well I do."
At the same time, he hopes that starring on Broadway for 13 months in "The Will Rogers Follies" and spending another 14 months on tour will help alleviate the confusion. "My decision to take this show on the road had a lot to do with that very thing, with the question of identity in terms of the general public, in terms of creating an audience for myself," he says.
Actually, even without the shared profession, the Carradine family tree is confusing. "If it's anything, it's an oak -- sturdy but gnarled," says Keith, whose father married four times, providing him with half- and step- as well as full brothers.
Keith's childhood was also far from conventional. Although he graduated from one of California's more exclusive boarding schools, part of his early youth was spent in a juvenile hall as a ward of the court while his parents resolved a bitter custody fight.
Despite this unsettling upbringing, Keith grew up to become what one reporter dubbed "the white sheep" of the family -- a description that makes him bristle slightly. "I've just been in the least public trouble," he insists.
In particular, the comparison calls to mind brother David. And yet, Keith is quick to credit David with playing a major role in his career. After dropping out of Colorado State University, then working at a series of odd jobs, he moved in with David, who paid for voice and drama lessons.
Ironically, his big break came while trying to do David a favor by accompanying him at an audition for cast replacements for the Los Angeles and Broadway companies of "Hair." "I guess I looked like what they were looking for," Keith says of the audition, which resulted in his professional debut on Broadway.
"Hair" was Carradine's sole Broadway musical before "The Will Rogers Follies," though he returned to the Great White Way once the interim, playing Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy's folk-singing son in "Foxfire," a play that had a pre-Broadway run at the Mechanic Theatre in 1982.
"I knew I wanted to get back and do a musical, and I started thinking that way about five years ago and then this came along," he says. Most of his career, of course, has been devoted to the screen. He's made some 40 films and TV movies, and he'd like to do more. It doesn't seem coincidental that his stint in "The Will Rogers Follies" will end this fall in Los Angeles. If everything goes according to plan, Will Rogers -- the most accessible character he's ever played -- will lead to more diverse roles.
"Accessibility counts for a lot in our business," he says. "It's a business that is devoted to images. I mean, movies are a series of images, and yet for the most part, the business is run by people with no imagination. All they know is what they see and what they see right now, and if you haven't done it, you can't do it, and if you've done it, that's all you can do. And it's a constant battle to overcome that."
For his part, director Tommy Tune predicts, "Hollywood will now see Keith as a classic star. Up until now, he has played darker character roles, but he has the aura of a great leading man."
But whatever happens in Hollywood, Keith Carradine won't feel his year on the road with "The Will Rogers Follies" will have been in vain. "I've been doing it the hard way since I started. I've always opted for what I thought was more interesting work as opposed to more commercial work. So in terms of creating an audience for oneself, I'm doing it the hard way again, I guess. I'm doing it city by city," he says.
"I felt that it was a great way to introduce myself to an audience. I may be reaching fewer people overall, but I think the people that I'm reaching, I'm reaching more deeply."
'Will Rogers Follies'
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. (Sign-interpreted performances May 12 at 8 p.m. and May 15 at 2 p.m.) Through May 23.
Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD, (410) 625-1407.