Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 1997

“I always wanted to be a waiter, but I had to take these acting jobs instead.” The sarcasm drips from a voice so low you feel like a soprano or castrato by contrast.   “When I was a child, my voice never changed,” intones the actor, “it sunk.”

Paxton Whitehead, he of the sunken voice, Cyrano nose (“I could do that role without nose putty”) and deadpan humor is, thankfully, back in San Diego. He’s here to play a role that fits him so well, he’s done it twice before:   the great, intelligent, incisive Sherlock Holmes, hero of “The Mask of Moriarty” (at the Old Globe, through October 25).

“It’s one of my favorite plays,” says Whitehead, who’s done hundreds of productions of Shaw, Shakespeare and wacky British comedies, on both sides of the Atlantic.

The sleuth-spoof “Moriarty” premiered at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival in 1994. “I didn’t really want to play Sherlock Holmes again,” Whitehead says in his basso profundo. “I did that 20 years ago [on Broadway in “Crucifer of Blood”].   “Then I made the mistake of reading the “Moriarty” script.   I didn’t want anyone else to do it.     It’s so cleverly mapped out, well researched and very true to the Sherlock characters.   It’s a twist, a parody, a conglomerate of all the Holmes stories — and their lines and situations that have become clichés.   I had such fun with it the first time, I’ve always wanted to do it again. It’s Holmes in a comedy but not played for comedy, approached as a mystery, but with a vaudeville flair.”

The Boston Globe considered the piece to be “simultaneously obvious and convoluted…. a who-cares-who-dunnit… [which] requires an acquired taste for dumb puns and outright silliness.”   One critic’s silliness is another’s inspiration. The upstate New York press called the play “a clever and authentic spoof,” filled with “inspired lunacy.” All reviewers unanimously and enthusiastically agreed that Whitehead was the quintessential Holmes: witty, savvy, “delivering deductions with dripped assurance.”  

In the play, written by Irish playwright Hugh (“Da”) Leonard, a young Brit is accused of murder, and he summons Holmes and Watson to clear his name. The trail of clues and red herrings leads, of course, to Holmes’ arch-rival, Moriarty, “the world’s most brilliant and dastardly malefactor.”  

Between asides to the audience, Holmesian in-jokes, broad physical comedy, tongue twisters and puns, the play manages to skewer English food and policeman, American mores and the theater itself.   

The interplay and repartee between the cool, logical Holmes and the “elementary” humanist Watson (here a doltish doc who gets to dress in drag) are critical to the success of the piece, and Whitehead is thrilled to be re-teamed with his longtime partner in (comedic) crime, Tom Lacy [both are Globe Associate Artists]. “This is a reunion of sorts,” says Whitehead.   “My first production at the Globe was in 1982 in “The Miser” with Tom, and we’ve been there together several times since.   I hardly ever appear without him in San Diego.”

Well, sort of. Whitehead did excellently on his own at the Globe as Richard III and as Sir Peter Teazle in “The School for Scandal”, and he also directed Shaw’s “Misalliance” and the hilariously improvisational “Beyond the Fringe”, in which he had originally performed on Broadway in 1960.   “That experience showed me that I could do comedy,” Whitehead confesses. “I was too introverted as a kid. I had a sense of humor, but I wasn’t a cutup. I’d played character parts, but it was “Fringe” that made me aware of my comic potential.”

He realized that potential again last spring at South Coast Repertory Theatre, where he had audiences and critics rolling in the aisles from his clueless, bumbling husband in “How the Other Half Loves”. A far cry from the always-clued-in Sherlock Holmes, whose brilliance has delighted and fascinated readers, audiences and moviegoers since he was first created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887.

While Holmes was a dyed-in-the-(plaid)-wool Londoner, Whitehead grew up in Kent, and played rugby at a Midlands boys’ school. Although his British-lawyer father and Bostonian mother had both dabbled in theater, they advised him to “do anything you want except go on the stage.”   It seemed an open invitation.

He went to a London drama school, and has been gainfully and frequently employed since he was 19.   By age 29, he was running the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the Lake in Ontario, Canada, where he served as artistic director from 1967-1977. On Broadway, he’s been seen in “My Fair Lady” (as Col. Pickering), “Lettuce and Lovage” with Maggie Smith, {Camelot” with Richard Burton, and the outrageous farce “Noises Off”, among others.

He’s lived in L.A. and San Diego, but now he makes his home smack in the middle, in Orange County, with his Canadian wife of 25 years, and his children, age 14 and 16. That location gives him easy access to the stage and to movies (“Back to School,” “Baby Boom,” “The Adventures of Huck Finn,” etc.) and television (series regular in “Marble Head Manor,” recent guest appearances on “Frasier,” “Ellen” and others).

At age 59, he’s quite content.   He has no unfulfilled fantasies and, unlike many Californians, what he wants to do is act, not direct.   “I have more of an actor’s eye and ear than a director’s. The trick is to just keep doing it.”

©1997 Patté Productions Inc.