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`PASS IT ON, BOYS' ON, OFF SCREEN, GRIFFITHS PROVIDES AN EDUCATION.

Byline: Evan Henerson Staff Writer

More than 20 years ago, while filming the thriller ``Gorky Park,'' actor Richard Griffiths dined with co-star Lee Marvin and asked the screen legend for advice on movie acting.

Marvin obligingly passed on a choice piece of wisdom that he had learned from Spencer Tracy when the two had worked on ``Bad Day at Black Rock'' nearly 30 years previously.

``So Spencer Tracy said this to Lee Marvin, and he said it to me,'' says Griffiths, the stage-trained star of the film ``The History Boys.''

``He said, `Kid, whatever you do, don't you dare -- ever -- let the camera find you not thinking. That's all you need to do.' It's true of course, and it's wonderful.

``There's not a second on stage where your being there doesn't count, for anybody,'' he continues.

Sound advice, indeed, and an approach to the work that the stage-savvy Griffiths found could be applied to dramatic as well as cinematic roles. The actor has already won a host of awards for ``The History Boys,'' which will go into wider release Dec. 22.

This applies whether you're playing -- as Griffiths has -- Terrorist No. 3 in ``Superman II,'' top-lining the British TV series ``Pie in the Sky,'' or taking on the monstrous Uncle Vernon Dursley in the ``Harry Potter'' films.

Hector, the influential yet rather inappropriate classics teacher Griffiths has played in the stage and screen versions of ``The History Boys,'' would especially appreciate the Tracy-Marvin-Griffiths progression. Hector's mantra, after all, is, ``Pass it on, boys; pass it on.''

Griffiths has, and does, as much by example as through any words of career advice he may offer.

``Richard and (`History Boys' co-star) Frances de la Tour, I think, have taught me more about acting than all the time I had at drama school, just because I was there watching them,'' says Samuel Barnett, who plays Posner, the youngest of the boys. ``Their comic timing, the way they delivered lines effortlessly. I think all of us eight young actors changed through watching and working with them.''

``There's an enormous delicacy, a real grace about what he does,'' agrees director Nicholas Hytner. ``His evident affection for what he talks about is done with such ease. He never pushes.''

Since the mid-1970s, Griffiths -- who once contemplated a career as a painter, has mixed roles on the London stage with consistent TV and film work, appearing in such films as ``Gandhi,'' ``Greystoke,'' ``Stage Beauty'' and ``Sleepy Hollow.''

Set in the 1980s, ``The History Boys'' tracks eight students at a British prep school during the year they're trying to pass their exams to qualify for Oxford or Cambridge. Influencing their respective plights are Irwin, a slick Oxford graduate newly hired to get the boys ready for the tests at any cost, and Hector, the somewhat buffoonish -- but much-beloved -- classics professor who cares more about human souls than exam results.

Any similarities ...

But you can shelve any Mr. Chips comparisons. The lonely and slightly pathetic Hector isn't above trying to cop a feel of any lad who accepts a ride home on the back of his motorbike. The boys know Hector's game and can instantly get him to cease with a quick ``Oy!'' and they go to great lengths to protect him.

Still, Griffiths has wearied of having to defend the character and bristles when the word pedophilia is raised in discussions of Hector or when people bring in references to disgraced politico Mark Foley.

``He's the baddie -- and at the same time he's the goodie,'' Griffiths says of Hector. ``He's the one you kind of have a chance to get to like.

``What Hector does is completely mystifying to me,'' he continues. ``I think it's an inarticulate and not very good effort to try to generate some contact. He just doesn't know how to show that he loves somebody, and love is everything he's about. It's what the play and the movie are all about.''

Bennett's play was a smash from the moment of its 2004 premiere at London's National Theatre. ``The History Boys'' subsequently toured to Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia before crossing the pond to Broadway. In between, the complete original cast -- with director Hytner (``The Crucible,'' ``The Madness of King George'') at the helm -- spent six weeks and less than $5 million making the film.

What was supposed to be a three-month engagement has instead turned into a nearly three-year commitment and turned Hector into something of a signature role for the 59-year-old Griffiths.

Professional accolades

And a lucrative one. Griffiths' stage laurels have included the Laurence Olivier Award for best actor (Britain's equivalent of the Tony), the Tony, the Evening Standard, Drama Desk and Theatre World awards.

There is more room in the unlit fireplace of Griffiths' dining room where the Hector awards have accumulated, but the actor is guarded when the topic is broached.

``The terrible thing is, one gets an award, then another one pops up, and it's like mushrooms in the night. Now you can get an award for the Toytown Department School of Education,'' says Griffiths. ``We all know the names of some of those famous (international) awards, but they do not have the global reach of the Tony or the Oscar.

``But don't expect me to say that's what I'm looking for, because that way madness lies,'' he continues. ``You just go and take it one bite at a time.''

He'll return to the stage to play psychiatrist Martin Dysart in a West End revival of Peter Shaffer's ``Equus'' opposite ``Harry Potter's'' Daniel Radcliffe, and the production will close in time for Radcliffe and Griffiths to reunite for ``Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.''

There likely will be a national tour of ``The History Boys'' toward the end of 2007, but neither Griffiths nor any of the remaining original cast members figures to be part of it.

On the other hand ...

``Would I do it? I don't know, to be honest with you,'' Griffiths says. ``I am infinitely corruptible.''

Evan Henerson, (818) 713-3651

evan.henerson(at)dailynews.com

Keeping it in character

There are distinct advantages to being a convincing and celebrated rotter.

``The History Boys' '' Richard Griffiths is best-known by the under-15 set as Uncle Vernon Dursley, reluctant guardian and tormentor to Harry Potter in the first four ``Potter'' films.

Which means, when younger viewers spot him, they often expect him to be, well, Vernon-esque.

``Occasionally, when I am dreadful, (the kids) just go, `Yeah, that's him,' '' says Griffiths.

The actor recalled a recent late-night encounter in a supermarket. Griffiths was shopping for some breakfast items when the father of a sheepish 12-year-old boy approached and asked the off-duty actor to confirm that he was, in fact, Vernon Dursley.

Griffiths told the man, in no uncertain terms, to get lost, and as he watched the offender slink away, Griffiths noticed that the boy was comforting his father.

``The kid was saying, `Yeah, I know, it's OK. That's what he's like. He's always like that,' '' Griffiths says. ``I really liked that if you're always a bastard and you behave badly, people go, `Oh yeah, that's what he's like.'

``So, I'd rather be known as Vernon than as (``The History Boys' '') Hector from that point of view, because then you get left alone a bit longer.''

-- E.H.

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) `History' in the making

It took camaraderie, hard work and a most curious teacher to turn `Boys' into men

(2) ``He just doesn't know how to show that he loves somebody, and love is everything he's about. It's what the play and the movie are all about,'' says Richard Griffiths of Hector, the classics teacher, his character in ``The History Boys.''

John McCoy/Staff Photographer

(3) Griffiths and Stephen Campbell Moore in a scene from ``The History Boys.''

(4) Richard Griffiths as Harry Potter's emotionally abusive Uncle Vernon.

Box:

Keeping it in character (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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