From the depths of the audience, the horror of the man's deformities is muted by dim lighting and a mask. But up close, the scarred flesh seems all too real. "Put your mask back on," shuddered Britain's Queen Mother when she viewed actor Michael Crawford backstage in his ghoulish guise in The Phantom of the Opera during the show's London run. "It's horrid," gasped Princess Diana, who nevertheless has seen the show three times.

Tonight, not long after the Phantom's triumphant opening on Broadway, it is Lucille Ball's turn to be shocked on a backstage visit. "I'll never know what you really look like," she says after the show, attempting a touch of humor to cover her emotions. Crawford laughs as best he can as two makeup artists use brushes dipped in mineral oil to loosen three layers of foam latex. The makeup takes two hours to put on, 20 minutes to remove. Spent and sweaty, the 46-year-old British actor impatiently picks at bits of stray rubber. "It's claustrophobic," he says of his makeup, "like being trapped in a lift."

By the time his next visitor arrives in the tiny, airless makeup room, tendrils of curly auburn hair are emerging from his wig, and pleasant, boyish features show through the rubber and greasepaint. "My name is Liv Ullmann, and I can't believe how young you are," marvels the Norwegian actress. "You're fantastic. I'll never forget it." As he thanks her, Crawford clutches a sheet of rubber that has been stripped off his face. He will personally shred the mask lest it be stolen from the garbage, as often happened in England. "This is so personal," he explains. "So much a part of me and the show."

Emerging a few minutes later in a tweed overcoat, Crawford dutifully signs autographs at the stage door before escaping to a nearby Broadway hangout. There, New York Times critic Frank Rich happens to be dining at another table and stops by to say hello. Crawford treats him like an old friend, as well he should. Rich raved about Crawford's performance as a macabre yet oddly sensuous composer who lusts after a beautiful chorus girl. Audiences, Rich wrote, "will be stunned by the force of his Phantom."

The Times critic and most others were delirious about the show and Crawford, but not so kind to Crawford's co-star, Sarah Brightman, wife of Phantom composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. "I was aware of some criticism," says Crawford, who tenses up at the subject of the boss's wife. "You have to be supportive and carry on."

Crawford was badly jolted by the almost unprecedented preopening frenzy over Phantom. (Good tickets are sold out until December.) "With all that hype, I got very nervous," Crawford admits. "As the opening approached, I began to feel clammy and get butterflies in my stomach."

His performances, however, were always flawless, testimony to Crawford's almost obsessive ability to immerse himself in a role. Beneath the genial exterior and penchant for bad jokes ("My mother didn't have enough calcium," he quips of his Phantom deformities), Crawford is a man possessed by his craft. The workaholism that contributed to the breakup of his marriage 13 years ago now propels him to the theater as much as seven hours before a performance. If a scar or the line of his mouth is painted a millimeter off, Crawford wants it corrected. He insisted on wearing boots laced up to the knee so that no sighting of flesh would break "the clean, elegant line." He naps on a purple towel because he considers it a healing color. "He's a very intense person," says Lucy Crawford, 20, the younger of Michael's two daughters.

The roots of Crawford's fanaticism are somewhere in Salisbury, Wiltshire, where he was born Michael Dumbell-Smith. His father, an RAF pilot, died in battle before Michael's birth, and his mother remarried, this time to a grocery store manager. At 12, fresh out of choir school, Michael auditioned for Benjamin Britten's Let's Make an Opera. Touring for six months convinced Michael that his career was in show business, and at 15 he quit school and did radio plays for the BBC.

For the next few years, he worked in English repertory companies as Michael Crawford, a name he picked from a Crawford's biscuit box. At 20 he made his West End stage debut in Come Blow Your Horn, then moved on to films (The Knack, Howl Won the War). Michael also found time to fall in love with Gabrielle Lewis, a pretty deejay at the Pickwick Club, a smart London hangout; they were married in 1965.

In 1967 Michael made his Broadway debut in Black Comedy and attracted the attention of Gene Kelly, then casting the movie Hello, Dolly! "Can you dance?" asked Kelly. Crawford worked literally 24 hours a day learning to soft-shoe. He won the part, and charmed audiences as the gangly shop assistant, playing opposite Barbra Streisand's matchmaker in the 1969 film.

In the early 1970s, Crawford entered a period he talks about with reluctance. "I acquired a business manager and lost all my money through bad investments," he explains. Struggling to recoup his finances, Crawford landed a role in the London farce No Sex Please—We're British in 1971. "I went into the theater at 12:30 in the afternoon. I needed the feeling of being there," he recalls, "but Gabrielle wanted me home." Tensions increased and they divorced in 1975. "The breakup was so painful I'm not sure I'd marry again," says Crawford. Gabrielle later had two sons by a British soccer star she never married. Michael settled down to a bachelor life in his London apartment and a cottage in Bedfordshire, 50 miles away. A subsequent long-term relationship with a dancer fell apart, he says, when she tried to push him to the altar.

In late 1985, after four years in the English production of Barnum, Michael was invited to Lloyd Webber's London flat to hear some of the music from Phantom. The composer had heard Crawford sing and was impressed with his range. (In Phantom, it must soar from baritone to falsetto.) "I suddenly stood up. My chest came out. My fingers extended as if I were conducting," recalls Crawford of the moment Lloyd Webber played eight bars of the overture. "I don't know where this came from. I never will."

He has remained transfixed through 600 performances on both sides of the Atlantic and hopes he will be asked to do the movie. Until his contract expires in October, Crawford is living alone in a Manhattan sublet and hanging out at the theater. "I have some girlfriends in England," he says. But so far it seems that no one has penetrated the Phantom's New York lair. "I go home most nights at 11:30 to a cold supper and Jackie Gleason reruns," says Crawford, adding with a smile, "Do you have any friends?" Still a touch homesick, he speaks frequently with his daughters. Emma, 21, is training with a London theater producer, and Lucy wants to study TV and film production.

So far, their dad's Phantom disguise and caution with interviewers has insured privacy. Yet, the day after the Broadway opening, Crawford had an anxious moment. "As I was walking down the street, six or eight people kept looking at me and nudging one another," he recalls. "I thought, 'They've seen pictures of me from the opening night party.' Then I discovered my zipper was undone. I guess the motto is: Keep your feet on the ground. No one really knows who you are."