A Bloke Named Robert Lindsay Wows Broadway in Me and My Girl

updated 09/01/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/01/1986 01:00AM

The black tap shoes were sparkling and squeaky new, the spirit was willing, but the body seemed determined to do its inhabitant out of the role. An anxious Robert Lindsay was shuffling miserably about a London rehearsal hall one steamy summer day in 1984. His jeans clung to his legs like armor. "Step, ball, change. Step, ball, change," drilled choreographer Gillian Gregory. It was her task to see if this British classical actor could dance well enough to play the lead in a new version of the 1937 musical Me and My Girl. "I couldn't work out how to get the tap to the floor, and even if I could, how could I get it in time to the music?" recalls Lindsay, 36, whose only previous brush with fancy footwork had been twirling his mum and a girl or two around a dance floor. "I was a physical wreck. My left knee was across my chest and my right elbow was above my head. For the first time in my life, I felt totally out of control."

The director and the producers had been captivated by Lindsay's winsome manner, his reedy alto voice and his comic acting skills, sharpened earlier in a series of popular British sitcoms. But as a dancer, he was risky. Assured by Gregory that "with work, he'll make it," they gave him a crash 2½-month course in tap. By the time the show opened in London that winter, its star was a virtuoso dancer, and the British were bedazzled.

At the Broadway opening two weeks ago, audiences, too, were smitten, making this fanciful tale of Bill Snibson (a cockney lad from lower-class Lambeth who learns that he is the long-lost Earl of Hareford) a certified smash. The box office boasts $3 million in advance sales. The show's slight (5'10", 155-pound) star enjoyed a critical coronation. "The extraordinary Mr. Lindsay, who makes a nonstop charade or intricate vocal and physical details look relaxed, compels us to cherish his every syllable, wink and step," gushed the New York Times.

Lindsay's frenetic performance was lovingly crafted after hours of viewing old movie clips. "I tried to combine Chaplin and Keaton, even Eddie Cantor and Eddie Murphy," he says. "I felt that at the heart of the story was a universal clown, and I tried to find him." Lindsay says his cockney creation now has a life of his own. "I feel I'm someone else onstage," he reflects. "I feel reckless. I think the show has to have an element of danger."

Part of his madcap stage antics included adding to the hoary one-liners that already existed in the script. When a society girl asks the new Lord Hare-ford: "Do you like Kipling?" he counters: "I dunno. I've never kipled." Then there's the time Heathersett the butler asks: "Aperitif, m'lord?" Tapping his front dentures, Lindsay deadpans: "No, thanks. I've got me own."

There is little of this glib, quicksilver personality in the reflective Englishman chain-smoking in his Manhattan hotel suite. "I'm not a comic. I don't do stand-up routines," says Lindsay, whose tastes lean more to D.H. Lawrence and the serenity of his walled English garden. His favorite denim jacket slung over a chair says more about him than the roses and gifts of champagne in the room. Until Me and My Girl, Lindsay had never been in America. He'll never forget his first day in New York last March, when he was flown in to meet his U.S. co-star, Maryann Plunkett, and invited to lunch with the producers at the elegant restaurant La Côte Basque. "I was wearing my jeans and sneakers. I'd been to the Empire State Building and had been breakfasting on pastrami on rye at the deli and was carrying two big paper bags full of gifts," he recalls. "I walked into the restaurant, and it was like when Bill Snibson walks into Hareford Hall. I had never seen such wealth in my life. Then, right behind me was Celeste Holm, you know, from High Society, and I started to panic. I said, 'I can't handle this. I'm a working-class boy.' "

Lindsay's trade-unionist roots are in the English Midlands town of Ilkeston, notable, he likes to point out, for its proximity to Eastwood, where D.H. Lawrence was born. The men in his family were miners, though his father is a retired carpenter; Robert's mother was once a cleaning woman. "I identified with Lawrence early on because he, too, had aspirations to do something else, to get out and travel," says Lindsay. Always a good student, he enrolled in a local technical college after high school and got involved in the drama department. In 1968, at 17, he dared apply to London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and was accepted on a government grant. Graduating two years later with a thorough training in movement and voice, he started out as an assistant stage manager in Exeter and soon moved on to a regional theater group. In 1972 Lindsay made his West End debut as Jesus in Godspell. The next year he began his TV career and by 1977 was widely known as a Che Guevara-style revolutionary in the sitcom Citizen Smith. Wanting to be taken seriously, he joined the Manchester Royal Exchange in 1978 and began playing classical roles, including Hamlet. Lindsay's Edmund to Laurence Olivier's King Lear was televised and brought to the U.S. in 1984.

For the last seven years, the steadying force behind Lindsay's work has been Diana Weston, 33, a Canadian-born stage and TV actress. "I can go out on a limb in my work, because I have the security of Di and home to fall back on," says Lindsay. "When she's not around, I feel on a knife's edge." The two began living together in 1980, after Robert was divorced from his wife, Cheryl Hall, a British actress he married in 1974 at age 24. "They used to fight tooth and nail. When we first met, Robert expected me to yell at him all the time," says Weston, who has put her career second to his. "I want to make life carefree for him," she explains. To that end, she plans to fly to New York every month.

Once his six-month commitment on Broadway is over, Lindsay is eager to return to their Victorian terraced house in Chiswick, seven miles outside London. Broadway's new prince then plans a wedding to his Lady Di, as he calls her, and fatherhood, whichever comes first. So far, Lindsay has no immediate career plans other than a desire to sit back and see what is offered. "I've reached the stage where I don't have to plan," he says. "Whatever I do, I want it to turn into an event."

Immediately, second thoughts arise. The current excitement has already brought on insomnia, a tendency to stare off into space and a sense that the old, down-to-earth chap is slipping away. "The more famous I get, the more remote I'm afraid I'll become from people I know," says Lindsay. On opening night, he hung a banner embellished with British trade-union symbols in his dressing room. "Just so I'll remember my roots," says the carpenter's son, who has crafted a special place for himself on Broadway.

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