Thanks to Long-Gone William, Actor Richard Wordsworth Finds His Best Role In, Oh, 200 Years

updated 02/15/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/15/1988 01:00AM

Enough, if something from our hands have power/ To live, and act, and serve the future hour.
William Wordsworth, 1820

Despite the daylong snowfall, a crowd of nearly 200 has filed into the Great Hall of Drew University in Madison, N.J. While folding chairs are hurriedly set up to handle the unexpected crush, Richard Wordsworth, the evening's star attraction—and great-great-grandson of immortal English Romantic poet William Wordsworth—is standing offstage, chatting about life in the theater. "Noël Coward told me that one time during a performance he accidentally let one rip. 'I was trying for a little sneaker but let out a real ripsnorter that everyone heard,' Coward said. The actress playing his mother went ahead with her next line, which happened to be, 'Dear, I wish you'd stop grinding your teeth so loud.' It brought down the house."

Having pleased the backstage crowd with his little story, Wordsworth strides off to try his luck with the folks out front. He is here to perform his one-man show, The Bliss of Solitude, based on the writings of his famous forebear. For the next two hours, in accents shaded by Cambridge schooling and Shakespearean training, he fills the old, high-ceilinged Gothic room with prose and poetry dating from the 1790s. With a change of inflection, he plays the poet one moment, a friend the next, and even Wordsworth's sister. When, at last, he takes his final bow, it is to a standing ovation. "They asked me if I wanted to use a microphone," he recalls later, clearly pleased by the reception, "but I told them it wouldn't be necessary. I've been around theaters long enough to know how to work a room."

Wordsworth, 72, has been around theaters for half a century, to be precise. Born near Birmingham, England, he had originally intended to follow his father into the ministry, but changed his mind while at college. "Whatever the opposite of seeing the light was...I saw the dark," he says. "The church was not for me." In 1938 he auditioned for director Tyrone Guthrie at the Old Vic. "Would four pounds a week be satisfactory?" Wordsworth remembers Guthrie asking. "I answered, 'Yes, yes...or three!' "

In the years to come Wordsworth would take the Bard to the boards in supporting roles with Guinness, Gielgud, Burton and other leading actors of the era. He toured America with the Old Vic repertory company, performed in musicals in Australia, played Captain Hook in Peter Pan and Fagin in Oliver! and starred in a 1956 film, The Creeping Unknown, as the sole survivor of a space mission. "I emerge a creature that gradually turns into a vegetable." he recalls with glee. "I loved making that movie."

In 1970, the bicentennial of William's birth, Richard mixed some poetry, essays and letters "with a bit of a story" and created his traveling tribute to his great-great-grandpa. That and his still-active stage career now keep him on the road for much of the year with his second wife, Sylvia, 41, and away from his tiny home in the English Lake District, so beloved by his celebrated ancestor. During its 17 years of performances, the show "has made a little bit of money," he says contentedly. "I have used the name to my advantage." Better yet, judging from his reception on a snowy night in New Jersey, to his audience's as well.

—Written by Roger Wolmuth, reported by Jamie M. Saul

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