More Hell from Harry

updated 11/09/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/09/1992 01:00AM

IN A YEAR IN WHICH VOTERS SEEMED TO have a tomato, and a skeptical eye, for just about anyone mounting a podium, one politician came through unscathed—and still trusted. The fact that Harry S. Truman, the nation's 33rd President, has been in his grave in Independence, Mo., for 20 years hardly seemed to matter. First, David McCullough published his acclaimed biography, Truman, and watched it climb The New York Times best-seller list. But even McCullough's full-blooded literaly incarnation pales beside the prickly, plainspoken Truman who is robustly alive and well in Miami.

On the stage of the Coconut Grove Playhouse, actor Kevin McCarthy is re-creating this election year's most popular pol every night. Donning a pair of wire-rim glasses, he climbs aboard the train-platform set and launches into a fiery whistle-stop speech. Trickle-down economics, he says, giving fellow Democrat Bill Clinton a not-so-inadvertent boost, "is like fertilizing a tree from the top instead of the roots." Cocking his head to hear an imaginary listener yell, "Give 'em hell, Harry!" he replies happily: "I'm not giving 'em hell. I'm just telling the truth on the Republicans, and it makes them feel like I'm giving 'em hell."

A veteran Hollywood and stage performer, McCarthy, 78, has spent the last 14 years touring the country in the one-man show Give 'Em Hell Harry! Now he has taken his act to Miami on a mission of mercy. During October and November, he will do 40 shows at the state-subsidized Coconut Grove Playhouse, which otherwise might not sell enough tickets to get through the season in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. His show is much cheaper to mount than the originally scheduled Christmas program, and McCarthy will donate half of his usual fee to get the theater through these lean times. And in an election in which nostalgia for Truman has been running high, McCarthy, a lifelong Democrat, is trying to evoke the homely virtues he believes Truman personified. "Truman was extremely practical, yet he had ideals, old-fashioned notions of decent living," he says. "There wasn't a taint of scandal around him."

McCarthy began playing Truman in 1978. James Whitmore, who originated the role, had taken it on the road in 1975. Reluctant when he was first approached by playwright Samuel Gallu to revive the show because he didn't think he was right for the part, McCarthy soon became wild about Harry. He spent hours poring over documents, including the presidential archives at the Truman Library in Independence. "I held notes that he took when he met Stalin and notes he wrote to himself," says McCarthy. "They were astonishing—naive, profound and wise." Truman's daughter, Margaret, saw the play in 1982 and later wrote McCarthy, saying, "You were superb." So when the Coconut Grove Playhouse, in desperate straits, called him at his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif., he promptly said goodbye to his second wife, Kale, 41, and children Tess, 12, and Patrick, 10. "I thought it would be thrilling to see Harry ride to the rescue," he says.

One of four children of a Seattle lawyer and his homemaker wife, Kevin and his brothers and sister (the late writer Mary McCarthy) lived with relatives and at boarding schools after their parents died in an influenza epidemic when he was 4. An undisciplined student, he struggled at Georgetown University and later attended the University of Minnesota, where he landed his first acting role—in Henry IV, Part I—on a dare. He moved to New York City in 1938 and along with new friends including Montgomery Gift and Marlon Brando was an early member of the Actors Studio. He broke into film as Biff in 1951 's Death of a Salesman and played leading roles in the 1956 cult classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the 1981-82 TV series Flamingo Road.

McCarthy, who appears in the upcoming movies Matinee, with John Goodman, and The Distinguished Gentleman, with Eddie Murphy, says nothing has been as challenging as Give 'Em Hell. "A one-man show is kind of a stunt. When you're trying to talk to General MacArthur and he's not talking back to you, you really have to concentrate." Nor has any role left him so taken with his character. "I feel kind of lonely sometimes—there's this frustration that I'll never meet Harry," he says. "It's almost like an unrequited love."

PAULA CHIN
CINDY DAMPIER in Miami

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