Ring-a-Ding Ringer

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

originally published 11/09/1992 01:00AM

LAST PRESIDENTS' DAY, A FEW WEEKS AFTER he had been cast in the title role of Sinatra and just days before he would begin shooting the five-hour CBS miniseries (airing Nov. 8 and 10), actor Philip Casnoff got his first—and only—glimpse of Ol' Blue Eyes. Casnoff recalls the encounter, on a deserted Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif., as "eerie." Sinatra, who had shown up to pose for publicity photos with the cast—and was flanked by his personal entourage of publicists, gofers and bodyguards—said barely a word. "He was uncomfortable among strangers. And he didn't know me from Adam," says the soft-spoken Casnoff, best recalled by TV audiences as a swaggering Confederate officer in the 1985 ABC miniseries North and South and its 1986 sequel.

In Sinatra, a glossy yet at times unflattering biodrama (produced, with Sinatra's permission, by daughter Tina, 44), Casnoff portrays the entertainer as a compulsive womanizer, a hotheaded brawler and an unapologetic fraternizer with mafiosi.

To break the ice, the 38-year-old actor, who plays the 77-year-old crooner from ages 18 to 59, began to rap with him about his music. " 'There was this time he was working with Tommy Dorsey's band, and the story was he could hold his breath for an entire line of 'I'll Never Smile Again,' an impossible feat for most singers," says Casnoff, a trained tenor and 15-year Broadway veteran (Chess; Shogun, the Musical) who, onscreen, lip-syncs mainly to Sinatra recordings. "I asked him how he did it. He looked at me and said, 'Oh, I cheated. I took a couple of back breaths.' "

There was more, much more, that Casnoff wanted to ask. (Unable to meet Sinatra earlier because of the crooner's crowded concert schedule, Casnoff had to rely on Frank's movies and TV concerts and interviews to capture the famous Hoboken tough-guy inflections and mannerisms.) But now the cameras started clicking away, and a mere half hour later, the Chairman of the Board was gone, his minions in tow. Casnoff has not seen him since, nor has he heard what Sinatra (who recently screened the miniseries at his Rancho Mirage, Calif., retreat) thinks of his performance. Well, pal, to quote a Sinatra standard: That's life.

Otherwise (to borrow from another lyric), it's been a very good year for Philip Casnoff. After two exhausting auditions, he beat out 20 other actors vying to play the king of the Rat Pack. His uncanny resemblance to the skinny, doe-eyed '40s matinee idol "knocked my socks off," says Tina. "Phil was so into that role," says Nina Siemaszko, who plays Mia Farrow, Sinatra's third wife. "He was as cocky as they got. Very egotistical at times and very charming."

Yet Casnoffs own past hardly matches the Hoboken Kid's. Born and raised in Philadelphia (his father, Robert, is part-owner of a sporting goods company; his mother, Harriette, is a legal secretary), Casnoff first took up acting as an off-campus lark while majoring in French at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. After graduating in 1974, he worked steadily onstage and TV (Hands of a Stranger, Ironclads). But it all nearly came crashing down, literally, during a preview performance of Shogun, the Musical in 1990, when a 30-pound piece of scenery struck Casnoff on the head, knocking him out. Rushed to the hospital, he was back onstage two nights later, greeted by thunderous applause.

"Having a ceiling fall on your head puts things in perspective," he reflects. "Having a child [Alexander, now 5, his son by actress wife Roxanne Hart] really puts things in perspective. If you have a bad audition and then come home and he's there doing his stuff, it just makes you smile and forget it."

Now, with Hart (a semiregular on HBO's Dream On) nine months pregnant with their second child, Casnoff, like his wife, is showing a pragmatic' side. Though both are diehard New Yorkers, they've chosen to rent a cozy one-story hillside house in L.A. (once owned, coincidentally, by Nancy Sinatra Jr. and her first husband, singer Tommy Sands) because, says Casnoff, "there's more work out here now."

Some of Sinatra's swagger seems already to have rubbed off. Indeed, Casnoff remembers his go-rounds with hands-on producer Tina over how to play scenes. "If we disagreed," he says, "we generally played it my way."

Her old man couldn't have put it better.

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
DORIS BACON in Los Angeles

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