Roping in the Raves

updated 09/30/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/30/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE CURTAIN GOES UP AT NEW YORK CITY'S PALACE THEATRE, and a long rope comes dangling down over a line of high-stepping dancers. Suddenly a lean figure in boots, chaps and a cowboy hat slides down the rope, lands onstage, flashes a wide, horsey grin at the startled audience and drawls, "That was quite an entrance, wasn't it?"

With that offhand little intimacy, Keith Carradine, 42, becomes Will Rogers, America's favorite homespun sage and the subject of the extravagant $6.25 million Tony-winning Broadway musical The Will Rogers Follies. Even critics who are lukewarm about this homage to the late humorist have been enthusiastic about the way Carradine sings, dances and cracker-barrels through the performance. Wrote Howard Kissel in the New York Daily News: "It's hard to think of any recent Broadway performer with so much natural charm."

It's also hard to think of any actor on either coast as suspicious of his charms as Carradine. "It's a funny thing," he says, "but I have a virtually unblemished record for not getting things for which I audition. There are three exceptions: Hair, Emperor of the North and this."

Yet demur as he will, Carradine's talents are undeniable. This is his third trip to Broadway; he was there previously with Hair in 1969 and Foxfire, with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, 13 years later. Between visits he has made some twoscore movies and TV films, playing, variously, a randy musician in 1975's Nashville (for which he won an Oscar for writing the song I'm Easy), a voyeuristic photographer in Pretty Baby, a Napoleonic officer in The Duellists and a serial killer in CBS's Chiefs. He's also hit the long road as a guitarist and singer with his band over the years and cut two albums. In short he has enjoyed a solid if unspectacular career until now, when ticket buyers are filling the theater where Will Rogers himself—and Keith's own father—once played. Says Carradine: "There are a lot of wonderful old ghosts in this place."

The paternal ghost is, of course, John Carradine, one of the great character actors of all time. True, he only played the Palace once (in Frankenstein, which closed the day it opened in 1981), but that scarcely dims the late actor's luster. The elder Carradine made more movies than anyone can count (The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach) and cultivated a tangled family tree to rival any prince of Araby. In the course of four marriages, he produced five sons and acquired two stepsons. David, 54 (Kung Fu, Bound for Glory), is Keith's half brother from Carradine père's first marriage; Christopher, 44, a Disney architect, Robert, 37, also an actor (Revenge of the Nerds) and Keith are full brothers by their father's second marriage, to actress Sonia Sorel. of his checkered Hollywood upbringing, Carradine says, "There was a part of me that felt special because of who my father was. But we didn't hang around movie sets. My father didn't want his kids to be movie brats. He wanted normalcy." Keith laughs. "Of course in my family there was anything but normalcy."

Too true. Keith's parents divorced when he was 6 and waged a bitter custody battle for the three boys. For a month Keith and Christopher were wards of the court and had to live in a juvenile hall, complete with bars on the windows. In 1958 Carradine finally won custody of his sons. Says Keith: "I didn't see my mother from age 8 until I was 14." (She now lives in southern California, supported by her sons.)

Yet despite this turmoil, Keith emerged as what one reporter called the family's "white sheep." Carradine laughs at the description. "I guess what he meant was that in a family full of eccentrics, my behavior was the least aberrational." He excelled at sports in school and showed promise as a painter "until I figured out that girls were more interested in guys who played the guitar than in guys who painted." He quit after three months at Colorado State University to take up his father's profession—against his father's advice.

His real mentor was David, who took Keith into his home when he moved to L.A. in 1968. "He was the single greatest influence of my life at a very formative stage," says Keith. "There were about two years there where he was more of a father to me than my father was." It was thanks to David that Keith landed his first job. David auditioned for Hair and brought Keith along to play the piano; Keith got the part instead.

It was not their last competition. David beat Keith out for the role of Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory, while Keith won out for Pretty Baby. These weren't grudge matches, though; the brothers are all very close—and to the uninitiated, sometimes interchangeable. In 1981, after Keith had broken off a long relationship with actress Christina Raines, he met another actress, Sandra Will, at a party. "He was adorable," says Sandra, now his wife of nine years. "But the whole while I was talking to him. I thought he was David. Identities resolved, Keith and Sandra were married the following year and now have two children: Caleb, 9, and Sorel, 6. Keith is also the father of actress Martha Plimpton, 20; he met her mother, Shelley Plimpton, during Hair's Broadway run. ("I ran away from that one," says Carradine, who didn't even meet his daughter until she was 4. "I was in touch with her, but not nearly enough.")

For Keith and family, the one hitch in the Will Rogers gitalong is that they've all had to move to New York City for the school year. "It's hardest on the kids," says Keith. "They've always been able to walk out the door and play." The Carradines expect to return home to Topanga, Calif., next June when Keith's contract is up. They plan to settle eventually in Telluride, Colo., where Sandra is spearheading a celebrity-studded effort to restore an old opera house. "Our dream is to live there and run a little theater," says Carradine. "I'd love to be able to develop a play there and take it to New York." Not the usual actor's ambition, but it suits the low-key Carradine just fine. "I was never looking to be a populist," he explains. "I wanted a classy career, to he associated with things of artistic merit. My name opened a few doors, but once I walked in, I was expected to show my stuff. I guess," he adds with a laugh, "I had enough to get me going."

TOBY KAHN in New York City

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