Actor puts a famous sleuth under his magnifying glass

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

More than half a billion people follow his every move, from the meticulous eating habits and cleansing rituals, to the now-trademark rapid short-stepped walk.

David Suchet's Hercule Poirot, the fussy sleuth created by Agatha Christie, has become a television hit in 53 countries.

Ever since the original series ended in 1994, fans have been calling for more installments. This month, A&E Television debuted "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd," the first of two new feature-length Poirot films it will air. The second, "Lord Edgware Dies," is not yet scheduled.

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Suchet's characterization of the Belgian private detective has brought him into millions of homes around the world, but it is stage and film work that anchor his solid career. The British actor moves easily from Shakespearean staples such as "The Merchant of Venice," "The Tempest," and "Othello" with the Royal Shakespeare Company, to more contemporary outings, including the role of George opposite Diana Rigg in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

His film credits include the recent thriller, "A Perfect Murder," as well as his introduction to the world of Poirot, the 1982 film "Evil Under the Sun," with Peter Ustinov in the title role and Suchet as Chief Inspector Japp. He is currently starring as Antonio Salieri in the Broadway revival of Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus," following successful runs in London and Los Angeles.

"Amadeus," winner of the 1981 Tony Award for Best Play, and an Oscar for Best Picture three years later, chronicles the life of the talented but jealous 18th-century Viennese court composer who felt his work being eclipsed by the young prodigy Mozart.

"Salieri has always been played as the villain of the piece," Suchet says between bites of fresh fruit in his dressing room at the Music Box Theatre. "That's very entertaining, and has worked well, but I'm always interested in bringing out the humanity of a character, at every level.

"I read Salieri not as two-dimensional, defined by the rumors that he poisoned Mozart. So I had lunch with Peter Shaffer, and asked him what he wanted the audience to go away thinking of this character. He said, 'I want them to feel rather sorry for him, in a strange way.' 'In that case,' I said, 'I'd love to play the role.' "

Suchet's drive to unearth all the layers of his character's personality infuses his work as Poirot too. "I'd only known him as a bit of a joke," he recalls, "even going way back to Charles Laughton. So before I said 'yes' to the role, I read all the books. I found that Christie had created a very complex, eccentric ... man, obsessive by nature.

"But she wrote his eccentricities with a measure of affection. And until her death, she was never happy with one portrayal of this, her most popular character."

One of his happiest moments came at a lunch with Christie's daughter in 1989. "She said to me, 'I believe my dear mother would have been delighted with what you have done.' I was very emotional. I come from a classical background, where most of the authors are not here to draw from. So my method of work has ... been textual study."

He approached Poirot with the same disciplined dedication, reading every one of the Poirot books, then set to work extracting nearly 100 pages of notes about the fastidious crime-solver.

That practice paid off when both he and the producer, after viewing initial film tests, felt that something was missing.

"We both said, at the same time, 'the way he walks!' "

Suchet discovered a passage in one of the novels in which Christie described Poirot as 'crossing the lawn with his usual rapid mincing gait, with his feet tightly and painfully enclosed in his patent leather boots.' That prissy little walk was perfect for that prissy little man."

But Suchet has been careful about these eccentricities.

"The Christie estate was pleased with how I approached the role, telling me that we want people to smile with him, not laugh at him," he says.

Looking back more than a dozen years since he started the Poirot series, Suchet says, "The more I revisit the stories, I find a lonely person, which I may have missed in the very early episodes, where Agatha Christie has him wishing he had married, wishing he had children. I now play that strain, that tension."

He is looking forward to portraying two other larger-than-life characters, both drawn from history. His drive to humanize his roles is once again influencing his choices. "I'd like to do a serious story about Napoleon," he says, "because I'm fascinated by the psychology of that character.

"Critics seem to like two-dimensional characters, and certainly [Mr. Shaffer's] been criticized for what they perceive as his defaming Salieri. But they never seem to mention Shakespeare's treatment of Richard III, who was a marvelous king, without a hump - and no limp!"

And will Hercule Poirot surface again? "My wish, as an actor, is that I do ... the remaining 24 books. In the last one, 'Curtain,' he dies. I'd love to leave that complete body of work behind."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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