At the bottom of a mine shaft or the top of Mt. Rushmore you'd recognize that unmistakable voice. No need to see its owner. It is rich as raw silk, urbane, world weary, and unmistakably English, the voice that's launched 100 films, the voice of James Mason.

It is the voice that welcomed Warren Beatty to the celestial jumbo jet in "Heaven Can Wait," the voice of the man that got away from Judy Garland in "A Star is Born," the voice of the hunted IRA gunman in "Odd Man Out."

Right now the voice is purring into the hotel room phone as he briefs a friend on a Washington power party the night before. "They seemed to be having a good time at being jollym senators. . . . Yes, I suppose there are times when they're hostile and ugly senators. . . . Uh, No," he says, and you can hear the eyebrow arching in the direction of the press, "I don't think I could relate any hot gossip at the moment."

He says goodbye, crosses stage left to where the reporter and photographer wait, and says in the familiar gentlemanly voice of discretion, "I didn't repeat any hot gossip because you're in the room." With the line goes a smile that would charm the birds out of the trees or even "A Partridge in a Pear Tree." That is the title of the comedy-mystery James Mason and his wife, actress Clarissa Kaye, are appearing in at Kennedy Center here. Washington reviewers have winged "Partridge" with their critical buckshot, but at this writing the play is scheduled for a tour of several cities across the country.

Mason has doffed the British judge's black robes and long white sheep's wool wig he wears in the play and is sporting a navy blue tie rife with tiny white teddy bears, as well as a Snoopy tie clasp. With this he wears a circumspect outfit: navy trousers and blazer, navy sweater vest, white shirt.

James Mason admits he takes off his roles as easily as he takes off his robes. "I've never allowed my personal life to be infected by this imagined person," is the way he puts it in a long explanation of what acting is to him:

It's the building up in one's imagination and one's mind a character whom one gets to know extremely well by the process of thought, and extending one's imagination to comprehend this particular man who has been written about and whom you are about to attempt to mimic.

"To me mimicry is a very important part of acting. It is the basic of acting , in fact. You can mimic in very simple terms, as children mimic their parents. Or it can be performed in a very complicated manner, in so far as you have to mimic not only the superficial surface of the character, but also all his mind as well, which encompasses his emotional experience and his aspirations and his knowledge.

"All these things you have to understand and put them together in one lump in his mind and then proceed to mimic it. Yes, his mind too, you have to do that to be him, you see. But it doesn't mean that you yourself have to be him. So I've never had the least temptation to allow my personal life or behavior to be infected by this imagined person whom I professionally mimic from day to day."

The prince of mimics defends that rather detached view of acting: "I know that there are actors who take their work home with them to the extent that their wives find them absolutely unendurable. A wife told me of an actor who shall remain nameless. I met her one day and she'd separated from her husband. She said, 'Oh, well, you know it was rough going, but when I found out I was having dinner every night with Napoleon, that was the end.'"

Morgan Mason, the actor's son, says his father never brought his roles home and inflicted them on the family. "He's very detached, typical of the English actors who worked with the Old Vic, a very professional actor, not a method actor. The only way I ever knew what he was in was by his wardrobe. . . . If it was a member of Parliament, he would wear suits with vests and a bowler and carry an umbrella. Otherwise, he never brought it home at all."

Both Morgan Mason, who had been working for the Reagan inaugural team, and his sister, Portland, are Mason's grown children by his first marriage to Pamela Kellino.

He describes his father as a creature of habit whose clockwork upbringing in British schools means that he will not allow himself to be hungry until it's the proper hour for lunch or tea, but who also has an iconoclastic sense of humor.At home in Switzerland he reads the news aloud to the family, imitating all the voices of the names in the news, as he did during the Watergate cover-up trial. He relished the trial, even showed up for a few days in the courtroom -- to the time. But they didn't . . ." he rages quietly for a moment, in the utmost good taste.

"First on my list to tear down is the Knightsbridge barracks, the barracks for the Royal horse Guards on the Knightsbridge side of Hyde Park. . . . It's a total abomination and fills me with wrath" he draws the word out in a peppery disdain "every time I see it. . . . There are only a few occasions in the last 20 years that I remember being grossly furious at. One time when I came back to London I saw suddenly sticking up like a sore thumb in the middle of the West End of London the Hilton; I felt so furious. I mean, how could they allow such a thing to happen? There's a nice, even skyline that we've grown to live with and love for many years. . . ." He breaks off to say softly, "OK, luv," to his wife, Clarissa Kaye, as she exits in a ranch mink coat.

They have been together for nearly 10 years, ever since he met the successful Australian actress while they were filming "Age of Consent" in Australia. She has large dark eyes, strong features, sleek black hair pulled back from her face. They have appeared together several times, last season on Broadway in Brian Friel's critically acclaimed but uncommercial play "The Faith Healer," as well as in "Frankenstein: The True Story" and "Salem's Lot," both TV movies.

How important is it for the two of them to work together, like the Lunts, in terms of theater and marriage? He thinks through his extraordinary answer before speaking:

"Well, the thing in our case is this," he says finally. "Clarissa is Australian, and I think she's a magnificent actress and I can't think of a better, offhand. . . . And since she is such a good actress it seems a shame that I should do all the acting and that she should do none, because nobody knew of her in the United States or England. So I've tried to get to act with her. . . . These [plays] are very good opportunities for us to act as a team, and I would like her sometimes to be involved in some success [here] in something so that people would give her the opportunities which come only to people associated with some successes, you know."

Having made that extraordinarily loving and supportive statement, he gives an embarrassed little smile. "It's not an affection, it's perfectly true. I have a little fantasy of sort of reliving 'A Star Is Born' [the film in which he starred with Judy Garland] up to a certain point. That is to say, I'd be perfectly happy if I were overtaken careerwise by my wife, and I would stay at home and practice my golf shots. But I would draw the line at walking into Lake Geneva and putting an end [to himself]," like the character in "Star" who walked into the ocean. "I'd cancel that," he says, laughing."I'd strike that scene. . . . Just as she would be perfectly happy to support me, I would be perfectly happy to support her. I certainly don't intend to set up a husband-wife marriage in which she's off making a film in Australia and I'm making a film in England, because that is not the recipe for a successful marriage. It's very nice to work together, it's nice to travel together, it's nice to be together."

He is sitting with one leg folded under him on a squooshy cream-colored couch , his hands locked behind his head in a modified yoga position. He and his wife practice yoga for half an hour a day, jog together, and do not drink coffee or eat red meat, white flour, or cheese. Outside the hotel room window the Potomac is frozen gray and solid on a dark midwinter afternoon. He is backlit, in the way film stars often are in movies, so that the winter afternoon's subdued light falls on his steel gray hair, and the arresting face with its thick black eyebrows, dark brown eyes, wide cheekbones, and long, full mouth. Strangely, for an actor, it seems a face more used to watching than being watched.

James Mason has been called suave so often that you wonder whether it's something he's worked at consciously or whether it is a byproduct of his own life and education. "No," he says, shaking the word suave off like a hornet. "I don't think of myself as a suavem person at all. I think that's a word applied to me by American critics. . . . I don't think I'm referred to by the word suave in England. But I was introduced to American audiences by films like 'The Seventh Veil' and costume pictures like 'The Man In Gray,' and so people started thinking of me as a sort of suave type."

How does he see himself, then?

"Oh, I would refer to myself as quiet, you know, the word for someone who practices quietness on the social scene -- self-effacing, pragmatic, and adaptable."

He was born in Yorkshire, England, Bronte country, in a town called Huddersfield (pronounced "Oodersfield"). His father was a textile merchant who worked very hard, worried a good deal, and provided his family with a very good life. He could afford to send his children to public school (which in England is private school) and to university: in Mason's case, Cambridge.

When James Mason is asked which of his roles is most like him, he hesitates and then says, ever so regretfully, "It probably would be some film you've never seen. I've made so many films, some of them are quite good, in fact, without necessarily being easily marketable. Any of these conflicting loyalty stories I've found very easy to get into."

Are there then, conflicting loyalties in his own life?

"No. It's partly because I'm an actor, I think. An actor is a man who by his very nature can understand many people's points of view and sympathize with them. People, for instance, often say or refer to some role I have played as being a heavy. . . ."m He drops the word like a burnt muffin "which sometimes gives me a shock, because I haven't played it or even been aware when I was playing it that it was a heavy. In order to be able to play [a part], I have gotten to understand so well the reservations of the man and the nature of the man I am playing that I am, as it were, behind the character, and motivating the actions of this man.

"Take, for instance, Humbert Humbert" -- the older man tormented by his desire for a pre-teen "nymphet" in the film version of Nabokov's "Lolita." "You couldn't refer to him as a heavy, he was just a man who had this unfortunate perversion, taste, obsession -- call it what you like. Another one is the man in 'The Seventh Veil' who is a possessive, dominating man given even to outbursts of violence, because he was a passionate man and couldn't always control his passions. I do find myself playing characters who are torn between conflicting loyalties, shall we say. . . ."

In "The Deadly Affair," for instance, he played the early version of John le Carre's British intelligence kingpin, George Smiley, giving the role a special poignancy in the scenes involving Smiley's passionate devotion to his unfaithful wife, who nearly betrayed his cause, too. "Conflicting emotions," as Mason says; again, in "Five Fingers" he played a man torn between his country and his greed, the true story of a British ambassador's debonair valet who turned spy, selling World War II intelligence secrets to the Nazis. And yet there he was playing with compassion the role of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel twice, once in "The Desert Fox," again in "The Desert Rats" because "I admired him, found him an intriguing and important and tragic life."

Perhaps the greatest conflict came in the role that is his favorite, that of the doomed IRA gunman in Carol Reed's "Odd Man Out," the man whose conflict lies tragically between his revolutionary idealism and his own life. In that unforgettable performance, his face mirrors the mute anguish of every hunted man. He did not receive an Academy Award for it nor the role he's often remembered in (his son's favorite), that of the tragic, alcoholic husband in "A Star Is Born." He was, however, nominated for an Oscar for that role as well as for that of Lynn Redgrave's passionate aging suitor in "Georgy Girl."

Mr. Mason will probably talk about his roles in those films in his forthcoming autobiography, to be published in England. No title yet that he wanted to discuss: He's still in the editing stage.

I don't expect it to be a big seller because I'm not going to introduce anything which is spicy or lurid. I was going to avoid offending people in my business, at any rate. . . . There are, of course, stories which one can tell. One of the endearing things about Judy Garland, you know, was that she really was a funny lady. She kept you laughing. She was witty and high-spirited and told funny stories. And the stories she told were always stories in which she appeared as the dummy, which was very endearing."

But, he continues, "you actually can't tell all [about Hollywood]. . . . I mean, I certainly wouldn't got into this sex tell- all business because it's no one's business at all. It's an entirely different type of uh, work." He smiles.

"So I wouldn't do that. And I wouldn't need to tell all that one would tell one's friends about one's professional experiences, because your fun and amusing professional yarns, which are constantly being exchanged among professional people, depend for their existence on a heavy. You know, you've got to set up a heavy in order to make the story interesting. It's either some boring actor or some larcenous producer or someone like that, who puts us all into a predicament which is hilariously funny."

So there will be anything lurid in James Mason's autobiography, but there will certainly be something finely edged with satire. He is, after all, the actor whose three favorite writers are Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, and Flann O'Brien, and whose favorite painter is Goya.

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