Oscar-Winner Kevin Kline - the `American Olivier'. INTERVIEW. Though noted for classical roles, his film parts have ranged from antic to idealistic

THE erstwhile Hamlet, Henry V, Richard III, and Benedick is lounging by the pool at his Los Angeles hotel, as he talks long-distance about the glittering prizes in his life. Coming up next for Kevin Kline is the prestigious Second Annual William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre, which he will receive April 22 from the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger Library here in Washington. The ``Will Award,'' as it's called, comes a couple of weeks after his Academy Award as best supporting actor for his performance as Otto, the outrageously funny fascist in the comedy ``A Fish Called Wanda.''

Mr. Kline says of the Will Award, ``I was surprised and thrilled and moved.'' Initially he felt too young for such a laurel, but ``now I feel old, having been given the honor, downright venerable.'' The first Will Award was given last year to Joseph Papp, the director of the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Kline says, ``With the great Shakespearean roles, I think the big challenge is always to try to give to each of them its due. It's a gift, and it's a requirement. ... The dimensions are so multiple as to be dizzying.

``I mean, Hamlet is not merely a tortured soul; there is a great macabre, ironic humor to him; there is a great joy about him; there is a tremendous spiritual gift of the ability to enjoy life, to embrace life. The man has incredible scope. It's so vast. And I think, [acting Shakespeare is] giving all the colors their due....

``If you have any single idea for a character when it comes to the great Shakespearean roles, it's usually not enough. You can't play an idea. Those roles are too vast; they're too demanding. You have to just surrender to the scope of it. ... It's beyond ideas; that's why it has to be more instinctual.''

In announcing the award, the Shakespeare Theatre's artistic director, Michael Kahn, said, ``Kevin is one of our country's most talented and versatile actors. ... We recognize him for his recent brilliant portrayals of Richard III, Hamlet, and Benedick'' (in ``Much Ado About Nothing'' last summer at the New York Shakespeare Festival).

Kline hears those words read over a long-distance line, and there is a Pinteresque pause. ``Did he mention Henry V?''

Well, no he didn't.

``Interesting,'' says Kline in the dangerous voice of the Pirate King he played in Papp's stage and film versions of ``The Pirates of Penzance.'' Then he laughs. ``I thought it was for all the work I'd done in Shakespeare. Maybe they just omitted that through error.'' Pause. ``Maybe he hated it, and that's why it's excluded.''

A spokesman for Mr. Kahn says he was just citing plays within the last two years. ``He [Kahn] loved it. He loved his Henry V.''

The Will Award is given yearly to an actor, producer, director, or designer who has made a major contribution to keeping the classics alive for American audiences. Kline has been described as ``the American Olivier'' for his performances in leading roles in classic plays, from ``Measure for Measure'' to ``The Three Sisters,'' ``School for Scandal,'' and ``Arms and the Man.'' He has won two Tony Awards, for ``On the Twentieth Century'' and ``The Pirates of Penzance,'' as well as Obies for the Off Broadway ``Pirates'' and for ``Hamlet'' (where the Obie was for ``sustained achievement'').

New York Times drama critic Frank Rich gave Kline and Blythe Danner, who played Beatrice to his Benedick, a double bouquet in reviewing ``Much Ado'': ``Mr. Kline and Miss Danner demonstrate the highest standard of American Shakespearean performance by bringing physical ease and comedy to the characters without sacrificing any of the linguistic gymnastics.'' Mr. Rich also called Kline's performance ``hilarious and touching.'' Then he slipped in a zinger: ``Mr. Kline's movie performances have become more frequent without matching the excitement of his stage acting.'' KLINE, who says he never reads reviews, murmurs, ``Someone told me he had made some remark about my film work. So that's what it was. I couldn't agree more. I find that kind of egregiously obvious. ... Clearly the roles I've played in movies do not come close to Richard III, Henry V, or Benedick. Would that I could find a screenplay or a character as well written or exciting.''

His film roles have run the gamut from the charming psychopath lover in ``Sophie's Choice'' to the mellowed-out husband in Lawrence Kasdan's ``The Big Chill.'' They include the wry, idealistic loner in Kasdan's western ``Silverado,'' the romantic newspaper editor in ``Violets Are Blue,'' the editor who crusades for black South African activist Steve Biko in ``Cry Freedom,'' and the fiercely eccentric detective in ``The January Man,'' his latest role.

What does winning an Oscar mean to an actor like Kline? ``Well, they say it helps your bankability, but, you know, I've heard that it needn't necessarily. I think it's a very nice pat on the back for ... the part. It's a very funny part [Otto], and it got a lot of attention. What the academy and most awards don't recognize quite often is more subtle work. They tend to notice the more noticeable, obviously. But I'm very pleased and delighted....

``I really am not crazy about the part where [they've] got to narrow it down to one [choice]. I think it's silly. I think it's great as a celebration of the year in film, as the Tonys are a celebration of the year on Broadway. But anything that pits actors against other actors in a kind of unwitting competition [is dubious]. Acting is about everything but competitiveness. If actors are competing with one another, they're defeating their purpose.''

At that point Kline's driver appears by the pool. He is about to be whisked off for a shoot: ``I'm starting a movie, one for Larry Kasdan, a black comedy based on a true story, `I Love You to Death.''' But before hanging up the phone, Kline ticks off some names in the extraordinary cast: Tracey Ullman, Joan Plowright, William Hurt, River Phoenix, Norma Aleandro, Victoria Jackson. And the Hamlet of Hollywood says, ``Half of it will be shot in Hollywood, half in Tacoma, Washington.''

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