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A conversation with Scrooge

On stage with Lloyd Saxon

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

ALBANY -- Nearly everyone, it seems, has a clear picture of Ebenezer Scrooge.

The tight-fisted miser who gave fellow business-those who owed him money and his poor clerk Bob Cratchit such a fit in "A Christmas Carol" has made a remarkable impression since his birth in the 1843 novel by Charles Dickens. Even his name -- Scrooge -- has become synonymous with greed and avarice.

Dickens himself describes the character early on in his story as, "A tight-fisted hand at the grindstone ... a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!"

But the part of the character that is Scrooge that often escapes us is the man be becomes at the end of his life-changing visits by four spirits: the ghost of his dead business partner and the ghosts of Christmases past, present and yet to come.

In the end, Dickens says Scrooge "became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town or borough, in the good old world. ... His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him."

Getting a character from one such extreme to the other in a believable manner is a challenge, and more so when a character is as tremendously popular and deeply ingrained in Christmas's trappings as Scrooge. He's been portrayed in every imaginable entertainment venue, from stage plays to readings to films (the first was in 1901) to TV specials to cartoons. It's also a challenge for an actor to live up to the presentations of the likes of Alastair Sim -- still applauded as the best ever film Scrooge with his three-dimensional performance of the character in the 1951 film -- Reginald Owen, George C. Scott and, most recently, Patrick Stewart. An animated movie with Jim Carrey in the role was in theaters last year and has just been released on DVD.

In Albany, Lloyd Saxon, 80, has played the role twice at Theatre Albany and is preparing for his third performance when the curtain rises Thursday night on theater Director Mark Costello's stage adaptation of "A Christmas Carol."

Saxon, a native of Arlington who has lived in Albany since 1956, got into acting when he was 50, and this will be his 41st Theatre Albany production since 1979. In an interview at the theater at 514 Pine Ave., Saxon talked about his approach to playing Scrooge and his unexpected immersion in local theater.

ALBANY HERALD: What's your approach to portraying such a well-known character as Scrooge?

LLOYD SAXON: This is my third time doing the show. The first time, I did not see anybody's characterization of Scrooge. I have since that time seen George C. Scott and, of course, Alastair Sim ... I've seen his. I've pretty much kept to the same character I started out with in 1995 when we first did this. So, what you see is my own interpretation. I don't think I've changed anything at all since that time. It's pretty much the same character that it was back then.

AH: Director Mark Costello says the play will be characters at a Victorian Christmas party playing characters from "A Christmas Carol." Is it tough playing a character who's playing a character?

LS: It's pretty much the same thing that we've done. There's probably going to be a little more imagination in some of the things that we do. I don't know that (Costello's) going to use a lot of props in every scene that we do. Some will be imaginary things. It is the same story as we have done before.

AH: Before you played Scrooge, did you read "A Christmas Carol"?

LS: No, only the versions that you see on TV. I'd seen some of those in the way, way past. I don't remember who played in them or anything like that. ... I haven't read it through page by page, but I have read excerpts from it over the years. There's so many different ways ... you can get the comic book version now. But I do have it, and I do want to read it one of these days. I've never read it start to finish. I've read lots of stuff in it.

AH: How does your interpretation differ from some of those Scrooges on film?

LS: Well, I think it's somewhere between Alastair Sim's and George C. Scott's. I don't want to compare myself to those greats. Scott's is a great one. ... I didn't see it when it first came out; I saw it several years after that. I don't ever like to see anything before I do it because I don't like to take anything from them.

AH: The dialogue in the adaptation is faithful to Dickens. Do you like that?

LS: It's Dickens and I love it. I love Dickens. You know, this is probably the only show I've ever done where I can go back and remember a lot of the lines. Others I can't remember at all. It's just kind of poetic, and they flow so well. I love the way they flow.

AH: When does your Scrooge start to see the light?

LS: By the time he gets through with that ghost of the future, he's pretty well convinced, I think. It starts, I guess, with the Ghost of Christmas Past. All of these are things he's familiar with. He sees the time when he has this young lady that he could have very easily married and raised a family with, but he chose money over that. One of his downfalls.

AH: How long have you been acting?

LS: I'm 80 years old. I started in the '79 and '80 season. Did one crazy show called 'Dark of the Moon.' Once is enough. Alan Thornton (who plays the ghost of Scrooge's deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, in this production) had the lead in that. He was the Witch Boy. ... But it was fun because we had a big cast and everybody got along. I met a lot of nice folks.

AH: How many plays have you been in over the years?

LS: This will be number 41. But that's not a record. I think Doug Lorber's done about 50.

AH: How do you describe Scrooge at the end of the play?

LS: Completely redeemed. He's completely redeemed. He goes from a querulous old man to the top of the mountain. He becomes a father-like figure to Tiny Tim, and he does things for his family. He gets off his purse strings. He's been a miser before, now he's doing everything he can to help this family.

AH: How much of what the character goes through do you feel?

LS: I feel quite a bit of it. Normally, I'm a pretty easy-going person. But I find that when you do acting, you can get away with a lot things, so I can be as mean as I want to be and get away with it. And sometimes Mark (Costello) says, "You're not mean enough." So, I have to mean it up some more

AH: Is a character like Scrooge emotionally draining to play?

LS: Sometimes you're pretty well drained. You sure are, because you have to leave it all on that stage. You can't carry any of it home.

AH: What's your favorite role?

LS: This is my favorite. Next to that would probably be Hector Nations in Foxfire. That's a play we did, I 'spect, 10 or 12 years ago. (Costello corrects him on the time -- it's been 25 years, Costello's first year as director.) Oh, my gosh, no wonder I'm feeling my age. I loved that show. That's a great show. Hector was a character that when the show starts out, he and his wife are standing out by the porch and all, talking to each other. Eventually, 10 or 15 minutes into the show, you find out Hector's been dead for five years and she just talks to him. Kind of weird.

AH: What got you started acting?

LS: I was right at 50. It was kind of funny how I got started. I had no intentions of getting into this business. I mean, I liked it and all. I did some in high school. I brought my daughter down one time when they were doing 'Dark of the Moon.' She had done 'White Rabbit' for a summer workshop. They had a University of Georgia student here who was doing his thesis or whatever. She got that part. When they wanted to cast 'Dark of the Moon,' they advertised for a lot of kids. So my wife and my daughter brought Kerry down and, unbeknownst to me, they had wanted me to try to get into it. I didn't know it, but they filled out one of these little sheets with my name and all on it. Kerry had already been up there and read for the parts and all -- by the way, she didn't get a part -- and they called my name. And I said, 'What?' I played the father of the girl that marries the Witch Boy. Mr. Allen, I think it was. It's a very weird play.

AH: How nervous were you that first play?

LS: Pretty darn nervous. I still have nerves, but that's good. You should have some degree of that little butterfly in your stomach. If you don't, there's something wrong. I like that little bit of nerves. It kind of makes you key up and start to focus.

AH: You've been playing Scrooge for some time now, so I guess you're used to it. But how did you prepare for that first time as Scrooge?

LS: You just have to think what this character's about. Use a lot of imagination because, as I say, that's not my cup of tea. And you can watch a lot of other things, too, and see.

AH: Do you prefer acting in comedies or dramas?

LS: I'm much better probably in comedies than I am in dramas, but I do like to do drama every now and then, just to change up. But comedy is really my shtick.

AH: So, what's your favorite comedy role over the years?

LS: I did one years ago called 'No Sex, Please, We're British.' And I got to do some comic things in there, and there was one time I had to run around in my underwear, if I remember right. And there was one scene where there was this one lady trying to keep the bank inspector from seeing anything inside the house. I was doped up and she put me in a corner and she was trying to get the door shut and all of a sudden I was just sliding down the wall. I was the bank inspector.

Harvey was another I liked. I played Harvey's buddy, Elwood P. Dowd. ... I don't think I've ever seen it (the James Stewart movie) all the way through. That was one that was kind of difficult for me because you're playing against nobody. You've got to kind of remember your own lines and furnish all that stuff yourself because there's no help. Nothing to bounce off of.

AH: How you deal with portraying a famous role like Scrooge? Do you try to add something to it or is it pretty much what it is?

LS: It pretty much is what it is, but I try to make him seem realistic, as much as I can. I hope I do.

AH: One of the problems, I would think, would be overacting the role. How do you keep from over-emoting?

LS: I just try to think of Scrooge as how it would be if I really was in this situation. And I try not to overdo anything. I try to be as realistic as I can, because there are times in there when he is very frightened and very scared and you have to put that into that character. When he's mean, that's the easy part. But being kind of scared and going into that redemptive mode ... that's the tricky one.