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David Morse talks Broadway's 'The Iceman Cometh,' TV's 'St. Elsewhere'

Actor David Morse attends the WGN America Winter

Actor David Morse attends the WGN America Winter TCA at Langham Hotel on January 13, 2017 in Pasadena, California. Credit: Getty Images for WGN/Rachel Murray

David Morse is a familiar face to TV fans today, but back in 1982 the young stage actor was an unknown, cast as the compassionate Dr. Jack Morrison on the curious, new hospital-set medical series “St. Elsewhere.”  The acclaimed show ran six seasons, boasting a Who’s Who of young stars with bright futures ahead of them, including Mark Harmon, Howie Mandel, Helen Hunt, Alfre Woodard and an equally unknown (but not for long) Denzel Washington, playing arrogant Dr. Phillip Chandler.

Now 30 years after its final season Drs. Morrison and Chandler are back in business, this time on stage in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s classic drama “The Iceman Cometh,” opening April 26 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre for a 14-week limited run. Directed by five-time Tony-winner George C. Wolfe, the play is vintage O’Neill: brooding, boozy, simmering to a boil — and long (nearly four hours). In it, a saloon full of drunks, including weary anarchist Larry Slade (Morse), await the arrival of their hero, Hickey (Washington), a raucous, partying salesman who, when he finally arrives, has some major surprises in store for his buddies.

Morse, 64, who lives in Philadelphia with his wife, shifts effortlessly from stage (“The Seafarer”) to film (“The Green Mile,” “Concussion”) to TV (“Blindspot,” “Outsiders,” “Treme” and Showtime’s upcoming “Escape at Dannemora”).

What’s it like performing again with Denzel?

We hadn’t seen each other in 30 years. I didn’t know what it would be like to work with him again. Listen, he is one of  the great actors—ever. He brings real experience to the role. And he’s a big personality. My personality is different. I got to rehearsals three days in—and my first day I was working with three actors in a rehearsal space and, all of a sudden, the door bursts open and Denzel strides in, and gives me a big hug. It was a great way to begin. I really appreciate him doing that.

It must help, to have some shared history.

Our characters are pitted against each other. We play old friends but, because Hickey isn’t behaving the way we’ve ever experienced him before, I have to defend all these people (in the saloon) and we wind up pitted against each other.

Was this play on your bucket list?

Doing an O’Neill play certainly was. But the role…Larry Slade…when I first read it, I thought, “What is it about this role that makes it so great?” I just didn’t see it.

What changed your mind?

The people who represent me said, “Are you out of your mind? Read it again, read it again.” So I did and thought, ohhh…I kinda get this now. As actors, we often look for the scene, big moments that say, “This is why you have to do this role.” But with Larry it’s cumulative. He’s onstage the whole time. Over the course of the play, he’s changed.

“Iceman” gets revived a lot. What’s so seductive about it?

It’s one of the great American plays, by one of the great American playwrights.  But O’Neill is sort of annoying and inspiring at the same time. His stage directions [in the script] go on and on, so specific, demanding you perform everything his way.

That makes it more colorful if you’re, say, reading it for class. It almost reads like a novel. But I can see how that could frustrate an actor — being told how to deliver every line.

He didn’t trust actors…didn’t particularly like actors. Thought he’d be better off with puppets.

And where’d he ever get that idea?

Probably from experience. [He chuckles.] But we got permission from the O’Neill estate to cut those stage directions. Took almost all of them out. So we really feel free. Anyone who’s seen the play previously — this won’t feel like a production you’ve seen before.

Looking back on your career, I realized how you were there for a pivotal moment in TV history.

Yeah. And I swore I’d never do television. I hated TV.

Really?

I’d never intended to do it. But “St. Elsewhere" — and ”Hill Street Blues,” too — they changed the world of hour-long dramas. And I get to experience the fruits of that now. TV is at a great place right now. The relationship with producers has always, in my experience, been, uhhh — tense. Challenging. But the actors and crew become like family. You’re there all those hours—more than on a movie. You come to depend on each other. I love that. It’s the same with this play. We have a large cast. And thanks to Denzel, and the spirit he’s brought to this production, we really feel…honored here to tell this story.

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