RETOUR
FROM SHERLOCK TO MODERN VILLAIN
 
The New York Times
May 26, 1985, Section 2, Page 17
 


Last year, the tall, debonair British actor who seemed to be getting most of the attention - and most of the roles - on both sides of the Atlantic was Jeremy Irons. This year, it's Jeremy Brett.
 
The 49-year-old classically trained actor has shown his versatility in recent weeks as Sherlock Holmes on public television, as the romantic lead in ''Aren't We All?'' on Broadway, as Jaclyn Smith's father in the NBC movie ''Florence Nightingale'' and as the off-stage narrator in Martha Graham's recent ballet, ''Song.''
 
Tonight and Monday at 9 P.M., Mr. Brett will appear as an evil, two-timing art dealer in the four-hour NBC mini-series ''Deceptions,'' starring Stefanie Powers in the dual role of identical twin sisters - one a bored New Jersey housewife, the other a European jet-setter - who decide to trade places for a week. The romantic drama, based on Judith Michael's best-selling novel, also stars Barry Bostwick, Brenda Vacarro and Gina Lollobrigida. It was filmed in England and Italy.
 
The part of the art dealer, named Bryan Foxworth, is not a large one, but as Mr. Brett sees it, ''it's the most complex part. Bryan is enormously bright and alive and stylish and happy, and he's also homosexual, which made him harder to play, because the gay community has been so shattered by AIDS. So, I took it on with a much greater sense of responsibility. Before, I might have been tempted to camp it up, but instead, I decided to play him with enormous panache and an enormous zest for life. At the same time, the deceptive side of him is thrilling: He is a lethal murderer trafficking in drugs, a monster.''
 
Mr. Brett said another reason he took the part was his fondness for Miss Powers, whom he met when he did a guest role on her former television series ''Hart to Hart.'' ''Stefanie's my angel,'' he said, ''and the part also gave me the chance to appear in modern dress. It's very rare for me to be in something set in 1985. In fact, I rarely get past 1930.'' The lanky, 6-foot-1-inch actor was wearing a bright gold V-necked sweatshirt, which he said helped him get over the gloominess of playing Sherlock Holmes for 20 months. He said he also has the same shirt in bright blue, bright orange and bright red. A pair of sunglasses was perched on his dark hair, and he chain-smoked as he spoke nonstop for two-and-a-half hours - laughing, pacing and gesturing along the way - about his boyhood in England and his skyrocketing career as an actor.
 
From his shoulder bag he plucked a letter, which he said was from his 82-year-old godmother, and began to read: ''Now, suddenly, this burst of stardom. It's almost frightening! Do you feel the same way?'' He grinned. ''What she's saying is, 'Are you staying humble?' ''
 
Mr. Brett said the role of Sherlock Holmes, which gave him his biggest exposure in this country, was ''the most dangerous thing I've ever done - it had been done to death, it was an old chestnut, and I thought it might be the end of my career.''
 
Instead, ''The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes'' was well-received, both in England and in this country, where seven of the hour-long stories appeared on the Mobil-funded ''Mystery!'' from March 14 through April 25. Six more will be shown early next year, and there will probably be more after that, as Mr. Brett plans to make seven new episodes starting this fall. ''And then I hang my pipes up,'' he said with a smile.
 
Mr. Brett believes the reason for the series' success - it has been sold to 42 countries - is that he and the producer, Michael Cox, decided to make the episodes the most faithful adaptions ever produced from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works.
 
''When I began to read them in 1982,'' Mr. Brett said, ''I realized that no one had ever done original shows from Conan Doyle. The one exception was Basil Rathbone in 'The Hound of the Baskervilles.' In all the rest, the adapters had changed things.''
 
He said that the series presents ''a more rounded portrait'' of Sherlock Holmes, ''one of the great eccentrics in English fiction,'' and that it also presents his assistant, Watson, played by David Burke, more fairly. ''We bring Watson out of the buffoon and into the light,'' he said. ''This is clearly one of the great friendships in literature, and Watson was a sensible fellow with many admirable qualities.''
 
Such realistic details as the fact that Sherlock Holmes breakfasts on toast and coffee, drinks whisky and soda, smokes shag tobacco in a black clay pipe, is an enthusiastic violinist and has a profound knowledge of chemistry all show up on the series.
 
Mr. Brett said that playing the eccentric sleuth for such a long period took its toll. ''I used to be very gregarious,'' he said. ''I loved to go out, and I loved to go dancing. While playing Sherlock Holmes, I became a recluse. I began to have meals in my room. I even hung a huge painting called 'Brain Damage,' by Luis Frangella, in my dressing room.''
 
He said that several actors are known to have had nervous breakdowns while playing Sherlock Holmes, and that one attempted suicide. ''He's a very complicated character, very uncomfortable to be around,'' he said. ''I wouldn't cross the road to meet him. When you play him, you leave out love, you leave out affection. He's a walking brain who's very rude, and can't even say thank you.''
 
After such a depressing experience, Mr. Brett said he jumped at the chance to play Willie Tatham in a revival of Frederick Lonsdale's 1923 comedy ''Aren't We All?'' now at the Brooks Atkinson. ''I wanted a holiday,'' he said, ''and it was also a chance to be near my wife.'' She is Joan Wilson, of Boston, series executive producer for both ''Masterpiece Theater'' and ''Mystery!,'' whom he married in 1977. He has a 25-year-old son, David, a painter, by a previous marriage to actress Anna Massey.
 
''I also like comedy,'' he said, ''and I welcomed the chance to work with the master and mistress of comedy, Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert. Her timing is absolutely brilliant, and she also has the best legs in town. And Rex is the master of timing, comedywise, of this century.''
 
''And Lynnie,'' he added, speaking of Lynn Redgrave, who plays his wife in the play, ''she has come out as this great, wonderful, wise beauty. She's now up there with her sister, Vanessa.''
 
Mr. Brett, who is dedicated to the Stanislavsky method of acting, worked out a complicated history for his character, Willie. As he sees it, Willie served in World War I and lost most of his contemporaries to the casualty lists. ''I based Willie on my father,'' he said. ''He was Henry William Huggins, a famous soldier in World War I. I dedicated my performance to my father. I even have his medals.'' He unzipped his shoulder bag and pulled out four tarnished medals.
 
Asked to elaborate on his acting technique, he said he always tries to find what he calls ''the underbelly'' of a part. He said he usually does this by reading, researching, relying on the author and absorbing the part. ''If acting is a sponge,'' he said, ''I try to squeeze it out and bring in the liquid and juices of the person I am playing.''
 
Before he opened on Broadway, Mr. Brett was the behind-the-scenes narrator of Martha Graham's new ballet, ''Song.'' Some nights he performed live; on the nights he was appearing in previews of ''Aren't We All?'' a recording of his narration was played. He said that if one day he was asked to name the four most important things he had done as an actor, he would certainly mention ''Song.'' ''It was one of the greatest joys of my life,'' he said. ''I kneel at the altar of Martha Graham. I think she is as important to the United States as the Chrysler Building.'' He said he plans to do eight live performances of ''Song'' in Paris this September.
Deceptions -1985
Mr. Brett was born in Warwickshire, England, to a father who was the World War I hero and a mother who was an Irish Quaker. ''A rather rare combination,'' he says with a smile. He first became interested in acting as a boy singer (''I was a rotten little show-off'') and furthered his interest when, at the age of 17, he had surgery for a tongue-tied condition that had given him defective ''r'' and ''s'' sounds. ''It made me get involved with words,'' he said. ''I had to do a lot of vocal exercises. I still do them every morning.''
 
After Eton, he studied acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and went on to star in more than 20 West End productions, including ''Hamlet'' and ''Design for Living.'' He made his Broadway debut in 1956 as Troilus in ''Troilus and Cressida,'' and later starred in ''The Deputy.''
 
In 1967, he joined the National Theater of Great Britain for four years, during which he played some of the 30 Shakespearean roles he has done in his career. In 1978, he starred as ''Dracula,'' breaking house records in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. His films have included ''War and Peace'' and ''My Fair Lady,'' in which he played Freddie and sang ''On the Street Where You Live.''
 
Mr. Brett said he prefers film and television to theater, ''because a camera can capture the essence of your character. If you lie on film, it shows. But in a theater, as Tyrone Guthrie always said, from the eighth row back you can fool everybody.''