Toby Kahn
June 04, 1979 12:00 PM

The customer settles back in the chair, the barber sharpens his razor, then without warning draws it savagely across the man’s neck. Blood spurts out, the audience shrieks (many cover their eyes), and the fun is just beginning in Stephen Sondheim’s weird new musical hit, Sweeney Todd. (To add to the mirth, the corpses are then ground up and served in meat pies.) The show comes appallingly close to burlesquing violence: A crucial factor in its dramatic balance is the tormented barber himself, as played by a Canadian actor named Len Cariou. His brilliant performance has brought him within reach of his first Tony at the televised awards this Sunday night.

Cariou has been nominated twice before for best musical actor (Applause and A Little Night Music) and drew raves for his dramatic role in Cold Storage in 1977. But if the performances were memorable, Cariou’s face apparently was not. Greasepaint is possibly to blame. Now 39, he has often won parts normally reserved for older actors, as in the case of Sweeney Todd.

One exception was 1970’s Applause, where he was cast as a young director in love with an older actress, Lauren Bacall. They soon were playing identical roles offstage. In her current autobiography, Bacall reminisces about their relationship (he was 30 to her 45): “He was a curious combination of social inexperience and a very mature, settled man.” He left her after a year to pursue his career at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre, but he never lost Bacall’s affection: “He’d been straighter, more honest, than most men I’d known. We are still happy at the sight of each other.” (Cariou is slightly more cautious: “We’re friends, but we don’t travel in the same circles now.”)

Growing up in Winnipeg, the youngest of five children of a farm equipment salesman, Len has been singing “ever since I could open my mouth.” As a boy soprano, he recalls, “I had the local Catholic church tied up. Sometimes I’d sing three weddings a day at $5 a crack.” At 20, he joined the Manitoba Theatre Centre for six years, performing summers at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. (The secret to singing, he confides, is the same as for the Bard’s soliloquies—clear diction.)

In 1966 Cariou began focusing his attention on theatrical work in the U.S. “I’m one of those aliens,” he admits. On occasion, he returns to Canada to direct or act. One Man, a film he made there, won him the country’s Oscar equivalent in 1977. But making Manhattan his home base meant that Cariou lost contact with his daughter, Laurel, by an early first marriage. When his ex-wife remarried, Cariou allowed her new husband to adopt Laurel, and father and daughter had not seen each other in 16 years. Then this winter, he says, “She wrote and said, ‘Hello, I’m going to be 19 and think it’s time we got together.’ ” He flew to Winnipeg, where they met in a hotel lobby. “I asked if I could buy her a drink,” Cariou continues. “We went into the bar and ended up closing it. It was extraordinary. She had no malice at all.” Cariou lives alone with a cat (named Sweeney); five months ago he separated from his second wife, Susan, an actress and painter.

Next year he hopes to take Sweeney Todd to London, which will bring him closer to one of two goals: to perform in Britain with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. “I’ve dreamed about working there all my adult life,” he confesses. His second ambition is to sing at the Met. “Beverly Sills paid me an incredible compliment. She came backstage and said, ‘Oh, my God, another opera singer,’ ” Cariou boasts, half in jest. His director in Cold Storage, Frank Corsaro, applauds all of Cariou’s dreams: “I don’t think Len should stick to any one kind of theater. He should divide and conquer.”

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