September 14, 1981 12:00 PM

For two decades, musician-actor-comedian Dudley Moore has teeheetered precariously on the brink of major stardom. This summer as the perpetually tipsy hero of the season’s funniest movie, Arthur, he finally, literally, stumbled into it. Moore is so convincing in the role that his cinematic drunkenness clearly does for his career what nudity did for his “10” co-star, Bo Derek. “It flatters me and it makes me feel nice and warm in my tummy,” says Moore of the response to his performance as a New York heir in love with Liza Minnelli, his Queens-for-everyday Cinderella. Aided nobly by Sir John Gielgud, playing a manservant as dry as his master’s martinis, Moore has made Arthur perhaps film’s top toper ever. Written and directed by rookie Steve Gordon, Arthur started as a sleeper and to date has grossed $30 million. Dudley, a sort of English Woody Allen, is delighted. At 46 and 5’2″, Moore also finds special joy in his belated flowering as a sex thimble. “I want women to like me,” he says happily. “That’s my main motive for being liked.”

For now, though, the message to women is: Like but don’t touch. Trespassers these days would have to tangle with 6′ blond singer Susan Anton, 30, Moore’s sweetheart of the last 18 months. Comparisons are incredible. “People say never the twain shall meet…but we do,” deadpanned Dudley of Anton during a recent Tonight Show appearance. Susan, the Golden-girl who once plugged Muriel cigars and roomed with Sly Stallone, jokes that their theme song is I’ve Got You Under My Chin. “We’re always together; we don’t spend a night apart unless she’s on tour,” says Moore, whose tumultuous five-year marriage to second wife Tuesday Weld ended last year. “I can’t think of any reason to be alive except to have a relationship with somebody.”

Particularly, he enthuses, this some Body. “Before I met Susan I wasn’t monogamous at all. I was flying all over the place and having a great time,” says Dudley, who preached the gospel of the “meaningful one-night stand.” Among Anton’s attractions, he says, are her “passion and enjoyment of things, which is something I love. Within that word are bound up a lot of other characteristics, our mutual need for each other, companionship. We really just like to mooch around the house, just ourselves.”

Echoes Anton, “He just made me feel good and happy, just watching him. I thought it was time to be around a person who puts out a positive vibration. I think Dudley’s main attraction is that he’s very secure and positive about his life, therefore his understanding of other people is very attractive. You want to tell him every secret you ever had.”

They met when Anton, freshly shed of Sylvester Stallone (who returned to wife Sasha), introduced herself after a 1980 National Association of Theatre Owners awards show in Hollywood. Two weeks later, Dudley recalls, “She was in Vegas, I went to see her—and the rest is mystery.” Part of the mystery—even to them—is whether they’ll wed, though Dudley already has taken Anton to England to meet his 80-year-old mother, Francis. Says Susan, “Marriage is nothing that we talk about with great direction.” Dudley adds, “It doesn’t feel appropriate or necessary right now, but it may. I don’t feel the attraction of marriage except as a convenience for bureaucratic nonsense.”

He speaks from experience. Moore was married to British actress Suzy (To Sir, With Love) Kendall from 1966 to 1968 and to Weld from 1975 to 1980, during which, he once noted, they separated some 20 times. They also had a son, Patrick, 5, who lives with Tuesday in New York and visits Dad frequently. Moore’s personal history raises the question whether diminutive Dudley is fixated on tall blondes (Kendall is 5’4″ and Weld is 5’6″). “I’m attracted to tall women, but I have no choice,” Dudley says. “Most women are taller than I am. I have spent the majority of my lengthier relationships with women of the fair-haired variety,” he admits. “And the women I’ve been with tend to have other similarities, too: a bit of an overbite, both physically and mentally. But I don’t think it’s anything to do with the hair color—most blondes are mouse-color developed into blond. If we took all of the coloring out of the hair of the women I’ve been with, we’d probably find three mice.”

As a kid, Moore himself just squeaked by with girls. “I had no success with them because I was too shy and had such a low level of self-esteem,” recalls Moore, who grew up in Dagenham, Essex, the son of a secretary and a British Railways electrician. He was born with a clubfoot; corrective surgery gave him a left leg a half inch shorter and weaker than his right. Following the “usual comedian’s sob story,” Dudley says, he perfected his wisecracking style to fend off bullies. He also showed exceptional talent on the violin, piano and organ, and at the end of high school won an organ scholarship to Oxford. After graduating in 1957 he taught music, toured U.S. stateside Army bases with the Vic Lewis orchestra and wrote jingles for West Indian radio. Then came the fateful teaming in 1959 with Oxbridgians Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett in a now legendary satirical revue, Beyond the Fringe. The show packed British and Broadway theaters for four years. He and Cook encored with a hit British TV series, Not Only…But Also, 1967’s memorable movie Bedazzled and another triumph, Good Evening, which played on Broadway more than a year.

Despite that kind of success, “I was fairly embedded with feelings of grayness,” says Dudley, who began personal therapy in 1964 and has stuck with it ever since. “Things started to crack open a little five years ago,” he says, “and much more about two years ago. Now, I just feel sane.” His psychological advances seemed to coincide with a dream he had had in Australia in 1971: “The dream was a combination of sexuality and aggression. I was looking at my finger, a little hole appeared and a stream of brown liquid started coming out. I thought I’d better stop it, but I let it come out and it formed itself into this ugly, greedy, gobbling, malicious creature. I watched this thing run out the door and asked somebody if they saw it. I woke up with a great feeling of relief that I could be this creature and not have everybody die in its path.” About women in particular, says Dudley, “The key is that I became more friendly toward them, not feeling they were threatening to me, that they were gonna laugh at me or puke as I crept into view.”

Audiences do laugh, however, at the Chaplinesque combination of concupiscence, vulnerability, bravado, music and even Englishness that Moore has brought to the American screen. He moved to L.A. and began his Hollywood career when Good Evening folded late in 1974. After more than a year of “sitting around and playing the piano,” he landed the small but watershed role of the sex-maniac conductor in 1978’s Foul Play. “It’s amazing,” he marvels, “I’d worked for 20 years and that film suddenly brought me to the notice of the people. The feedback was marvelous.” Lightning struck twice when director Blake (S.O.B.) Edwards—who then shared the same group therapy sessions—cast Dudley in “10” after George Segal dropped out at the last minute. “Working with Blake was a breeze,” says Moore. Of Bo Derek in particular, he compliments, “Every actor has a niche, an area they can till, and I think Bo tills her area and I think she’s damn good at it.”

To those who find him suspiciously convincing as the inveterate inebriate in Arthur, Moore replies, “The zest and enjoyment Arthur has in being drunk is certainly me, but I’m not a drunk. I don’t drink spirits, but I’m your average good-wine lover.” No fanatic about studying for a part—”I don’t prepare in the sense of sitting in a bucket of ice for six months”—to play the role Moore simply “watched various people and marinated myself in their fumes and behavior.”

As for his delightful on-screen chemistry with Gielgud, Dudley says, “I felt we were like two RAF pilots in the war who just go up in planes and do it.” They first met at a London airport in 1962, and Moore has many anecdotes about Gielgud’s inability to remember names. “I was going to Portofino once, and he wrote a little note to Lilli Palmer to introduce me saying, ‘Darling Lilli, this is to introduce the young pianist from Beyond the Fringe, Stanley Moon.’ It just made me laugh. It’s nice to have your name got wrong by someone who is really rather famous.” Intones Sir John of Dudley, with an inflection straight out of Arthur, “We get along like a house on fire.”

Moore’s most touching scene in Arthur comes when he has to deal with Gielgud’s impending death. It was, for Dudley, all too familiar. “When my father died 10 years ago I lost a lot of anxiety,” says Dudley, who still wears his father’s retirement watch. “It’s a traumatic experience, but the fantasy of somebody close dying is so frightening that when death comes along it’s less so.”

Unlike Arthur, however, he claims he’d be stumped by a $750 million inheritance. “I don’t live expensively,” says Moore, who reportedly can now command $1 million per film. He shuttles regularly between his three-bedroom Marina del Rey beach house and Anton’s Beverly Hills hideaway. “My hobbies are fairly inexpensive—going to the movies, watching television. I don’t do anything particularly luxurious except travelling, when I follow Susan around.” So far, he has trailed her cross-country and twice to Japan. “They’re totally swept away by this long blond thing,” he reports of Anton, whose popularity in Japanese TV commercials and concerts is phenomenal. “They don’t have them over there.”

Producers over here seem to be swept away by Dudley’s potential. He’s already signed to do a “caper-comedy,” Dangerously, and a straight drama about the relationship between a politician and a terminally ill girl, Six Weeks. Moore’s razzle-dazzle on the piano in Arthur was his own handiwork, too. He plays both classical and jazz and next January will team with Robert Mann of the Juilliard String Quartet in a chamber music concert at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. “People think I have this wide range of talents, but it seems to me it’s all in the same area, very constricted,” shrugs Dudley, who obviously is enjoying the prime of it all. “Acting is the same as music—it’s all timing.”

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