March 25, 1985 12:00 PM

He has punched out Morgan Fairchild, stabbed Amanda Plummer and tried to suffocate Susan Sarandon. Still, for someone who is a master of mayhem, B.H. Barry brings a high degree of sensitivity to his work. “I was somewhat shy about raping Farrah Fawcett upon our first meeting,” he confesses in the understated manner of his native England. “I mean, when you are lying on top of Farrah who’s in her underpants and T-shirt, that can be embarrassing.”

Fret not, folks. Barry, 45, may be an expert in kicking, gouging, biting, throttling, throat cutting and assorted other villainies, but his violence is strictly stagecraft. Barry is what is known as a fight director, a title held by only a handful of practitioners of the theater arts. His job is to choreograph action sequences onstage to create startlingly realistic illusions of physical violence. If they are done right, no one gets hurt, not even a little bit.

Barry’s unusual specialty is particularly appreciated on the live stage where, unlike a film production, a stuntman or trick photography is rare. So with high-priced stage talent absorbing punishment night after night, the wear and tear can add up. Actor Victor Garber, for example, was dismayed to learn that he had to pitch headlong down a flight of stairs in the Broadway comedy Noises Off. “I was terrified of breaking my neck,” he confesses. “I asked for help.” Barry showed him how to break the fall down to a series of controlled movements, transforming a potentially lethal tumble into a mini-athletic event. “I now feel pretty confident when I do it,” Garber reports.

“What makes Barry so extraordinary,” says Jerome Minskoff, a producer of Noises Off, “is his concern for the safety of the actors. If he thinks there is even a hint of danger in a stunt, he won’t do it. In the last five years Barry has almost single-handedly made the American theater safe for actors.” In recognition of Barry’s work New York critics voted him a special Drama Desk award last year for consistent excellence in the theater. “Obviously,” he says modestly, “the American theater needed a hit man.”

As a former actor, Barry knows how to put maximum drama into an action sequence. One example is the particularly nasty rape scene in the play Extremities, which he choreographed first for Susan Sarandon and later for Farrah Fawcett. At one performance, Barry remembers with pride, “A man from the audience actually leapt onstage to try to stop the horrifying scene. Farrah took his chivalrous action in stride, reassured him that she was perfectly safe, then went back to her role of being raped.”

Barry Halliday, born in the Surrey town of Egham, was 2 when his father, an architect, left the family (his parents eventually divorced). As a schoolboy, Barry took up fisticuffs as a survival tool. “My mother was one of those stoic English ladies, and I was nothing but trouble,” he recalls. “I had a temper, and you know how kids will taunt you. My teeth stuck out; I was called Bre’r Rabbit. One mention. Bam! Every day I fought. I wasn’t brave; I do believe I’m a coward. But I was more scared of the alternative, which was to live with rejection.”

More happily he discovered school plays. “I loved standing in front of an audience,” he says. “When the curtain came down and the applause started, I wasn’t rejected anymore.” At 18, he enrolled at London’s Corona Academy of Theatre Arts, a top training ground for actors, and studied under Patrick Crean, who once worked as a film double for the swashbuckling Errol Flynn.

Barry broke in professionally on British TV, where he was usually cast as a villain in police-action shows. By his own count “I’ve been sentenced to about 400 years in prison and been hung twice.” In time he decided his future was brighter as a teacher of stage action—pulling punches, falling safely. Barry Halliday even gave himself a new identity—a “nom de fight,” he calls it—by-reshuffling his name into B.H. Barry.

By 1970 Barry had become a fight director for the renowned Royal Shakespeare Company. The next year he visited the U.S., where, among other things, he found “the pay was a lot better.” He has been a transatlantic commuter ever since, maintaining pads (he is divorced) in both London and Manhattan. His lengthy list of credits includes the Burton-Taylor spat in Private Lives, bloodcurdling stabbings between Christopher Plummer and James Earl Jones in Othello and a knife fight between Huck Finn and Pap in the upcoming play Big River. In all, he estimates that he has staged fights in more than 500 productions in Great Britain and the U.S.; his fees now run to about $500 a day and $15,000 for a Broadway show.

Despite all the make-believe carnage he has wrought, Barry has no use for gratuitous violence. Unless his fight scenes advance the plot or increase audience understanding of a character, he won’t do them. “To kick a pregnant woman onstage for no apparent reason is pointless,” he says. “I mean, in violence, I do have good taste.”

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