Acting, says the brilliant British practitioner John Wood, is something like changing addresses. “You live in a role like a house,” he finds. “You move in and then you move on.” He currently has his longest lease on Broadway yet as the homicidal playwright in the smash mystery Deathtrap. But is Wood headed for heartbreak hotel in his next career move, the upcoming Farrah Fawcett-Majors picture Somebody Killed Her Husband? Only slightly defensive, John admits, “I did it for the money,” but adds: “There is something strong and something sad in Farrah’s face that will enable her to survive being merely beautiful.”
Likewise Wood, a late bloomer at 48 who’s hardly beautiful. He’s spent much of his 25-year career unemployed because of his own uncompromising rule of thumb—”I wouldn’t do anything that I could have written myself, drunk, at 3 in the morning.” As a result, “Most of my time was spent fending off creditors and raising new loans to pay back the old ones.” His luck began to change in 1967 with Tom Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which he played in New York. It was followed by James Joyce’s Exiles (directed by Harold Pinter), the U.S. hit Sherlock Holmes and a Broadway Tony-winning performance in friend Stoppard’s Travesties. Wood is now so established that he earns $5,000 a week in Deathtrap and ruefully had to turn down a $400-a-week offer back home from the Royal Shakespeare Company. “With school and life insurance fees hanging over me, I had to say no,” says Wood, who supports his second wife and their three children in an “idyllic country life-style” in Chipping Campden, just 15 miles from Shakespeare’s Stratford.
The only child of a railroad surveyor, John remembers his middle-class upbringing in Derby as “miserable as hell.” He attended a royalist prep school that produced “a spartan corps of wonderfully groomed dinosaurs.” At 17 he was drafted into the Royal Horse Artillery, where he was shot in the back in a “million-to-one accident” at an officers candidate training exercise. Before being invalided out he also survived a near-fatal jeep accident which hospitalized him for 13 months. His left arm and hip, he says, are “miracles of orthopedic reconstruction.” Still later Wood weathered an operation for a possible cancer of the vocal cords. At Oxford he studied law, to his regret (“You need only assimilate an enormous number of facts; you don’t have to stay up till 3 a.m. thinking about them”), and was president of the Dramatic Society. Upon graduation he was hired by the Old Vic.
Wood’s first wife was opera diva Gillian Neason, the mother of his elder son, Sebastian, 15. A week after the wedding he knew it was a mistake. “If my life depended on it,” he says, “I wouldn’t listen to more than 10 bars of Puccini.” They were eventually divorced after he had sired a daughter, Sibylla, now 12, by his present wife, Sylvia Vaughan, a producer’s assistant with the BBC. Wood arrived on the TV scene himself after a brief and fitful career in Shakespearean rep. Following the Old Vic came the Royal Court, and, John notes, “I got sacked from both.” He identified along the way with Richard Burton, who, says Wood, “took the fatal decision to be the richest and most famous man rather than the greatest actor in the world. I’m glad,” John observes, “that he is taking himself seriously again.”
Wood has no intention of moving to L.A. to “become a star.” Rather, he sees himself caught irretrievably in the gravitational force of Stratford-upon-Avon—”the birthplace of the greatest playwright the world has known. That is the center of my professional life,” he says softly. “I can’t tell you what it is like to stand on that stage and speak those lines. The responsibility and terror are like nothing else in the world.”