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A 'Scoundrel' likens actors to con artists

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Nov. 27--On Broadway, he's been the vampire count in Dracula, The Musical; Scar, the venomous lion in The Lion King; and Dr. Frank N. Furter, a Transylvanian transsexual in The Rocky Horror Show.

But in the touring production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels -- which opens a one-week run at the Hippodrome tomorrow -- you won't see actor Tom Hewitt decked out in a cape or an animal mask or seven-inch high heels. Instead, as consummate Scoundrels' con artist Lawrence Jameson, Hewitt gets to wear a suit.

There's a slight note of relief in his voice when he acknowledges this. Then after a pause, he adds, "I wore some fierce clothes as Scar, some beautiful, beautiful costumes as Dracula, and I had some lovely gowns as Frank N. Furter."

In Dirty Rotten Scoundrels -- which is based on the 1988 movie and has a score by David Yazbek and a book by Jeffrey Lane -- Hewitt plays the role created on film by Michael Caine and on Broadway by John Lithgow. His character is a suave confidence man whose territory is a resort town on the French Riviera. In the touring show's new opening number, Jameson prides himself on being "The Only Game in Town." Then a rival (played by Timothy Gulan) shows up, and it's con man vs. con man.

Jameson may seem a departure from Hewitt's high-profile Broadway menagerie. But as a friend told him after a run-through in New York: "Your entire career has been a rehearsal for this role."

Hewitt, 48, knew exactly what he meant. "It incorporates so many things that I love to do -- like a Noel Coward-y quality about him, and he pretends to be royalty," the actor says from the tour's stop in Louisville, Ky. "I really like characters who have sort of a dual theatricality -- you're playing a character who's playing a character."

Indeed, Baltimore theatergoers last saw Hewitt in a Noel Coward role -- suave Elyot in Center Stage's 1996 production of Private Lives. Area audiences may also remember him from the more than 20 roles he played at Washington's Arena Stage starting in 1981 -- roles that ranged from the Reverend Hale, the outside interrogator in Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1987), to Astrov, the dashing country doctor in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1997).

Portraying Jameson also suits Hewitt because, he explains, actors are con artists. "Acting is feeling one way and behaving another way, and so is being a con artist. Good con artists are good improvisational actors, being able to think quickly on your feet and having to react instantaneously to a constantly changing scenario."

Jameson might not be as nefarious as some of the characters Hewitt has played, but the actor identifies common ground. "He honestly is refined. He knows a lot about art and culture and wine. He loves those things. [He's] Hannibal Lecter-ish in that quality. He enjoys the finer things in life and knows a lot about them."

Like many actors, Hewitt relishes playing the knave. "Villains are always great," he says. And it's even better if he can be "other than human on stage. [Rocky Horror's] Frank N. Furter was an alien transvestite from transsexual Transylvania."

As a boy, Hewitt became interested in a stage career after seeing one of the grisliest characters in all of dramatic literature. The son of a mail carrier and his wife (the substitute mail carrier) in the small town of Victor, Mont., Hewitt was on a family vacation when his parents took him to see Titus Andronicus at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore. "I went kicking and screaming. I was I think 12, and Star Trek was on or something. That play, of all of them, was the one to see, with dismemberment and cannibalism and rape, and it was fabulous!"

On the same trip, the family visited the ghost town of Virginia City, Mont., and attended performances by the Virginia City Players. In high school, Hewitt became a member of the Players. The director suggested he audition for conservatory training, and he spent three years in a new program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (the program is now at the University of Delaware).

While Hewitt was at the university, Tadashi Suzuki, director of Japan's Suzuki Company of Toga, came to teach. The avant-garde director decided to mount a bilingual production of Euripides' The Bacchae with the gods portrayed by Japanese actors and the mortals by Americans. Hewitt and his classmates traveled to Japan in the summer of 1980 with the production and lived in a small mountain village. "That was the beginning of a long, long relationship," he says.

Throughout the decade-plus he spent at Arena Stage in Washington, Hewitt also performed with the Suzuki Company in theater festivals around the world. Years later, he recalls, "Mr. Suzuki came to see The Rocky Horror Show, and I remember being so nervous. He had a ball. Mr. Suzuki's training focuses largely on the lower half of the body. What your feet and legs are doing is as important as anything else, and after having worked with Mr. Suzuki for so many years, putting on [Frank N. Furter's] high heels and walking around felt oddly familiar to me. ... I said, 'I have never used your physical training more.'"

Wherever the Suzuki Company took him, however, Arena Stage remained his "artistic home base," as he puts it. "I am profoundly grateful for my experiences at that place. My perception is that I really kind of got in on the tail end of an era. ... There was still a big demand for well-trained young people to do classic plays. There was just more arts money."

Hewitt moved to New York in 1990, landing his first major role in James Sherman's off-Broadway comedy Beau Jest in 1991. His Broadway debut came in 1993 as a replacement in Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig. The actor he replaced was John Vickery. Three years later, he replaced Vickery again, this time as Scar in The Lion King, the first of Hewitt's catalog of Broadway bad guys.

Between then and now, there have been some gentler roles, including the lead in a musical of Doctor Doolittle; the kindly cop, Officer Lockstock, in the national tour of Urinetown; and a reprise of Elyot in Private Lives in New Haven this past January.

Then he got a call from Jack O'Brien, director of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, asking if he'd be interested in playing Lawrence Jameson on the road.

Hewitt doesn't know how long he'll be traveling with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The large-scale show is going on hiatus next month to downsize the set and make it less expensive to tour (one week was also eliminated from Baltimore's run). At press time, new contracts had not yet been signed. Nor does Hewitt know what's next for him after Scoundrels.

But, he says, "I'm old enough not to worry. The universe tends to give me food and a roof over my head, so I don't worry that much, and then one day the phone rings, and it's Jack O'Brien saying, 'Do you want to do Dirty Rotten?'"

Pointing out that Dracula and Frank N. Furter were two roles he never could have anticipated, Hewitt says, "I look forward to what's ahead, and I have absolutely no idea what it is."


Copyright (c) 2006, The Baltimore Sun

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