Irish actor plays LBJ in 'Path to War'

Monday, April 8, 2002

PASADENA, Calif. -- He's appeared on the stage, television and in dozens of films, but many people don't really seem to know much about Michael Gambon -- like how his name should be pronounced.

"They call me 'Gambone,'" the 61-year-old actor says. "I say, 'How can it be Gambone without an e on the end!' But I've given up now."

The proper pronunciation: "Gam-bawn."

Although he was born in Dublin, some people think he's French. "If they do, I say 'Oh, yeah.' If they say, 'Are you English?' I say, 'Yeah, fine."' He chuckles, a throaty "huh-huh-huh" laugh.

Gambon is President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the HBO movie "Path to War," which premieres at 7 p.m. May 18. Directed by John Frankenheimer and also starring Donald Sutherland and Alec Baldwin, the film is based on Clark Clifford's book about Oval Office politics during the Vietnam War.

He also plays Raymond Symon, one of many family members drawn into an uncomfortable reunion in "Almost Strangers," a three-part miniseries that will air at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday and 8:30 p.m. Sunday on BBC America, and repeats several times throughout the week.

In feature films, he recently appeared in "Gosford Park" and "Charlotte Gray."

Gambon moved to England when he was a young boy. He built scenery at a theater in London. Eventually he was asked to play little parts. His first role was silent, in a suit of armor, with the visor down. He soon became one of the original members of England's National Theater Company.

Not impressed by 'sir'

Now he's Sir Michael Gambon, although he's not impressed by the honor, which was bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998.

"How would you use that?" he asked, giving one of his rueful shrugs. "I don't know how you would use it."

To prepare for his role as LBJ, Gambon watched videos to learn the president's physical mannerisms.

"All the clues were there, so it's quite a simple procedure to portray him," Gambon said. "He was quite loose physically, but when he made speeches I noticed, as I watched the videos, he was very tight and nervous."

The actor also studied Johnson's speech patterns.

"He tried to make himself more upscale so his Texas brogue that he spoke sitting in a chair in the Oval Office ordering a new pair of pants from a tailor was different from the man when he was speaking to the nation."

Gambon picked up on Johnson's in-your-face demeanor, holding the lapels of the suits of the men he talked to -- "dominating, staring at you."

"I know nothing about American politics, and I don't think you have to really," the actor said. "What I am trying to do is to play a man's personal dilemma from A to Z in the labyrinth of that White House with this war running away from him. He can't control it. He doesn't know what to do. His ego gets in the way. He doesn't want to be the first American president to ever have lost a war."

Johnson was "like a trapped animal," Gambon said, but "I got to like him a lot. ... A very funny, amusing man. I sympathized with his dilemma, and I just felt sorry for him."

'Ask the director'

Gambon plays a very different role in "Almost Strangers," an original drama written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, which was filmed on location in London two years ago.

"When people say, 'How did you get the part?' I always say, 'You better ask the director.' We actors are just guys sitting in the drawing room waiting for the phone to ring."

Gambon is undecided about future work. "Maybe I've done too much this year and I need a bit of a break," he said at a gathering of television critics in Pasadena.

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