James Carpenter has been holding court on Bay Area stages from Cal Shakes to San Jose Rep for almost 30 years. The consummate actor has reigned supreme in iconic Shakespearean roles from "Richard III" and "Henry V" to "Titus Andronicus." His cavalcade of classical performances has earned him the mantle of Bay Area theater royalty.
"He's one of the finest American actors anywhere," says Carey Perloff, artistic director at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. "When I think back to the gallery of portraits he has created over the years from his 'Master Builder' at Aurora to his beaten-down salesman in 'Glengarry Glen Ross' at ACT, I feel incredibly grateful that he has chosen to make the Bay Area his home."
Widely hailed as a local treasure, the 60-year-old thespian brings an unmistakable intelligence and forcefulness to every role he plays, but he also seems to disappear into the part so that he can hop from Strindberg to Stoppard in a heartbeat. In 2010, Carpenter won the prestigious Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship for his estimable contribution to the theater world. Now he is bringing his gravitas to bear on Scrooge in ACT's "A Christmas Carol." But despite his many years in the spotlight, he still bristles at accolades.
"Local treasure? How the heck did that happen?" Carpenter says.
"It's hard to believe that people think of me that way," he says. "I've always had trouble taking compliments with grace because I usually think there is something I could have done better, but getting recognized for your work is very humbling. I feel incredibly blessed to have this kind of career. It's miraculous."
But that doesn't stop those in local theater from praising him to the skies.
"In all his characters, from kings to everymans, he is able to endow each with deep humanity," says actress Amy Resnick. "When you look into his eyes, you see fire, you see a twinkle, you see an ache."
An Army brat who moved around the globe perpetually as a boy, Carpenter lived everywhere from New Mexico to Germany. He finally moved to the Bay Area in the 1980s, soon becoming a stalwart company member at the then-fledgling Berkeley Rep. The region appealed to him far more than New York or Los Angeles because he always wanted to be an artist and not a celebrity.
"I fell in love with the Bay Area right away," he recalls. "I think you have to live where you can be happy in your life as well as your work. Too many actors move somewhere just to make more money and that very rarely makes you happy. It may make you rich but that's not the same thing."
For the record, he treats "A Christmas Carol" with the seriousness of political theater. Though some productions of the holiday show are so precious they lose all bite, Carpenter views the Dickens perennial as a cautionary tale for our society.
The actor, who cut his teeth at the celebrated Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, approaches Scrooge with the same depth and nuance as he would King Lear. Even though this is his seventh whirl through ACT's seasonal chestnut, he invests every moment with a deeply felt sense of realism.
"Children love this play but it's not really a show for children," he says. "That's not who it resonates with. You have to have lived for a while for the themes to register with you. Dickens was an angry man when he wrote this. It's very political. It's a fable for adults.
"You can't experience this play and then walk past the homeless people outside. I know I can't," says the actor, who lives in Oakland. "If I see someone with their hand out, I give what I can. That's the power of theater."
He takes all of his roles to heart. When he plays a tortured soul, like the title character in "The Dresser" at San Jose Rep, he feels the sting deeply. In fact, he recently turned down a part at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco because he'd "done a lot of dark stuff lately and it can be hard to take."
That intense sense of empathy may be the secret to his versatility as an actor.
"Compassion might be a key to why his range is so broad and true, an ability to relate across a wide spectrum of humanity," says actress Stacy Ross. "He's absolutely committed, well-read, smart, experienced and with a truly broad range. He's also one of the best guys you'll ever meet."
And he's also the rare actor who listens as much as he talks. He makes a point of chatting with the homeless people who camp out near San Francisco's Union Square. He's even trying to snag some of them tickets to "A Christmas Carol." That is the kind of guy he is, friends say.
"He's a pal. While he has a great intensity onstage, he is laid-back and warm in real life," says Tom Ross, artistic director of Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company. "He takes his work seriously, comes into rehearsal super-prepared and hones his performances until they are polished like gems."
Carpenter's commitment to the craft is unparalleled. Honesty is mandatory for him. If he does something onstage that doesn't feel true, his "bogometer" goes off. He never tosses off a performance. And despite three decades of experience, he still sees himself as a student of the form.
"I try to choose projects because I can learn something from the people involved, from the playwright or the director or the other actors," he says. "And then I invite them to push me as hard they can. That's what I want. Every performance has to be fresh or it's no better than a recording."
He pays great attention to details partially because he has to. Lighting designs, for instance, can sometimes trigger his epilepsy so he has to vet strobe effects ahead of time.
Rigor and discipline come naturally to him. He had to be the best to please his father, who was an Army colonel and a tough customer. His dad repeatedly told him that he had no talent for acting and advised him to quit the stage or court disaster.
His father relented after seeing Carpenter play Petruchio in "The Taming of the Shrew" in the 1970s. "It was the first time I had ever seen that kind of pride on his face," recalls the actor, tenderness in his eyes. "I'll never forget it. Finally getting his approval like that was very gratifying for me."
For the record, his father was right about the grim reality of being a starving artist. Money is always tight for Carpenter and his wife, Cassandra, a costume designer. In order to afford the luxury of starring in Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" at the Aurora back in 2000, he had to pump espresso at Peet's Coffee between performances.
"Theatergoers kept coming in saying, 'What are you doing here?" he says, chuckling. "I was just trying to survive."
The gig paid Carpenter the princely sum of about $250 a week but the performance was a master class in subtlety and restraint.
But make no mistake, Carpenter is no theater snob. He had a ball playing the Frankenstein monster in "The Creature" and he's a rambunctious blogger in his spare time. But it's his devotion to the power of art that makes this "Christmas Carol" far more than just another holiday show.
"Can theater change the world? I hope so," the actor says. "I know it can change how we think and the way we feel."
'A Christmas Carol'
Adapted by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh from the novel by Charles Dickens
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
Tickets: $20-$130, 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org
Claim to fame: The iconic stage actor has given tour-de-force performances everywhere from Ashland, Ore., to the Bay Area for almost 30 years. He currently stars as Scrooge in the American Conservatory Theater's "A Christmas Carol."
Quote: "I fell in love with the Bay Area right away. I think you have to live where you can be happy in your life as well as your work. Too many actors move somewhere just to make more money and that very rarely makes you happy. It may make you rich but that's not the same thing."