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British actor David Suchet

Renowned Stage Actor Hopes for More Mysteries

After a five-year absence, David Suchet is back as Agatha Christie’s beloved Belgian sleuth.

Before our conversation even began, David Suchet had a mystery to unravel.

Oh, it’s not one fraught with the sort of gasp-inducing revelations he’s accustomed to tackling as Agatha Christie’s eminent investigator Hercule Poirot. But he’s as intent on straightening out the phone number mix-up that prevented our originally scheduled interview as Poirot is about bringing a killer to justice. It makes sense that Suchet would share Poirot’s inquisitive mind. If people who live together can start to resemble each other, then Suchet should definitely share some traits with the fussbudget Belgian sleuth he’s spent so much time with over the past decade. Suchet has played Poirot in almost 50 television mysteries. He’s worked not only lengthy days in costume on the set, but long hours poring over Christie’s work to capture his character’s essence.

Although Suchet recognizes that he and Poirot both can be finicky, methodical and obsessive, it’s the differences between the actor and character that are most conspicuous at first.

Amiable, at ease and animated, the 53-year-old British actor laughs heartily, and instead of that prim Belgian accent, Suchet’s natural voice is rich and liquid. He talks with polished aplomb even when not performing — pausing, repeating and emphasizing certain words dramatically. And without the perfectly coiffed mustache and Poirot padding, he’s slimmer and radiates a much warmer disposition.

Reactivating ’little gray cells’

But after five years of Poirot living only in the never-ending world of reruns, Suchet was euphoric about the chance to reactivate the peculiar detective’s famous “little gray cells.”

This Sunday, an adaptation of one of Christie’s most acclaimed novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, debuts on the A&E Network, which acquired the rights to the series after it was canceled in Britain.

Now retired and living in a small English village, Poirot returns to detective work after his pal, Roger Ackroyd, is found dead in his home. To search for the killer, Poirot teams up with his old cohort, Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson reprises the role).

If favorable Nielsen numbers accompany Ackroyd and the next installment, Lord Edgware Dies, due to air this summer, Suchet could spend a lot more time in Poirot’s exquisitely tailored morning suits. That would delight him as much as his fans.

Suchet, a renowned stage actor in England, isn’t a haute thespian who laments being best known for his work in the oft-maligned medium of television. The actor, in fact, refers to Poirot as “my dear friend.”

“Someone once said to me, ’It must be awful to be remembered for playing Hercule Poirot,’” recalled Suchet, who’s currently headlining the Broadway revival of Amadeus as Mozart’s rival, the jealous composer Antonio Salieri.

“I couldn’t understand. I could spend the whole of my life as an actor, like the majority do, and never get remembered for anything. What a wonderful thing to be remembered for,” Suchet said of his Poirot role.

No less complicated

For Suchet, the role of Poirot, which he pronounces impeccably with the accent on the first syllable, is no less complicated than the theater roles he’s tackled. In the theater, he’s played parts ranging from the classical — Shylock and Iago with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the title role in Timon of Athens — to modern fare such as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and a college professor accused of sexual harassment in David Mamet’s Oleanna.

And Suchet has investigated Poirot as thoroughly as the detective does his suspects. He took extensive notes from Christie’s books after first being cast in the role, noting such minute details as how many lumps of sugar Poirot takes in his tea and referring to them when filming.

Still, rebirthing Poirot after a lengthy layoff proved to be a greater challenge than Suchet anticipated. Although the costume helped revive the detective’s personality, Suchet relied on tapes to help ensure character consistency.

“He’s so complex, not only in the way he speaks but the way he thinks and the way he looks at things,” Suchet said. "Nobody could play the Poirot as written by Agatha Christie if you don’t actually have and develop his mind.

“When he listens to people, he’s not just listening to words, he’s reading a whole personality. You can’t convey it in absolute words, but what you can convey is an intensity of listening.”

His dedication to the role created some commotion during the shooting of a previous Poirot project, Death and the Clouds, when Suchet was asked to turn the “volume” down.

“One actress actually said to me, ’Please don’t stare at me so hard when I’m acting,’ ” he remembered. “She found my eyes too penetrating. And I said, ’Well, I’m sorry. I’m playing Poirot — he does.’”

Suchet’s loyalty to the original source material extends not just to his character but to the entire story as well. And he wields influence on the matter. When he compared the Ackroyd script to Christie’s novel, he noticed the TV version omitted an early scene in which Poirot has a frustrating moment with a zucchini in his garden; Suchet asked for it be added. It was.

Deluge of anticipatory letters

Although Suchet has grown accustomed to a considerable amount of fan mail — as much as 200 to 300 letters a week at its peak — he wasn’t prepared for the deluge of anticipatory posts from restless Poirot enthusiasts.

“Normally, I get letters after the event,” he said. “People feel generous enough to write and say they’ve enjoyed it. You don’t usually get letters saying, ’I can’t wait,’ and that really is so exciting for me.”

A secretary helps Suchet manage the stream of letters he receives from the 53 countries where the show has aired and also helps run his fan club. And when his run in Amadeus ends later this year — his contract runs through July — and Suchet returns home to England, one of his projects will be to enter the Internet age with a Web site.

“We’re slowly but surely coming into the 21st century; but I don’t know if I’ve got the confidence that people will actually log on to me,” he said.

It would seem he has little cause for concern, from looking at the Hercule Poirot message boards at A&E’s www.mysteries.com site. They’re loaded with adoring posts from fans. Suchet is philosophical about such adulation, but he can’t completely understand it either.

“I think that people, women especially, feel terribly safe with him,” he mused. “He has no ulterior motive when he’s with a woman but to just give her the best quality of time and company that he can offer.”

Baffled by sex appeal

But he’s entirely baffled that some see sex appeal in Poirot, not only because of his less-than-comely appearance but also his ego and sometimes ornery disposition. "He’s a quirky, eccentric old man with a huge tummy — would I find a woman with those attributes sexy? I don’t think so.

“It’s rather depressing, because when I’m myself on television, obviously I’m very unsexy. Then I put on a huge stomach and mustache ... ” his voice trailed off as he burst into laughter.

The son of a doctor, Suchet has an 18-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter who remain in England with his wife while the actor works on Broadway. In recent years he’s popped up in supporting roles in several American films and TV movies, including: A Perfect Murder, Executive Decision, Moses and as Louis B. Mayer in HBO’s RKO 281.

One film project Suchet is most eager to complete is to put Christie’s remaining Poirot novels and short stories on film. There are more than 20 to go.

And what if they should get through with Christie’s entire Poirot oeuvre before enthusiasm for the show dies down? Could the crossover format that worked for TV series such as Law & Order and Homicide work for Poirot? How about Poirot and Inspector Morse partner up to solve a case?

“Oh, they wouldn’t speak,” Suchet said. “I think what Poirot would say is, ’Off you go. Do your best, and when you fail, come back.’”

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