2004-12-09 / Arts & Entertainment

Clown Prince Bill Irwin Profiled On PBS Special

“Fred Astaire on mojitos” is how Robin Williams describes him. Bren-dan Fraser calls him “a living treasure of the American Theatre, bar none.” Explaining a funnyman is not easy, but the comedian and actor are among the devoted colleagues and fans who take the plunge in Bill Irwin

, Clown Prince, Wednesday, December 15 at 8 p.m. (ET) on Thirteen/WNET New York’s GREAT PERFORMANCES on PBS (check local listings).

Actor, playwright, director, choreo-grapher, clown, Irwin, indeed, defies categorization. In the decades since he began cavorting with San Francisco’s famed Pickle Family Circus, his diverse career has included original works for Broadway, including the Tony Award-winning Fool Moon; star turns in Mike Nichols’ production of “Waiting for Godot,” with Robin Williams and Steve Martin, and Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?; Hollywood blockbusters like “Popeye” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” not to men-tion his guise as Sesame Street’s Mr. Noodle.

“Bill is impossible to categorize,” says theater director Barry Edelstein. “Bill is original, and anybody who is completely original cannot be reduced to a single label.”

Adds Mark Mannucci, who produced and directed Bill Irwin, Clown Prince, “A lot’s been said about how Bill has reinvented the clown, about his pro-wess as physical comedian, about his utter originality and unique brand of theater - and it’s all true. But the bottom line is that he’s funny. Funny like silent-screen clowns Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were funny. Funny because, like them, he makes us laugh at the little stuff that reveals the larger truths about life.”

Such truths are on vivid display throughout the special, which draws from 25 years of Irwin’s most memorable comic moments. Particular attention is paid to his recent season in residence at New York’s Signature Theatre Company. From there, viewers will savor highlights from Irwin’s updated production of The Regard of Flight, a comedic tour-de-force commentary on the theater; the world premiere of The Harlequin Studies, his incarnation of the mischievous rogue from the tradition of Italian commedia dell’arte; and Mr. Fox: A Rumination, the story of the rise and fall of George Fox, America’s first celebrity clown.

Also included are sequences from the original Regard of Flight, as it was seen on Great Performances in 1982; Irwin’s Broadway productions of Large-ly New York and Fool Moon, and his amazing performance as Lucky in the Lincoln Center adaptation of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

Along the way, the special also explores how the performer creates his unique brand of theater and his relation-ship to the work of many of the physical comedy legends that have inspired him.

In addition to insights from Irwin himself, the program offers observations from director Julie Taymor (The Lion King), playwright John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation), New York Times theater writer Mel Gussow, Time film critic Richard Schickel, Broadway producer James Freydberg (Fool Moon, Largely New York), James Houghton, artistic director, Signature Theater, and Geoff Hoyle, actor, clown and longtime collaborator with Irwin.

Actor, playwright, director and clown, Bill Irwin is profiled on Thirteen/ WNET on PBS next Wednesday (check local listings). Carol Rosegg

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