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A Hedgehogness That Beats on the Brain

By Michael W. Miller

WHEN JOHN BELLUCCI '81-4 was a freshman, he played Hotspur in a Loeb Mainstage production of Henry IV Part I. "I had this great choreographed fight at the end with Prince Hall," he remembers. "We would go at it with these enormous magnesium swords really grunting and groaning and making it look like we were falling down all over the place, until finally he killed me.

"One night, Hall came at me with a big double-cut and the blade just snapped off the hilt of my sword. I froze, but Japes Emerson, who was playing Hall, knew immediately what to do--he jumped me. My sword went clattering away and we started wrestling on the ground. We were making the whole fight up as we went along now, and in the middle of it, I realized that if I died on my back, I couldn't make my final speech. See, I wanted to collapse during my speech--to show this great ebbing of life: 'O, I could prophesy, but that earthy and cold hand of death lies on my tongue...'

"Well, I knew I had to do something to get on my face, so I could get up. So out of nowhere, I threw Japes over on his back, to make sure I'd have time to pick myself up.

"And as I threw him. I heard from the audience these sudden gasps of 'Jesus!' and 'Oh my god? And I knew that I was creating something for the first time. I felt like I was really dying--and that was an experience, in the true sense of the word."

He looks up and takes a long breath. "For me, acting is closer to reality than living," he says. "When I'm doing it right, I never feel like I'm counterfeiting it."

FOUR YEARS and seven productions later. Harvard audiences can bear out Bellucci's words: the sight of him with a clean face and street-clothes is more startling than any make-up and costume. In elevators and dining halls, he is greeted by stares of hazy recognition and far-off voices muttering, "Aren't you...?" The sentence never ends with "John Bellucci"--it ends with names like Vershinin (from a Peter Sellars production of "The Three Sisters"), Helena Basket (the lead in the 1980 Hasty Pudding show, "A Little Knife Music"), and most recently, Mac the Knife, from last month's "Threepenny Opera".

"Sometimes I think they're all just variations on the same role," he says. "An actor doesn't have to inhabit a role, contrary to popular belief. What actors want to be, they become: that's why they get schticks sometimes--it's something they want-to do. Someone like De Niro, who is said to 'become his role'--I think it's just variations on what he likes. Because somewhere in every movie he makes, he's in a position where he can go like this..."

He races over to a corner and slumps onto the floor sitting against the wall with his head bent into his hands. After a moment, one hand becomes a pistol and he fires it at his temple. More than one person in the room flinches.

"There's something about sitting against the wall," he says. "He's after something he loves--he's refining the one vision he has. A sculptor doesn't inhabit different people--he'd be an idiot. When a soccer player scores a goal, that's just him, the same guy it always is."

When Bellucci speaks of acting, he treats it with the reverence and ardor of a missionary. "The expectations and hopes an audience has are sort of the hopes of the whole human race," he says. "You just can't let them down. That's the great thing about playing a lead role--you're so much involved in the fate of the show that you just push and push and before you know it, you're in this crazy realm where you're really acting. Acting is in that empyrean when it's that good. It's totally religious--it's for the sake of something bigger."

THE QUESTION most people have about Bellucci's future is not what will he do with himself but when will tickets go on sale. "I don't know," he says. "I think you have to be suspicious about people who really want to be actors. I demean acting too much to be a really great actor. An actor has to love it so much, and I just can't affirm it. I wish I could do it--it would make life so much easier. But I don't know what I should do in life."

He shrugs. "The way I see it, it comes down to a basic decision between two directions. One is to really affirm and exploit the artistic side--the side I live in here. But I don't know--that would never sever the connection, never cut the umbilical cord--it would be like never leaving mother. Sometimes I just want to eschew acting--to be a statesman, to reconcile the U.S. and the USSR or something."."

He cites Isaiah Berlin's study "The Hedgehog and the Fox," which takes its title from a quotation from Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing."

"This hedgehogness beats at my brain," he says. "I'm sick of feeling the same goddam thrill--I sort of want to fox it, just go out. I'd just like to be a doctor--I'd love to be a politician. Great politicians are great actors, I think: Caesar, Goethe, Gandhi--they're acting, but in the stuff of life."

His thoughts turn back to Hotspur, and the night his sword broke. "I'd like to give that show constantly. I'd like to be on the line--always be on the edge of dying," he says, "I'm secure enough that I'd like to feel I could give it all up."

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