For years, Hollywood producers seemed to have Christopher Lloyd on speed-dial when they needed someone to play an eccentric oddball or kooky crackpot. His facility with those gonzo roles turned Lloyd into one of the most familiar, and celebrated, character actors of his era.
His rogues’ gallery includes a belligerent mental patient who lights his pants on fire in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the sinister Judge Doom in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” the ooky Uncle Fester in the “Addams Family” films, the villainous Kruge in “Star Trek: The Search for Spock,” and dozens more. He won two Emmys playing the lovably loopy cab driver Reverend Jim on “Taxi.” And, of course, he became a bona fide cinema icon with his manic portrayal of inventor Doc Brown, famed for his bulging eyes, ignominious fright wig, and “Great Scott!” declarations in the “Back to the Future” trilogy.
For his latest cracked creation, the 82-year-old actor is scaling the mountaintop of one of the theater’s most imposing parts — the aging, troubled, and increasingly demented monarch in “King Lear.” Produced by Shakespeare & Company, the play runs from July 2-Aug. 28 at the company’s new outdoor amphitheater in Lenox.
While Lloyd has a storied theater career dating back six decades, King Lear is a monumental task for any actor — and a rare leading role for Lloyd. Still, a man known for his often-outlandish characters is nothing if not daring.
“I certainly feel that I’m putting my life on the line in the Berkshires this summer,” he says with that familiar gravelly and tremulous voice, as he grins through the screen on a Zoom call from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., a few days before flying to Massachusetts to start rehearsals. “I don’t know what I’m going to do afterwards. Everything else will seem like, why bother?”
While he’d performed in the play three other times in various roles, including at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater in 1991, “I never yearned to be King Lear,” he says. Then about five years ago, “I woke up one day, and bingo, it came up into my mind! Why not me? I just felt, gee, maybe that’s within my range.”
The pandemic scuttled plans to produce the play last summer at S&C, but that gave Lloyd extra time to prepare. “I was a little bit short-sighted about the enormity I was taking on. I just wasn’t ready. So I’ve been at it practically every day since, and I’m so glad I got that reprieve. There will be no excuses this time!” he says with a laugh.
In the play, the king has decided to relinquish his throne and wants to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. So he calls them together and asks each to declare her love for him. The one who pleases him most will get the largest share of the realm. The conniving Goneril and Regan flatter him. But Cordelia, his beloved youngest daughter, refuses to indulge his self-aggrandizement and explains that no words can properly express her feelings for her father. His desires thwarted, Lear feels humiliated and enraged. He disowns Cordelia and banishes her from the kingdom.
“He’s a man who I think is very lonely. He’s been king pretty much all his life,” Lloyd says. “Now he’s 80 years old-plus, and his hope was that Cordelia would always be there to comfort him for his final days, so he’s now faced with life and death all by himself.”
Lear spirals downward, and when Regan and Goneril betray him, the king descends into madness. “He has some senility, and things are beginning to fall apart for him,” Lloyd says. “It’s mentioned that he’s becoming a bit erratic, short-tempered and confused. So I want to bring that into [the performance].”
The existential drama at the heart of the play — the human condition and the struggle against the approach of death — is what has drawn countless actors of a certain age to the role. “There’s a desperation within him. He doesn’t want to die, but he’s faced with end-of-life circumstances, which makes him very human because we all eventually get there. You know, I’m certainly much more aware of my age today than I was five years ago — or a year ago,” Lloyd says. “It used to be that death was over there somewhere. Now the horizon is kind of visible.”
He also connects with character’s fears and self-doubt. “I think he has a deep insecurity. And I have a lot of insecurity. So I’m trying to bring my feelings about it to the material.”
Nicole Ricciardi, the show’s director, asserts that Lloyd has betrayed little of that fear in rehearsal. In fact, she and the cast were in awe from the jump. “I’ve never seen an actor who can sit quietly in the corner, and then he gets up and walks into the playing area, and he’s at 120 percent right out of the gate,” she says. “Just full-on emotional commitment the minute he enters the performing space. It’s astounding.”
And she marvels at his ability to transition through the character’s shifting emotions. “He can go from intimidating to heartbreaking in a heartbeat. He has that ability to turn on a dime. One moment you’re laughing, and the next moment, he’s tearing your heart out.”
Returning to Massachusetts for “Lear” has Lloyd thinking about his New England roots. He grew up in Westport, Conn., the youngest of eight siblings (an older brother, Samuel, was an actor who helped get him his first paying job). He attended the Fessenden School in Newton for several years, and he later worked as a summer apprentice at the Falmouth Playhouse (before heading to New York to study under the legendary Sanford Meisner). In the early ’90s, he returned to the Boston area to perform at the ART alongside his friend, Alvin Epstein, who first directed him in 1975 in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with a young Meryl Streep.
“Boston has always been part of my life going back to my adolescence,” he says.
Indeed, as a shy youngster at Fessenden, there was a moment in which a spark may have been lit. He recalls walking across the football field and coming across a group of older boys hanging out. “I felt very intimated by them and uncomfortable. They were looking at me, and I felt the gibes were just about to start,” he recalls. “I did something that amused everybody, some little quirky thing. And it got me out of a potentially scary situation. I didn’t think of it at the time, but it was a germ of, ‘I can communicate my fear, my frustration, my whatever.’ ”
He realized he had the ability to hold people’s attention and make them laugh, and he began leaning toward theater and acting. “I found out that I could convey my feelings,” he says. “It was a home to me, a safe place.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.
Presented by Shakespeare & Company. At the New Spruce Theatre, Lenox, July 2-Aug. 28. Tickets from $33.50; 413-637-3353 www.shakespeare.org