From The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 27, 1992 • A Jason-K Exclusive!

By Joe Pollack Of the Post-Dispatch Staff

THE LEGEND of the clown as tragedian probably has existed as long as theaters and circuses. Like most legends, truth and fiction combine to keep it alive.

Of course, while the term ''clown'' encompasses the talented people in funny shoes and baggy pants who liven up circus crowds, it also covers great comedians, who draw laughter from comedy with an edge of bitter truth, as well as mimes, dancers and many other performers who fill the role, either all the time or just occasionally.

And then there's Bill Irwin.

Irwin fits no known mold. He was a theater major at Oberlin and UCLA, and he's a graduate of the Ringling Bros. clown school. He has starred on Broadway in one-man shows and in Samuel Beckett's ''Waiting for Godot'' and appears in the television series ''Northern Exposure'' as Enrico Bellati, the Flying Man, whose real name is Bob Wilson. In addition, he was the first performing artist to win a so-called genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

The classic clown, now 42, will perform at Edison Theatre next Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. with his longtime collaborator, Doug Skinner. The show, ''An Evening With Bill Irwin,'' includes pieces from his most recent Broadway hit, ''Largely New York,'' along with some moments from earlier routines, all the way back to his days with the Pickle Family Circus.

Irwin was sitting at the rear of the Edison on a recent visit to St. Louis. He was between flights, having arrived early in the day from a wrap on a ''Northern Exposure'' episode, and met with the technical staff at the theater. He was carrying a script to study on a flight to New York and a birthday party for his 2-year-old son, Santos. A photograph was produced and admired. Bill Irwin has light brown hair and almost-rosy cheeks that belie his age. He smiles a lot and presents the same sort of innocent exterior as his stage persona.

''I really consider myself an actor first,'' he said, when asked how he identified himself. ''I don't mind it when people call me a clown, or even a dancer. Not a mime, though. Too limiting.''

Irwin still speaks of the Ringling Bros. clown experience with warmth, but he discovered that he wanted to explore physical comedy more deeply and that the three-ring format of American circuses did not provide the intimacy of the one-ring circuses that are a European tradition. It was the one-ring Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco where he created Willy, a clown who charmed audiences for several years.

Burlesque clowns/comedians like Phil Silvers were an early inspiration, as were the comics and clowns who played ''The Ed Sullivan Show.'' The baggy-pants hoofer, almost Chaplinesque, grew from those people, filtered through Irwin's imagination. He became an Everyman figure, threatened by technology, by television sets that try to swallow him, by a stage curtain that ensnares him.

''It's a view of human existence that I take,'' he said almost shyly in explanation of some of the routines.

Irwin also has been a serious actor; he teamed with Robin Williams, Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham in ''Waiting for Godot'' in 1968. The Lincoln Center production, directed by Mike Nichols, was a sellout throughout the run, and Irwin isn't sure if it was the right way to do theater.

''When a production is an 'event,' '' he said slowly, ''it's a different kind of audience.

''I remember one night very vividly. About two-thirds of the way through the first act, Murray and I went off stage, and he kept whispering, 'Who are they looking at? Who are they looking at? They're not looking at us.'

''I'd noticed it, too, but you can't very well turn around to see what's going on. Anyway, I was in the wings, and he came over and said, ''It's Jackie O. She's here. Everyone is looking at her.

''But it was a wonderful experience. Nichols' direction was lovely, and people were sure that Williams and Martin were ad libbing, but every word was right from the script. They made it look so easy.''

He paused, thought a moment, continued, ''Just before we opened, Mike wanted us to do a performance in front of an audience. A bunch of acting students from Juilliard came to see us - and it might have been the best single performance we did. Those kids were so excited, and so attuned to what was happening on stage that their energy filled us. It was exciting.''

Williams and David Shiner, a great clown with the Cirque de Soleil, were together during the summer, shooting a movie that Sam Shepard is directing.

He laughed as he remembered their meeting.

''We were like two dogs sniffing around one another,'' he said, ''and then we got talking, and working together. It was one of those situations where the whole was more than the sum of its parts.

''He has a commitment to spend the rest of the year in Europe, but we've been working on a show together and hope to open it early next year.''

In the meantime, Irwin will take the script he was studying and perform in a one-man show for Joseph Chaikin, an adaptation of Beckett's ''Texts for Nothing.''

''Beckett is amazing,'' he said. ''He's so difficult and yet so easy.''

Irwin isn't sure exactly what his ''Northern Exposure'' role means in the larger scheme of the show, but he's found the work fun. He appeared in one episode last season - his character, who is silent, fell in love with Marilyn. This year, he will be on an episode with the great Swiss mime troupe, Mummenschanz; it will air in late October or early November.

''I think that's when it will play,'' he said. ''And of course, there's always the chance that all of us will end up on the cutting-room floor. Film is a tricky thing, because you have to play so much smaller than you do on a stage. It's not as physically demanding, but I have to keep reminding myself that I'm in a movie.''

Like most actors who work primarily on stage, Irwin is a little in awe of the exposure that television brings. ''More people will see me in one night than maybe will see me in a lifetime of theaters,'' he said. ''I've never done it, but I almost have a fear of doing something like soap operas, where the exposure is enormous. It's frightening.''

He grinned, hefted the shoulder bag that had the script.

''I'm really looking forward to coming out here again,'' he said of the forthcoming Edison show. ''I haven't done some of these bits in a while, but not doing them constantly makes them fresher when get out on the stage.''

Northern Exposure is Copyright Universal City Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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