- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2005

NEW YORK — By all accounts — even his own — Ron Rifkin shouldn’t be acting anymore. He had soured on show business by the mid-1980s — frustrated by the parts he wasn’t getting, unfulfilled by the ones he was. So Mr. Rifkin did something truly radical: He simply walked away.

“I was unhappy,” he recalls. “I was playing the same parts on television over and over — the sidekick, the friend of a friend. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just that it didn’t make me happy. I woke up every day in tears.”

Switching gears, Mr. Rifkin poured his creative energies into … coats.

The son of a furrier, Mr. Rifkin and his wife, Iva, decided on new careers in fur. They licensed the Carole Little label and designed coats that graced the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.

He had washed his hands of acting, even if the breakup was painful. “The first year was horrible,” he says. “I said I’d never go to the theater again, and I fully expected never to go to the theater again.”

A chance encounter in 1988 changed all that.

That summer, Mr. Rifkin decided to appear in a brief run of Arthur Miller’s “American Clock” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. Fatefully, the young playwright Jon Robin Baitz was in the audience.

“He came up to me and said, ‘I’m going to write a play for you someday,’” Mr. Rifkin recalls. “He said he saw something — he used the word “sadness” — that he identified with. I can’t begin to explain how he knew that I could play any of his characters. He knew nothing about me, but he recognized, I guess, something spiritually.”

Two years later, Mr. Baitz, true to his word, handed Mr. Rifkin a copy of his play “The Substance of Fire,” and the two embarked on a collaboration that would include its movie adaptation and the plays “Three Hotels” and “Ten Unknowns.”

“I jokingly call him my client — my only client,” Mr. Baitz said. “In some respects, it’s like Philip Roth has his Nathan Zuckerman; Ron Rifkin is my Zuckerman.

“I saw a man who had been through a lot, and he wore the experiences of his life on his face. The way sometimes smart directors know that comic actors are also filled with sorrow and rage — I saw that.”

Since being lured back, Mr. Rifkin has won a Tony Award, a starring role opposite Jennifer Garner on the hit TV show “Alias” and the continued admiration of the 43-year-old Mr. Baitz, who churns out material specifically for him.

“It’s amazing. I never expected to act again, much less have a career again,” Mr. Rifkin says between bites of poached salmon in a theater-district restaurant. “It is a second act.”

This summer, Mr. Rifkin, 65, is starring in a Roundabout Theatre Company production of Mr. Baitz’s “The Paris Letter,” which premiered in Los Angeles and made the trip to New York with only Mr. Rifkin still attached.

There’s a good reason for that: Mr. Rifkin’s part was written especially for him.

The play centers on the inner turmoil of a successful and married Wall Street broker — played by Mr. Rifkin — who must confront his homosexuality, something he has repressed for four decades.

“He came from a world that wouldn’t allow him to be who he wanted,” Mr. Rifkin says. “The play is pretty clear: Everyone has demons, everybody has secrets, everybody has shame. It’s tragic. It’s Shakespearean tragic. I think it’s Robbie’s best play.”

Before meeting Mr. Baitz, Mr. Rifkin had struggled mightily for such red-meat parts. Not handsome enough to be a leading man and yet not odd-looking enough to be a character actor, Mr. Rifkin had plied his trade in sitcoms and TV series such as “One Day at a Time.”

Since his return, he has earned a best-supporting-actor Tony for a revival of “Cabaret,” in 1998, and has appeared in such Broadway productions as “Wrong Mountain” and “Broken Glass” and revivals of “The Tenth Man” and “A Month in the Country.”

He also has appeared in the films “The Sum of All Fears,” “Boiler Room,” “Keeping the Faith,” “The Negotiator,” “L.A. Confidential,” “JFK,” and Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives” and “Manhattan Murder Mystery.”

Mr. Rifkin knows who to thank for this renaissance.

“Once Robbie wrote ‘Substance of Fire,’ people understood that I could play other kinds of things,” Mr. Rifkin says. “If Robbie had written that play without knowing me, nobody would ever have thought of casting me. My part was a sophisticated European intellectual. They would have gone to more obvious candidates.”

Mr. Rifkin also credits “Alias” creator JJ Abrams with similar vision for seeking him out to play Arvin Sloane, the show’s murky spy king: “It’s shocking. Who would ever think of casting me in a part like that? An ubervillain?”

And if all else fails, there’s always fur. Mr. Rifkin’s creations have gained in popularity — he even bumped into the ever-stylish Sarah Jessica Parker one day. She was wearing one of his furs.

“I said, ‘Sarah, that’s my coat.’” Mr. Rifkin says. “She said, ‘It’s Carole Little.’ I said, ‘That’s who I am.’ She had no idea. I called Iva from my dressing room. I said, ‘Sarah’s wearing TL1600 in black.’”

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