The British invasion of Broadway reached fever pitch last week with the transfer of the London production of `The Iceman Cometh'. Actor Tim Pigott-Smith opens his diary and reveals the highs and lows of this extraordinary theatrical event. Photographs by Jonathan Torgovnik
Howard Davies' production of Eugene O'Neill's classic four-hour American drama The Iceman Cometh opened a year ago at the Almeida Theatre in north London, before transferring to the Old Vic. Davies won a string of awards, as did Kevin Spacey, who played the central character, Hickey. In February this year, four English actors from the original cast - Patrick Godfrey, James Hazeldine, Clarke Peters and Tim Pigott- Smith - arrived in New York to begin rehearsals with a group of American actors for the transfer to the Broadway stage. The play is set in Harry Hope's whiskey bar in downtown New York in the summer of 1912. Over the course of an evening, a group of regulars, including Pigott-Smith's character, the intellectual derelict Larry Slade, tell their tales. This, though, is Pigott-Smith's own story of the lead up to opening night.

15 February "Hey, I gotta ask," says the guy in customs, laughing at my visa, "what is this? Icemen Nice Woman plc? What the hell kinda work do you do?"

"I'm an actor. I'm doing a play on Broadway. Icemen Nice Woman is the name of our production company."

He wants to be impressed. "What's the name of the play?"

"The Iceman Cometh."

"Well, I sure hope the Nice Woman Cometh also. Please go through."

We finished Iceman at the Old Vic on 1 August 1998 - an unforgettable night. People were leaning out of the galleries. The stage was bombarded with flowers. Since that time it has garnered a crop of awards for the director, Howard Davies, and Kevin Spacey. I had a nomination for Best Supporting. Huh. And here we are, after months of expectation and wrangling with American Equity.

The traffic between Newark airport and Manhattan is heavy, but the sunset is mythical, like the New York skyline. It is a wonderful town. In 1974, I played Dr Watson in Sherlock Holmes on Broadway. I've been back many times, and it's always thrilling, but it's more real somehow to be back here working again. We made it. Kevin Spacey never doubted that we would. I was not quite so certain.

In New York, life is a movie: the bus driver is from central casting; the cop is out of NYPD Blue; the "A" train and Mott Street come from songs. "WALK". Woody Allen could come towards you as you cross Central Park West. "DON'T WALK". Every colour of skin. Every language. Big people - guys the size of Dormobiles. Dormobiles the size of trucks. Trucks the size of ships! Cowboy types. Every kind of headgear to protect against the scything wind. Even the snatches of sidewalk dialogue seem scripted: "He got real mean. Like he got his knife out and everything." The subway graffiti is good: a poster declares "Gambler's Anonymous. Call ..." followed by a freephone number. Underneath, in spray, "10 to one they won't answer".

I'm padding down temporarily in a friend's apartment on the Upper West Side: he was our company manager in '74. Later that night, after a welcoming supper in a nearby restaurant, we visit a local food mall to stock up for breakfast. Thirteen flavours of hummus, 15 styles of muffin, more types of mushroom than you have ever seen, so many varieties of bread and milk that you can't make a decision.

18 February After a couple of days in which to settle, I start looking for an apartment and my rehearsals begin. It's nearly a year since we rehearsed at the Almeida and this rollercoaster of a production at last returns to its natural home. Set in the Lower West Side, it was first staged here in 1946. The famous Jason Robards revival of 1956 was directed by Jose Quintera. He came to see it in London, and had the generosity and grace to say ours was the definitive production.

No Kevin yet - the "Space Captain" is filming in LA. Today, there are just four of us, including Robert Sean Leonard (Dead Poets Society, Much Ado About Nothing), with whom I have my main acting relationship, and Howard Davies. We dive straight in. The new guys are good: a relief. I find I'm able to enjoy the new cast without feeling disloyal to my English colleagues who didn't get through the Equity net. I wish we could loosen the regulations on both sides of the Atlantic, and free up theatre in the English-speaking world. That said, it is already like an English colony here at the moment - with The Weir and Amy's View yet to arrive. We are working on stage - the set has been built so we can rehearse in situ. This is a Broadway first, and very helpful.

19 February There is good news: we rehearse with a much fuller company, and more talent appears. And there is bad news: we can no longer rehearse on stage. The stage hands' union does not wish to establish a precedent. It's like England in the Seventies. I hope the backlash here is not as destructive as it has been at home.

Pop in to see Zoe Wanamaker, who is playing Electra in the theatre opposite; leave a note for Judy Parfitt, doing Night Must Fall; and have dinner with Michael Blakemore, who's setting up a show for the autumn.

Spend the weekend securing a studio apartment on the East Side looking at the 59th Street Bridge and the cable cars that run over to Roosevelt Island. I can also see the river, which is nice. Fifth floor. Doorman. Elevator. Noisy. I'll survive.

New York has changed. I don't know whether it's Mayor Giuliani's Zero Tolerance, or what, but it feels less dangerous. Twenty years ago, my wife Pam and I had a terrifying experience on the subway and vowed never to use it again. Now, I travel "the train", as New Yorkers call it, at all hours.

22 February We have a fuller cast. Tony Danza from Taxi joins. We're on a marked-out stage at the Neil Simon Theatre, and our set is dark. Silly or what? Kevin arrives, and there's a buzz in the theatre. He carries his stardom naturally. Today, he is friendly, funny, fast and on form - as always. He holds the book but hardly bothers with it. The other American actors are also very well prepared. The understudies sit diligently in the stalls, watching, noting.

My Kevin story: when Kevin was in his teens, his mum and dad took him to see London theatre. He stayed in a hotel in Gower Street, and gazed longingly at the students going into Rada. He saw our Sherlock Holmes at the Aldwych. On that night, the set fell on me - literally - like the Buster Keaton house-facade gag. I was lucky not to be hurt.

When we were in the dressing rooms at the Almeida, Kevin started recounting the incident, not realising that I was the actor on whom the set had fallen. He recalled the ad-libs that the incident occasioned with absolute clarity: when the set had been righted, and I emerged from the chaos, I called for the butler - to help clear up some broken furniture. That got a laugh. The butler came in and said, "A trifle windy out tonight, sir." That got a laugh. I replied, "Yes, Parsons, we should never have moved to Kensington." That got a round. When I congratulated Kevin on the accuracy of his memory, and he learnt that I had been playing Watson, he looked like a kid. Funny old world.

Strangely, there is a line in Iceman, Hickey to Larry (Kevin to me): "You're not so good when you play Sherlock Holmes." For a laugh, in rehearsal, Kevin sometimes adds, under his breath, "You're a much better Dr Watson." I am foolishly proud of this story. I don't know why.

Tomorrow is a day I dread - the dialogue coach is in. There were no complaints about my American accent in London, but it's another thing to pull it off over here.

23 February The read-through. Before we read, the main producer talks to us. Emmanuel "Manny" Azenberg is a charmer. In his early 60s, moustachioed, he has a lazy drawl and a ready wit. He talks about the rarity of legendary productions such as this. He says he wants to be a part of Broadway history. Not remotely understated. It's both stirring and intimidating for the Brit pack.

Having done a bit of work beforehand, the new company are clued-in to the approach and the read-through takes off like none I have ever been to. The play is astonishing, the language is so rich: "An old grafting flatfoot, and a circus bunco steerer. Fine company for me, bejees!" The characters are so strongly drawn - most of them from people O'Neill knew. My character, Larry Slade, was based on a charming old intellectual derelict that O'Neill met when he frequented Jimmy-the-Priest's, a downtown flophouse. O'Neill subsidised this man - and others - for the rest of his life, even paying for his funeral.

The dialect coach isn't worried, thank heavens. She's spotted a few give- aways, but I guess I'll make it through to the press night. I talk to her about the development of language in America. Some of what we read as American brashness, she puts down to the need to communicate across language barriers, an upfront deliberateness - "Whadda ya want? TEA or CAHFFEE?"

From now on it's tough. Rehearsals are often like this. A read-through can provide a sense of fullness of a play that isn't experienced again until you get it in front of an audience. Sometimes not even then. Although Howard's vision is feisty, energised and acidly comic, the play is demanding in the way of a Shakespeare or a Sophocles. Its agonised vision is clear: to survive the pain of living, you have to have a dream or hope; but in O'Neill's world, dreams are pipe- dreams and hopes are lies. Even at its most positive, the play is emotionally draining. And long. My character is one of two who don't leave the stage. This means I rehearse all day every day. In performance we go on stage before the audience comes in, at 6.50pm. The curtain comes down at 11.15ish. You can imagine what matinee days are like.

By the end of the first week, we are up to schedule. Howard is doing as he did in London - working fast through the play to give people an idea of its size and journey. It is one of those plays that gives you problems when you work it slowly. If you can find the courage to fly at it, it comes easier. It's unnerving for the Americans, but it's exciting.

1-7 March The Americans drop their scripts almost entirely - a feat for such an enormous play. They are not only clever, they are exceptionally hard-working, and also courteous. Several of them call Howard "Sir", which we just don't do in England. To us it sounds almost sycophantic, but for them, it's automatic. The hard work and the etiquette are indicative of another system - the ruthlessly commercial theatre. Being fired is rare in England. Here it's part of life.

The company's background, and their familiarity with O'Neill, means they get to the heart of it much quicker than we did. The area they find harder is the manipulation of the language, which an English actor is more used to. Different culture and training. Robert Sean Leonard and Michael Emerson are finely tuned, highly intelligent and experienced stage actors. Others have to fight the curse of their naturalistic experience in movies and TV.

Among the cast are some extraordinary characters with life stories that could be movie scripts. Tony Danza, who plays Rocky, the barman, used to be a barman and a boxer: "The battling bartender - serving Mittens instead of Manhattans!" Walking down 8th Avenue with him, cab drivers hoot, people say "Hi", a gang of kids chant "Tony!" He is a television face. He's charming and full of stories - the fight game, getting into TV, boxing with Stallone.

I talk one lunchtime to Jeff Weiss, who is to play Ed Mosher. His own personal story begins - "I ran away from a Pennsylvania institution at the age of 14, and found myself working as a janitor for Professor Hubert's Flea Circus on 42nd Street. Where men were men. And so were some of the women." He ran away because he was hyperactive and they were going to lobotomise him.

We work through the play with increasing thoroughness. The overall atmosphere is very light, full of jokes. Tony asks, "Did you think I was too petulant in that bit, Sir?" Skip Sudduth, who plays Chuck, the other barman, says, "Petulant, huh? See what workin' with Brits is doin' for him? Used to be a boxer. Now he's usin' words with three syllables." This is not unlike the relationship between Chuck and Rocky. By the end of the week, we have gone through the whole play in some detail. Good going.

Extraordinary news. Just heard that Jose Quintera died on Friday. Disproportionately upsetting.

And then there comes a day when the movie that is New York turns film noir. The rain comes down like you're in the shower, my favourite shoes pack in and I long for a little English understatement and irony. The endless advertising gets on my nerves - "With our new, specially chosen mattresses, we guarantee you 83 per cent less tossing and turning!" Idiots. People in the street are much less spacially aware than they used to be when the city was really dangerous, and they bump into you all the time. It's loud. I miss home. I miss my wife. I miss my son. I talk with home every day, but sometimes that makes it worse.

But hey, there are compensations. Cinemas everywhere: at last I catch up with Shakespeare in Love - fab; the ritzy first night of Not About Nightingales, the fine National Theatre production of a fascinating, if callow, Tennessee Williams play, starring Robin Williams, with the astonishing Christopher Reeve in attendance; a visit to a jazz-diner - so easy to hear jazz in NY; ice-skating in Central Park on a glorious freak spring Saturday; a chance encounter with George Fenton - composer of the music for Jewel in the Crown - in the Cafe de Luxembourg; a reunion with an old US friend in Joe Allen's one night; the generosity of the American cast; the companionship of the Brits.

8 March The box office is open to the public, and the lobby is crammed all day. And we are back on-set at last. Kevin's been on the case. After two bouts of negotiation, he's managed to persuade the stage hands' union that relaxing the rules for a four-and-a-quarter hour play from England, with a cast of 19, and the set already built, is hardly likely to establish a precedent. We begin working from the top again. This is an arduous time - beginning to rehearse chunks of the play. Acts. Act one lasts roughly one hour 20. It's tough. It becomes very clear which bits are working and which aren't. The atmosphere remains high-octane. Slowly, we nail the bits that are evasive, and slog on up the mountain

11 March Six of us have a photo-shoot for The New Yorker magazine. A limo takes me to a downtown studio. This is a morning I am not looking forward to: full make-up. My hair is thin on top, but for this part, I shave it off. I hate doing it. My beard is now fullish, and my hair unkempt and long enough to whiten and muck up. I manage to persuade the fashion make-up artist that she can't do my make-up for me. She is offended until she sees the filth and pockmarks, the broken veins, the sweat! The brown and yellow teeth.

Photographers usually keep at you. Not this one, Max Vadukul, a young Englishman who is hugely successful here. He bangs several reels off at fantastic speed - very rare. Afterwards, I tell my driver to make a detour and drive me along Lower West 12th - the street where Harry Hope's saloon in the play was situated. There were a lot of Irish bars in that area at that time. The street is still cobbled, if a little elegant now. The Lower West Side in 1912 was tough and dirty; garbage was piled high on the sidewalks before the city had a sanitation department. I have always had an image in my mind for the line, "This place does a fine trade from the market people across the street, and the waterfront workers." Now I have a real picture of the waterfront and the huge meat markets that still exist in that part of town.

The news is that we have broken a Broadway record - by taking the largest advance ever.

As if he didn't have enough to do, Kevin is shooting a movie during the evenings. His energy is unstoppable. He's working on an idea to have a period advertising sign flashed on to part of the set above the proscenium arch to get people to switch off their mobile phones. It was a curse in London: 25 went off in the course of the play. It's worse here: Elizabeth Franz - who plays the wife in Death of a Salesman - told me that during her breakdown towards the end of the play one evening, a woman got out her phone, dialled a number, and said, "Yeah. It's nearly over. There's about two minutes to go. So you can bring the car round. OK?" Help.

Kevin's also having the dressing rooms re-organised so that we can have the same share-and-share-alike as at the Almeida. He could have a room to himself if he wanted to, but he recognises the value for the play of a shared space. He is genuinely democratic, rare for someone in his position.

At Kevin's request a dressing room by the stage door has been turned into a little reception room. Buddy, the stage-door man, is heard to remark: "And they made this nice little room just here for the people after the show - press, and shit like that."

13 March Day Off. Do a video audition for a film. Hopeless, embarrassing. Wish I wasn't an actor. Fantastic weather. Go to the South Street Sea Port to relax in the sun. Walk over Brooklyn Bridge. Have drink with Paddy in the River Cafe, my favourite New York restaurant. It sits on two pontoons just south of the Brooklyn end of the bridge, and looks back on Wall Street. It's a staggering view. Pop in to see Kevin filming. Meet Danny DeVito.

14 March We work on one act a day and run it. The play starts to take off and is only a few minutes too long: not half bad. The week carries on this way, moving towards the mountain, a run-through on Friday.

We begin the run at 10.15ish. With two breaks - as in performance - we finish at 2.35. Spot on. We are all wiped. Not only does it happen - How? "I don't know. It's a mystery!" - the increased American-ness of the experience peels away yet another layer of the onion, revealing more of the play than ever. We have two weeks to go till the "Gypsy" dress - an invited, free performance. With luck, the company will be right on top of it and, as Howard says, "If the work we do in the next week doesn't have time to set, and we slip back to this level of playing, I'll still be very pleased."

Paddy and Jimmy come to my place in the evening, and we all agree that the production is even more extraordinary than before: to do with context - audiences will perceive it here in a way that an English audience simply can't. More profoundly, we realise the themes are specifically American - the American Pipe-dream would not be a bad subtitle.

20 March The main thing on my mind today is the England/France Five Nations clash at Twickenham. I manage to find an Irish pub on 2nd Avenue that is screening the match - starting at 9.30am. Meet Howard, and watch the game over a breakfast of steak and eggs. It's hard to hang on to your waistline in New York. The place is full of English, and a few French. Spend the evening at a choral concert of 20th-century American works: Barber, Paulus, Rorem, Hindernith, Corigliano. Some beautiful music.

21 March Go to the movies - Central Station - and an Oscar party given by Simon Jones, an English actor who is married to an American and lives in New York. Lovely party. We stick $5 in the hat and bet on the winners - I get 12 out of 24. The winner gets 19. Sad for Ian McKellen - did anyone want Benigni to win? Rain in stair-rods. No taxis.

22 March We are back to detailed work - tightening up, speeding up. But there is a group need to run, so Howard schedules a run of the first three acts for tomorrow, with the final work on act four, as we go through the technical rehearsals which begin on Wednesday.

23 March Good run. Good notes. Just giving notes on a play as long as Iceman can take two hours. We finish in time for me to go to the theatre and see Rupert Graves in Closer. Slick, funny, dirty. Very well acted. Directed by the author, Patrick Marber. Mmmm. Have a drink with Rupert afterwards in Barrymore's which we seem to have adopted as our local watering- hole. He felt a bit down about his own performance, but said the audience were very responsive. Good to see him. Across the road from us, Zoe Wanamaker has vacated the Barrymore and a large picture of Judi Dench now dominates the street.

24 March Techs begin - setting sound, lights, music, costume, make-up. Go into the theatre, taking an evening meal from a salad bar with me: once I'm dressed and made up (kit takes 35 to 40 minutes), I can't leave the theatre. Into the crowded dressing room. Open the make-up box, lay out my place, picture of Pam and Tom, try and make a little home. Kevin has chosen the corner that he had when he made his Broadway debut - in Ghosts - at the age of 20.

It is at this point that having been on stage really pays off. There is none of the usual strangeness as you become used to the set, furniture and props. The set is home already. We finish at 11-ish, having worked most of three acts.

26 March Dress run in the afternoon. Sluggish act one, then we lift off. It's efficient rather than lively. But I prefer that with the dress. Break, then notes. Go to Joe Allen's to eat and relax. Bump into Jim Norton - The Weir is already previewing. The British invasion continues.

28 March The Gypsy dress. Full house - all paper. Nerves are up, but we are ready for an audience and it goes with a swing, despite the presence of photographers and video cameras, clicking and whirring. Big reception. We can now look forward optimistically to 10 days of previews.

There's a warning from Howard: one of the reasons for opening a play in Boston (thereby skipping previews in New York) is to avoid receiving "notes" from friends. Just don't listen to your mates, is his advice.

29 March-4 April First preview. First paying public. It is better than last night. We have our second-night let-down on the Tuesday. Howard has the good sense to give us a day off, which helps: fatigue is a factor in a play as long as this. People are developing colds and Kevin's voice wavers, which is very unusual. The play is in good condition but the increase in the stakes as we near the first night is palpable. We build a much more technically precise show by the end of the week. By the Saturday matinee, the performance is the best it has ever been, including London, with the company learning to ride off the laughs and drive it through with focus. Just as well: Neil Simon is in. Kevin brings him round to meet the company and he is sweetly generous: "A great ensemble, with a great star. I can't imagine that we shall ever see this in America again."

By Saturday evening we are wiped out. We calculate that two performances - nine hours - is the equivalent of six performances of Art, which is playing three blocks down, and five of The Weir. A big Jack Daniel's. Bed. A day off. Clocks go forward: it seems unfair to lose an hour at this stage.

5 April The press are in and will be for two nights. It's called continuous assessment, but our cynical view is that the hacks need time to get an intelligent review together by Friday morning. Just kidding. The first night, on Thursday [8 April], will be social rather than critical.

We have a very brief rehearsal and note calls. The play is up and together. It's with the gods - or the hacks. It doesn't really matter, because the 12-week run is practically sold out. With a standing ovation every night, reviews are a painful formality. I haven't read a review during the run of a play for nearly 15 years now. I still haven't read any of the London notices of Iceman. They don't improve the performance, even if they're good. So why hurt yourself unnecessarily?

8 April First night. Dressing rooms piled high with flowers, Champagne, gifts, cards. A telegram from Ted Mann, producer of the Robards production of '56. A letter from Robards himself! Stage door under siege. Audience there to be seen. The performance is better than they deserve.

The party at the Tavern on the Green (in Central Park) is major. The spring night is balmy. The lights in the trees twinkle. It really is a night to remember.

And will we enter Broadway legend? Well, I can't tell you, because I don't read the notices

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