The Diary: Who's afraid of the stage door stalkers? I am

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I could always see one particular moment in my future: me, sitting on the Old Actors' Home Porch (known here in GB as Ye Olde Actors' Home) with my teeth in a jar across the room, and croaking to Nurse Wiggly, "I played the West End, dearie, did you know?" And she would smile and give me some extra food. It was a reminiscence of something that hadn't happened yet, if that isn't too confusing. Some actors yearn for Riches, some for Fame, some for groupies who look like Elizabeth Hurley. Me too, I'm not an idiot, but I also yearn for the West End, London Theatre, Gielgud, Olivier. Legitimacy. Tradition. It's an ancient desire - it made coming here to "tread the boards" this year an easy decision to make.

BEFORE WE opened, Marsha Mason and I were warned that we shouldn't be too uneasy, that the Brits (I love that word) were more reserved than American audiences, they didn't laugh as much, but that at the end of the evening they would "show their appreciation". I nodded, calm, and reached for a copy of the contract to see if I could get a fast attack of measles or something, anything that would get me back to the States before I had to face the "'Orrible Reserve". But to my enormous relief, we had been misled, and the audiences that came to Prisoner of Second Avenue in Guildford, in Coventry, in Malvern, Richmond and Oxford, were either Scottish soccer fans who had wandered into our theatre or the Brits (I love that word) who had relaxed and decided to show their famous Stiff Upper Raucous Side.

In any case, it has been very, very, very gratifying to hear the whoops and guffaws and giggles of all those nice people who have come to see our play thus far. We sold out everywhere, and people who came were so, so ... I don't know how to describe it, they sound as if they were all related to us by blood. (They aren't.)

Then we came in to London. It's nice that London has a lot of newspapers. It's nice. Now, I don't want to sound defensive about the reviews. Do I sound defensive? Well, defensiveness isn't the most inappropriate position when you're being attacked by contemptible shallow, talentless, neurotic ...

What was I talking about? Anyway, with or without them, we're a hit, a palpable hit, and even though some nights we've played to half a house, most of the time we fill up right to the rafters. Anyway, half a house at the Haymarket is still oodles of people, and most of the shows on in London right now, most of the shows most actors work in most of their lives, are on the half-house model, to be generous. There is something more than thrilling for an actor when he hears that the house is filled. It takes away those nagging thoughts that you might be leading the wrong life, that you should perhaps have stayed in the army, or finished the course on chemical weapons storage.

Filled houses remove all doubts.

I LOVE coming to the theatre every day, dodging the professional autograph seekers who fervently deny they are professionals, with their already prepared books of your entire life (and Brad Pitt's, and Hugh Grant's, and Claus Von Bulow's, for that matter). I don't know why these guys irritate me; it probably has something to do with the fact they I've always suspected that, scratch someone who collects autographs for profit, and you'll find someone corresponding with John Hinckley in the Stalkers Anonymous Programme. Maybe it's all in my head; that's more than possible. I've been wrong about lots of things since I've been here - I still have trouble crossing the street without reading the "Look Left" signs. Normal people who see the show and ask for an signature, I'm very flattered; the others scare the autograph out of me.

I love the rhythm of Theatre Life; it's perfect for the lazy, of which I proudly count myself. You work awfully hard for a month of rehearsals, then you basically settle in to giving out a lot of energy for two hours a night, plus matinees, and the rest of your life is good for sleeping and watching all that brilliant British television. I have no guilt when I do nothing, as long as I know I've got those two strenuous hours in the evening. On a film you work from dawn till dusk, you eat quickly, and you never finish a conversation. In the theatre, you can take classes, stroll through museums, and stay pretty much the civilised person you think of yourself as being.

The guy I play is wound pretty tight. He has what can only be called a nervous breakdown brought on by the usual transgressions of urban life. City living requires a kind of forgiveness, a daily act that allows the screamers, the ranters, the dirt and grime to share your life. Mel stops forgiving all this, and it overwhelms him. Sounds like a lotta laughs, right? Well, it is, so there, and you'll just have to come down and see us do it if you want to know how.

ON THIS last 29 May we closed the show for a couple of days so I could go fly back to Los Angeles and get married. Left London on Saturday morning, got married on Sunday afternoon, flew back Sunday night. It'll be a great anecdote in a few years, but right now it's just a fog of jetlag. Her name is Janelle. She's with me here now, for the last few weeks of the run. I'm far, far better with her around.