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A CONSUMMATE ACTOR

He lives it; he breathes it. For James Whitmore acting always has been everything. From his first role on Broadway to his character studies of Harry S. Truman and Will Rogers, Whitmore has been driven. Just look at him; his face oozes experience.

Describe acting.

Ho, ho, ho, ho, you dickens. Describe acting? OK. Did you ever see children play and make believe? You've got it.

Isn't it grueling?

Oh, well. Olivier called it the sweaty business of acting. It's a very demanding profession in many, many ways, not the least of which are the physical demands.

You are in pretty good shape.

For the shape I'm in, yes. Every day 40 laps in the pool and I do aerobics and I jog in the pool. My knees have gone; I've had three operations on my knees. I spaded up my garden one day, and that was it. The next morning I couldn't walk. So there you are, and there I was on the operating room table. I don't think we should ever let them invade our corpus unless we are desperate.

Do you still smoke?

I smoke a pipe, and I shouldn't. I gave up cigarettes 30 years ago without a backward glance -- nodes on my vocal chords. For an actor, those are vital.

If you weren't acting, what would you be doing?

I've always loved what Jackie Gleason said. David Susskind asked him: "What would you like to do if you didn't have to be in this silly business?" And he finally said: "Well, I think I'd shine actors' shoes." The point being that I have great respect for my profession that I can't imagine being privileged to do anything that would satisfy and fulfill me more.

Why on earth did you enlist in the Marines?

We all did. Everybody rushed out. The Japanese had invaded part of our country, and our country was definitely threatened. The West Coast was in blackout, and the Jap subs were shelling Santa Barbara, theoretically. That switch was turned, the territorial imperative.

Times have changed.

They're changing as we speak, but I don't long for the good old days. I long for tomorrow, the next moment. I long for my grandchildren and what the future holds for them.

What's it like to age so publicly?

Terrific. I love it. I love it. I love it. It's part of life, as is death. Teddy Roosevelt said: "Life and death are both part of the same great adventure."

Are you well-read?

I certainly adore reading. I've given up on fiction completely, because there's so many other things that deal with history and fact. I must say that my children induced me to read Vonnegut, and I read all of Vonnegut. I don't need, at the moment, other sensibilities to open doors for me.

In the feast-or-famine world of acting, where are you now?

One of the great blessings for actors is the opportunity to do commercials. I'm not one of the huge earners, but I am able to pretty much underwrite the things that I love to do. Doing the commercials makes it possible for me to come to Buffalo and work for nothing, or relatively speaking, nothing. I do wind up out-of-pocket when I do regional theater.

You have such a regal face.

I don't know what to say. I have to shave it every day. I'm not that fond of it; I don't dislike it. It seems OK.