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The softer side of Baldwin; Behind the scenes, the explosive star of '30 Rock' supports charities and cultural causes including Buffalo's Road Less Traveled theater

So you think you know Alec Baldwin.

The "30 Rock" star and "Saturday Night Live" favorite, whose public image seems perpetually on the rebound from some minor PR flap, strikes many Americans as a sort of quirky relative whose eccentricities we have gradually come to love.

We're familiar with his hot temper, his wry humor and his addiction to a certain mobile phone word game. Beyond that, at least to most of us, Baldwin remains an impeccably dressed, occasionally provocative enigma. But there is a side to Baldwin that most Americans do not know about. This is the Baldwin who recently presented a $25,000 check to a school district in Camillus, a town just outside Syracuse, to save its modified sports program. The Baldwin who campaigns against toxic waste pollution. The Baldwin who donated the proceeds from appearing in Wegmans supermarket commercials to a breast cancer charity he founded in honor of his mother, a cancer survivor.

Then, of course, there is the Baldwin who has twice appeared in Buffalo to lend his support to a small theater company, Road Less Traveled Productions.

On Friday, Baldwin will return to Buffalo for the third time to help raise money for RLT and lead a staged reading of Clifford Odets' play "The Big Knife" at the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts.

Baldwin spoke to The News recently before dashing off to shoot "30 Rock," the NBC comedy largely responsible for launching the ongoing renaissance of his career.

Baldwin had kind words for Road Less Traveled Productions co-founder Scott Behrend, whom he first encountered while Behrend was an assistant director for the Roundabout Theatre Company's 2005 production of "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" in New York City.

"This event, which will be the third time I'm doing this event now, it's my chance to catch up with the Orson Welles-esque output of Scott and his theater company," Baldwin said. "He's an impresario."

Baldwin's last appearance, in 2009, featured a staged reading of David Mamet's frenetic play "Speed the Plow" with several local actors, many of whom will also appear in Friday's reading at UB. The nearly sold-out event was an unqualified success for the RLT, which has grown significantly since the actor's last visit.

Baldwin often has talked about the thrill and freedom of live theater, the way it eschews the low- and middlebrow artistry favored by television and film execs in favor of more relevant and resonant material.

That interest plays directly into the character Baldwin will play on Friday in "The Big Knife" -- Charlie Castle. Castle is a Hollywood actor who longs to escape an oppressive contract so he can do work that fulfills him, and to win back his ex-wife. His employers will go to extreme lengths to prevent this, giving the play its rather sinister central thrust. "This is one of my favorite plays, and even though I am fairly too old to play the lead role of Charlie, I crave this play, I love this play," Baldwin said. "It's old-fashioned in a lot of ways, and it's dated in a lot of ways. It's definitely of its time, but it has such a great, tragic flow to it."

Given Baldwin's outspoken views about the baldly commercial nature of film and television, as well as the fact that he has signed a contract extension for "30 Rock," it would be tempting to read something into his decision to perform this relatively obscure piece at this exact moment. But, asked about what he sees in the character of Charlie Castle and the play in general, Baldwin responded coyly: "It pretty much says it all about Hollywood."

For Road Less Traveled, which Behrend co-founded with playwright Jon Elston in 2002, Baldwin's return marks yet another milestone for a small company that is fast making a name for itself in Buffalo and beyond.

Since 2009, Road Less Traveled has increased the number of shows it produces per season at the Market Arcade arts complex on Main Street and bolstered single sales by 40 to 50 percent, according to Behrend. With help from the Oishei Foundation, the company was able to hire a second full-time staffer, managing director Gina Gandolfo-Lopez.

It has expanded its reach during an economic downturn, a cultural funding crisis in Erie County and a continued decline in overall state funding and corporate philanthropy for the arts.

Behrend was careful not to paint too rosy a picture, saying the theater still faces steep challenges in developing its audience and finding funds not only to sustain itself, but to keep growing. That's why events like Baldwin's visit are monumentally important for the company, Behrend said.

"My hope is that it not only helps to solidify our current position but it gives us the opportunity to sort of take another growth step, which is really important in our evolution right now," Behrend said.

To his ever-expanding roster of social and political causes, Baldwin has recently added government arts funding, a concern of particular importance to small and midsize cultural groups like Road Less Traveled.

"I think that you want to have a steady diet for people -- a mix of those glaringly commercial enterprises and then things like museums and galleries and music and theater and programming for children and library readings, things that often have to be funded by the government," said Baldwin, who will deliver a major lecture on the subject in Washington in April.

In part because of its association with artists like Baldwin, Edward Albee and Stephen McKinley Henderson, Road Less Traveled has made promising inroads to segments of the population that don't typically include live theater in their entertainment diet. It also has cultivated a sense of cool that has often made its productions seem edgy and hip enough for twentysomethings but accessible enough for older theatergoers.

Baldwin, whose "30 Rock" work has done something similar for the American television audience, is a perfect fit.

"It's only, I would say, since the last time that Alec came that we've seen a good progression with our audience," Behrend said. "A great example would be our very last show, 'Superior Donuts,' where we were packing 'em in like sardines. But that's a newer trend now for us. Now we're starting to grow into a whole new day."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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Baldwin on stage

Alec Baldwin will perform in a staged reading of Clifford Odets' 1949 play "The Big Knife" at 8 p.m. Friday in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts, Amherst. The play, directed by Scott Behrend, also features Lisa Vitrano, Brian Mysliwy, Brendan Powers, Kristen Tripp-Kelley, Gerry Maher, Kelly Jakiel, Dave Hayes, Matt Witten, Cassie Gorniewicz and Barry Williams. Tickets are $60 to $75 through Ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000; for more, www.alecbaldwinreturns.com.