12/21/2012 11:02 am ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Len Cariou, Broadway's Original Sweeney Todd, Reveals His Canadian Roots

Len Cariou may well be the most persistently employed performer on the planet. Just printing his credits takes up a half ream of multipurpose paper. Len leaps fleetly from role to role, format to format and venue to venue -- theater, film, television, recordings, narration, voiceovers, documentaries and audio books. He can dance, sing, weep, laugh, direct and what-have-you. Police procedural TV fans adore him in the current CBS hit show, Blue Bloods, as Henry Regan, the always-in-the-kitchen-cooking-something-delicious retired former New York City Police Commissioner, granddad of the clan that always dines together and father of the present Blue Bloods police commissioner played by Tom Selleck. Len is actually only five years older than Tom Selleck but Tom is more devoted to Grecian formula.

Len's roles have run the gamut from cabbages to kings. The two biggest cabbages? Louis Tobin, the Bernie Madoff-ish third-season-of-Damages no-goodnick Ponzi schemer, and Iago, Shakespeare's immortal manipulative villain. As for kings, Len's portrayed Coriolanus, Darius, Oedipus, Henry V, Lear, Macbeth and Oberon -- everyone but Richard III, which gives him a gig to look forward to. Len also thinks he might be ready to take a crack at Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Len grew up near Winnipeg in modest circumstances, with music always around the house: "I was a boy soprano with a natural kind of voice. My mother made sure it was trained it after it changed." By 10th grade Len was directing/starring in school plays at Miles MacDonnell Collegiate, and made his theatrical debut there playing Ralph Rackstraw in HMS Pinafore. A few years later he turned professional in the chorus of Damn Yankees at Rainbow Stage, an outdoor venue where the weather and the audience were co-dependent. Performing in local nightclubs and theaters kept him solvent until theatrical visionary John Hirsch established the Manitoba Theater Center and supplied Len with employment during its October to January season, augmented by performing the Classics at the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival between February and October until Len joined the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Then Broadway beckoned. As Bill Sampson, Lauren Bacall/Margo Channing's director/lover in Applause, a hit musical based on All About Eve, Len received his first Tony nomination and enjoyed a yearlong run. Then it was back to Guthrie for a double feature -- playing Oedipus and also replacing Frank Langella, who'd left the company, as Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

When Hal Prince asked Len to audition for a featured role in a new Stephen Sondheim musical, A Little Night Music, Len grabbed the opportunity to sing for Sondheim, who Len considers a genius, even though Len wasn't keen about playing Count Carl-Magnus. Instead Prince offered him the leading male role -- Fredrik Egerman, a succesfull widowed middle-aged lawyer married to an 18-year-old who wanted-to-remain-a-perpetual-virgin. Len was on Cloud Nine until he realized that rehearsals for Night Music would interfere with his prior obligations to perform at Guthrie and leave the company in the lurch.

He called Prince personally to explain why he was unable to accept his offer and so impressed Prince with his integrity that Prince postponed the rehearsal start date to one that worked for Len, albeit with tricky logistics. Len flew to New York on Monday morning, rehearsed until Thursday afternoon when he flew back to Minneapolis to play Oedipus. The upside? Len received his second Tony nomination. Also, a phrase in Bring in the Clowns -- "me as King Lear" -- inspired Guthrie director Michael Langdon to star Len in King Lear. The downside? Probably because no Hollywood hunk could deliver Sondheim's clever lyrics as crisply as Len did, Len co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky in the now-not-even-available-for-streaming-on-Netflix film version of A Little Night Music.

Best of all, Steven Sondheim wrote his next masterpiece, Sweeney Todd for Len and Len finally took home a Tony for Todd.

Len's show at 54 Below reprises his original nightclub act. Why? "It gave me a reason to get my singing voice back in shape." Also 54 Below was a perfect place to return to his roots, he adds, "because 54 below was the usual winter temperature in central Canada." Len arrives on stage to great applause, a relaxed pro, attired in elegant but casual black, and opens this show with the same upbeat opening numbers he sang 55 years ago. He talks about his life, his Broadway years, his meetings with great composers, pays homage to them by singing their songs, before he blows everyone away with spectacular renditions of Sondheim's Now, with Egerman deciding whether to (a) once again attempt to ravish/seduce his bride or (b) take a nap, and the exquisitely lyrical Pretty Women, both difficult songs which Len deliveres with mindbogglingly perfect dramatic passion. Even though Glynis Johns was awarded the 11 o'clock number Len had been promised, Len takes this opportunity to sing it, Send In the Clowns at 54 Below at 11 pm.

Remember, pretty much everyone at 54 Below is a class act, including the upcoming Maurice Hines, Charles Busch, Maureen McGovern, Linda Eder, Patti LuPone and in mid-January, the incomparable Linda Lavin -- my personal favorite.