NEW YORK - When the call came to do On Golden Pond together at Bucks County Playhouse, Keir Dullea and Mia Dillon asked each other, "Why didn't we ever think of that?"
Though best known for his role in 2001: A Space Odyssey or his early turn in David and Lisa, Dullea and his wife (since 1999) Dillon lately have been working through the slim but often prestigious body of plays with great roles for actors over that draconian cutoff age, 40.
Dillon, 59, who plays Ethel, is far enough away from her ingenue days that she retrained for a side career in acupuncture when roles started slowing down. Dullea, 79, is the same age as Norman, his character - one of the largest and more complicated roles of his career, a crusty, retired college professor facing heart trouble and failing memory as he turns 80. Rehearsals for the three-week run that begins Friday at the New Hope theater are a scant two weeks.
"This is our eighth gig together," says Dullea. But by the end of the interview, the count was up to 12, given how often one or the other said, "Oh yes, we also did that."
The important thing is that, while shows might have been forgotten, lines weren't. Dullea worked on the play for two months before rehearsals began, determined to be "off-book" on the first day, allowing him to concentrate on higher matters.
Neither Henry Fonda nor Katharine Hepburn, who starred in the 1981 film version and won Oscars, cast long shadows on them. "Every script you get . . . it's yours and nobody else's," said Dullea.
"You can have chemistry with different chemicals," added Dillon. "This play [by Ernest Thompson] has been around since 1979, and has been done all over the world, and was a major movie. There's a reason. This pond is deep."
Just as Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt were known to be stronger than the sum of their parts, Dillon and Dullea help each other as only fellow actors can, whether running lines or just empathizing with each other's process. Perhaps that's one reason both seem to be in their primes, discovering roles in plays likeTennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that might have seemed beyond them in years past but turned into triumphs. That's not to downplay their higher-profile glory years - especially because those periods were so interesting.
Born in Colorado and raised in Newtown Square, Dillon had her share of big-award nominations for provocative plays such as Once a Catholic and Crimes of the Heart, plus TV credits that include Mary and Rhoda as well as Law & Order and its various offshoots.
Dullea, who grew up in New York City but was educated at Bucks County's George School, was cast in films as disturbed and disturbing individuals (the Marquis de Sade, for one), even if his less-demanding astronaut turn in 2001: A Space Odyssey is the role for which he is best known. "You could do a lot worse," he says.
Some of his headier assignments were also the least pleasant, such as 1965's Bunny Lake Is Missing, in which he played opposite Sir Laurence Olivier but had to endure merciless bullying from director Otto Preminger as well as the frustration of sharing a film with the great Noel Coward but having no scenes with him. Dullea nevertheless insisted on meeting Coward, who immediately delivered what sounds like an insulting quip: "Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow."
But Dullea was flattered, noting, "How many people have a quote from such a man?"
Both he and Dillon feel that their good old days are now. Many stage actors are living on borrowed time after 70 due to memory issues and vocal decline. Some implode from the wear and tear of always going where the work is. But Dullea has worked fairly constantly, fondly recalling summer theaters in one-stoplight towns in Ohio. He looks terrific - certainly better than those late scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which he aged all the way to his deathbed. He often bicycles 20 miles a day near his home in Fairfield, Conn. You can see him these days on the towpath trails in New Hope.
The subtly radiant Dillon casually quotes the Dalai Lama and sees important parallels between acting and acupuncture. "Both of them, I believe, are about healing," she said. "In the theater, the shared communion of stories, when you're laughing and crying as a group. . . . That's what I love about the theater, that feeling of connection."
"In serious sections," said Dullea, "there's what I call 'the roar of silence' from the audience. The attention, the connection is palpable. I can't explain it, but it's there."
Carrying that sense of connection offstage is perhaps crucial. "There's almost a period of mourning after a play, for the family that you gathered together and that incredible energy that you had onstage," Dillon said. "The work is emotionally intense and then you have nothing. I can see how actors sink into alcohol and drugs. But if you have something spiritual - and it doesn't have to be religion - you still have a feeling of connectedness and being alive."
Such insights leave the two of them with little taste for sitcom-ish scripts - one reason why they happily went against type in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof two years ago when they played the aging Southern power couple in Provincetown.
Dullea says he momentarily failed to recognize Dillon in the part, so completely had she transformed herself into Big Mama with powers of illusion - and a matronly fat suit. "I have some steel magnolias . . . in my family," she says.
Dullea has little in common with portly Burl Ives, the most famous portrayer of Big Daddy. "But to me, it was the personal pinnacle of everything I've ever done in film, stage, or TV," he says. "I grew a long beard . . . and used a voice I'd never used, way down here. . . ." He says a few lines, and you hear what he means. They both want to do it again.
Something they won't touch is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Though they had success in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance (playing the secondary, non-warring couple), they won't take on the playwright's better-known piece for fear of ruining their marriage.
"People who play Martha and George, even if they're friends to start with, there's a rift in their relationship," says Dillon. "There's something about the cruelty of the play that changes their relationship."
Other actors might simply wait at home for the Big Phone Call to come, offering something like the film version of Driving Miss Daisy. Not Dullea: "I've had those calls already."
TWO FOR THE SHOW
On Golden Pond
Friday through Aug. 2 at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope.
Tickets: $29-$85. Information: 215-862-2121 or bcptheater.org