Anthony Heald, starring in Arden's 'Gypsy,' has a face you've seen somewhere before

Actor Anthony Heald at rehearsal for his role in Gypsy at the Arden Theatre. (Avi Steinhardt/ For the Philadelphia Inquirer)

On a recent rainy morning,  Anthony Heald was dashing from the Rittenhouse area to the Arden Theatre in Old City, where he’s playing the legendarily put-upon Herbie in the Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents musical Gypsy. “Now, this is the quintessential American book musical,” Heald said with gusto.

The show opens Thursday, with Philadelphia actress Mary Martello as the ultimate stage mother in the lead. Heald plays her singing, dancing, jocular paramour, tapping into talents you haven’t witnessed unless you go back 30 years to when Heald was nominated for a Tony Award for his role as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh in the Lincoln Center revival of Anything Goes.

“I’ll accept a role in a musical if I think I can pull it off, if I feel I won’t end up looking foolish,” he said.

Heald’s hoofing and crooning may surprise fans. His most recent stage run, on Broadway and London’s West End, was in The Elephant Man, with Philadelphia’s Bradley Cooper. He's most recognizable for TV and movie roles with a darker tone, like sleazy Scott Gruber on the series Boston Public (he has also had recurring roles on David E. Kelley's Boston Legal and The Practice) and Hannibal Lecter’s preening arch-nemesis, Dr. Frederick Chilton, in The Silence of the Lambs.

Film and television are nice, but Heald said they're distractions to his true calling and deepest passion. “Theater is my home,” he said. “When I do a film, I find myself driving home thinking about a moment where I want to change something but can’t. It is forever on film. That’s not true on stage. I can learn new intricacies nightly.”

Heald lives in Ashland, Ore., and has been part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival company for more than 50 years, tackling the Bard’s The Merchant of Venice (as Shylock) and Othello (as Iago), among other classical roles. “I love the elasticity of his language, the subtlety of his characterizations, and the opportunity to revisit Shakespeare’s plays with entirely different approaches each time,” he said.

Along with that, Heald has been a favorite of lit-wit playwright Terrence McNally, acting in Broadway versions of Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995), The Lisbon Traviata (1989), and Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991). “Terrence has a wonderful way of being brilliantly funny and heartbreakingly sad,” said Heald, who called the playwright's process with actors "incredibly organic and alive."

Heald also had kind words for Bradley Cooper, opposite whom he  played both the mean-spirited sideshow manager Ross and the benevolent Bishop How in Elephant Man. “We had very transformative moments between us, things he’d never repeat, crucial when the stakes were highest. He was open, free, improvisational, and wicked fun to work with.”

Heald's high regard for Gypsy’s Martello and Ian Merrill Peakes – both friends from his past – is how he got to Herbie and the Arden in the first place. He had worked with Martello and with Peakes’ father, John, at the BoarsHead Theater in Lansing, Mich. “I remember Ian as a 7-year-old when I was at BoarsHead,” he said with a laugh.

Heald played Macbeth with Martello (who was one of the witches) and directed the actress in Hot L Baltimore. “We were great friends but lost track until four years ago, when visiting a friend in a hospital, I heard someone yell, ‘Phil,’ my real first name. Turned out to be Mary’s daughter, who was a nurse. I hadn’t seen her since she was 10.”

He and Martello kept in touch after that, and when Heald spent a summer with his wife's family in Philadelphia, he asked around about possible work. “Turned out Gypsy didn’t have a Herbie," he said. "So I met with the Arden’s Terry Nolen, and we went to work.”

While Heald is in town, he is looking to stage a reading of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, with Martello and Peakes in pivotal roles, and to find a home for a play about local painter Thomas Eakins that he'd been working on for the Philadelphia Theatre Company ... until the company decided to go on creative hiatus for its 2017-18 season. “All good things in time, though I must work quickly, I suppose,” he said.

Before Heald dashed off on that rainy day, he also shared memories about friend-to-Philadelphia Jonathan Demme, his director on The Silence of the Lambs, who died late last month.  "Working with him on Silence was amazing,” he said.

"Jonathan was a true gentleman with a great sense of humor and an amazing eye. I remember a whole day’s filming was ruined by a hair in the lens gate -- no joke. Another director would’ve exploded.

"Jonathan? He thought it hilarious and invited us back to his house for pizza.”

Gypsy runs from Thursday to June 18 at the Arden Theatre, 420 N. 2nd St. Tickets: $15-$50. Information: 215-922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.