But Suchet, who sports an actor’s off-duty beard and a pair of owlish tortoiseshell glasses, waves such concerns away. ‘‘I’m happier to talk about him than journalists are to ask me about him,’’ he says in his remarkably sonorous voice. ‘‘Journalists always say, ‘I’m sorry I have to bring this up’. Don’t be sorry! It’s been a mainstay of my career. I couldn’t be happier about Poirot. I’m grateful to Poirot.’’
Lesser actors might have been irrevocably typecast by a 70-episode run as an idiosyncratic investigator, but Suchet thrived. The part made him a bankable commodity, but never restricted his choices. ‘‘Because of the success of the series my profile rose to the extent that I became a proverbial bums-on-seat actor,’’ he says. ‘‘You could put me in a theatre show and at least start off with a few guaranteed ticket sales. Whether it would be a success or not no one would know, but having me in the cast was a happy ingredient and that only happened because of Poirot.’’
Some fans expect a taste of the little Belgian regardless of the part Suchet is playing. When he was cast as the composer Salieri in the Broadway revival of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, the transatlantic success of Poirot was undeniable. One afternoon Suchet walked on stage and noticed two older women in the front row. He could clearly hear their conversation, which went like this:
‘‘Is that Poirot?’’
‘‘I don’t know. He doesn’t look like Poirot.’’
At this point Suchet removed the old hat and coat he was wearing to reveal the glittering robes of the Italian composer.
‘‘That’s not him either,’’ said the first woman, clearly disappointed. For Suchet, the incident was proof that ‘‘I was in the very fortunate position of being able to be accepted as a full character actor who can disappear into the roles I play. That’s my greatest joy – being able to really get into the character and lose myself.’’
He has always loved being a character actor, he says. ‘‘If you’re a personality player you can only play yourself whatever role you’re given. Cary Grant is not going to be different in any of the roles he plays because the audience doesn’t want him to be different. I’m not that – I’m not a star and I never wanted to be. I have never worried about ageing or my looks. I don’t care that I don’t have any hair or that I’m short.’’
Suchet was born in London in a well-to-do family. His mother had been an actor, his father was an obstetrician and gynaecologist of Lithuanian Jewish descent. He was sent to a private school, but his looks – the olive skin and dark features – marked him as an outsider. It wasn’t until he joined the National Youth Theatre at 18 that he began to find his feet. He trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and, despite his father’s enduring disapproval, embarked on a career as an actor.
After graduating he waited years for the phone to ring. Indeed, he was about to quit acting and take up a full-time position as a suit salesman when he was offered a small part in a television series. His star rose rapidly thanks to leading roles in two mini-series: 1980’s Oppenheimer and 1984’s Freud. But it was Poirot, a phenomenon watched by more than 700 million people worldwide, that made him an international figure.
Did he suspect it would be a hit? Not at all, he says. In a newspaper interview before the first episode screened on January 8, 1989, he suggested viewers might find it a bit boring. Earlier portrayals of Poirot – the movies featuring Peter Ustinov for example – painted the little Belgian as an entertaining, larger than life figure. Suchet’s Poirot was based entirely on the character depicted in the books. He was eccentric, yes, but he wasn’t trying to be amusing and he certainly wasn’t a buffoon.
‘‘In playing Poirot I only wanted to be the little man that she [Christie] wrote for her readership,’’ he says. He knew he had succeeded when Rosalind Hicks – Christie’s only child – visited him on set and said she was convinced her mother would have been very pleased with his portrayal. ‘‘I welled up,’’ Suchet says. ‘‘That was so important to an actor like me who is there solely to serve the writer.’’
His determination to stay true to Christie’s vision often put him at odds with the directors who came and went over the years. Once, he arrived on set to find the camera mounted on an enormous crane. Poirot was to be filmed sprinting across a cricket pitch in pursuit of a felon. Suchet turned to the director and said – in character – ‘‘Non. Poirot, he does not run.’’ The result: a massive row that ended when the director stormed out of the actor’s trailer.
‘‘There were many times during the 25 years when I was not that pleasant or nice to work with because I was a staunch defender of the character,’’ he says. ‘‘Would I do the same again? Absolutely I would. Because that’s the way I work. If I’m working on a Shakespeare play I use the director to direct me, but I won’t work with any director who becomes a dictator.’’ He was recently asked to play King Lear in a way that didn’t match his own vision or, he believes, the Bard’s. He declined the part and walked away.
Given the seriousness and intensity with which he approaches his work, the relative scarcity of Hollywood movies on his resume is understandable. He was offered a picture deal by Universal at one point, he says, but the idea of relocating his family – his wife Sheila and children Robert and Katherine – to Los Angeles was a non-starter.
The experience of working on films such as the 1996 thriller Executive Decision – he was cast as an Islamic terrorist called Nagi Hassan – have armed him with some choice Tinseltown anecdotes. Some of them will feature in Poirot and More: A Retrospective, the show he is bringing to Australia.
He clasps his hands in delight when asked about Steven Seagal, the ponytailed action hero and star of Executive Decision. ‘‘I’m going to tell you a real Steven Seagal story,’’ he says. Suchet arrived on set after a flight from London to find Seagal surrounded by an entourage of women and bodyguards. The film’s director approached the American star and said, ‘‘I’d love to introduce you to David Suchet.’’
‘‘Who?’’ asked Seagal.
‘‘David Suchet. He’s playing Nagi Hassan.’’
‘‘Do I meet him in the film?’’
‘‘Well why the f— do I have to say hello?’’
At this point Seagal barged his way past Suchet – ‘‘I almost had to be picked off the floor’’ – and stormed off the set. The two actors never met again.
Suchet is clearly more at home in London, a city he adores. He lives in an apartment near Tower Bridge with a balcony overlooking a boat-filled marina. He’s revered as one of Britain’s best actors, but rarely appears in the spotlight, a situation that suits him perfectly. ‘‘I’m not a great socialiser,’’ he says. ‘‘I don’t go to parties to mix with the right people and most of my dear friends aren’t in the profession. I’m a family man – that’s what really matters.’’
David Suchet’s Poirot and More: a Retrospective is at Sydney Opera House, Jan 23; Sydney’s State Theatre, Feb 7; Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, Jan 25 (two shows) and Feb 13; and Brisbane’s QPAC, Jan 31 and Feb 1.