There came a time when Tony Heald asked Peter Amster, who directed this season's "Tartuffe" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, to absolve him of any responsibility for getting laughs. Playing the title character in Moličre's classic comedy, Heald had come to believe the character had to be menacing.

There came a time when Tony Heald asked Peter Amster, who directed this season's "Tartuffe" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, to absolve him of any responsibility for getting laughs. Playing the title character in Molière's classic comedy, Heald had come to believe the character had to be menacing.

"It's a tough play," Heald says. "A serious comedy. For my money, the best comedies are serious, like 'Dr. Strangelove.' It can be difficult to find the right tone."

Heald says an actor can be funny and truthful, not truthful but funny, truthful and not funny, or not truthful and not funny.

"Truthful is important," he says. "I'm trying to find that."

It's in theater that actors are most prone to such philosophizing. Heald worked several years in television and films before returning to the OSF this season for the first time since 1999. Which may be why, at 63, he sounds like a happy man.

In 1999 Heald played Iago in an acclaimed "Othello." When he left OSF he told Artistic Director Libby Appel he'd probably be back to work in a year.

He schmoozed her off and on for the next seven years during visits from Los Angeles when shooting schedules allowed him to get away from "Boston Public" and other work.

He'd wound up in an episode of "Frazier," which led to appearances on "The X-Files" and to the role of Judge Harvey Cooper in "Boston Legal," and based on that, the role of Scott Guber on "Boston Public."

When he moved with his wife, Robin Herskowitz, and two children to Los Angeles, the couple made plans to stay until the kids finished school in 2006. He had never done a TV series. He found it unsatisfying.

"A series is 22 stories a season," he says. "The quality can vary enormously."

Story lines veered away from the things he was excited about. And he missed the sense of learning actors get from a live audience.

Take Tartuffe, the scary religious hypocrite who preys on the wealthy Orgon. The latter's gullibility and intransigence imperil his family and his estate. Heald plays the scoundrel in black wig and costume and pale makeup, a sort of cross between Ozzy Osbourne and a vampire. Heald says it was difficult to get to the core of the character.

"I see a lot of similarities with Iago," he says. "Both affect others' relationships."

Voice coach Bonnie Raphael, who worked on "Tartuffe," says Heald's original idea of the villain was somewhat brighter, but Heald darkened the character as rehearsals went on.

"When he saw the costume," she says, "he said, 'Ohhh.'"

At the heart of the play is what happens to Orgon and his family because Orgon is taken in by Tartuffe, and because Orgon has total authority over his family.

"Molière is saying that when fools have authority, disasters will happen," Heald says, "and we've seen that in our national government the last six years."

He gives credit to Raphael, whom he knew from his student days at Michigan State University in the 1960s. "Tartuffe" is written in verse and translated from the French and could easily sound like doggerel.

"She worked with us to bury and un-stress the rhymes," Heald says.

"My job was making sure they didn't get sucked in by the poetry," says Raphael, who is based at Playmakers Repertory in Chapel Hill, N.C., and who has worked with theaters all over the country.

"It's not a quick fix. It's having them speak to major punctuation rather than line endings."

Raphael was a couple of years ahead of Heald at MSU when both were studying acting, and Amster was a student of hers in the 1970s at Northwestern University.

"We're talking old home week here," she says. "The lesson is, be nice, people come back."

Heald was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., and first acted professionally in 1963, after his freshman year of college. He acted for several years and graduated from MSU in 1971.

He worked on and off-Broadway and was nominated for Tony awards for his work in 1988's "Anything Goes" and the 1995 Terrence McNally play "Love! Valour! Compassion!" He appeared in such films as "Silkwood" (1983) and "Postcards From the Edge" (1990), but it wasn't until 1991, when he played the smarmy Dr. Frederick Chilton in 1991's "Silence of the Lambs," that his career went into orbit.

"I specialized in sleazeballs," he says.

Movie slimewads paid the bills — no comparison with stage work there — but Heald missed what he says is the constant learning curve of live theater.

In the run of the 1999 OSF "Othello," for example, audiences were getting restless in the fifth act. The stage manager gave Heald some notes that said his Iago, the villain, was too appealing and was taking too much of the focus.

"He said if I toned it down, fifth act would pay off," Heald says.

He did, and it did.

Veteran actor Richard Elmore, who worked with Heald this season in both "The Cherry Orchard" and "Tartuffe," says Heald makes him a better actor.

That's in part because of Heald's generosity to other actors, Elmore says. For example, Elmore had an idea for an action for his character in a pivotal moment that ends the first half of the play. It involved Heald's character, and he wanted to spring it on the director.

"Tony was very accommodating and said, 'Let's try it,'" Elmore says in an e-mail.

Those who see the play will recognize the moment.

Heald gained weight for the role of Pischick, the money-cadging neighbor in "The Cherry Orchard," and lost it quickly as "Tartuffe" neared its late July opening. During rehearsals, Elmore says, Heald would be off to the side studying two or more different translations of the script — "always looking, searching for the truth of that character."

Raphael says one reason for Heald's success is an old-fashioned one.

"He works very hard," she says. "He's hungry. He's not happy until he's nailed something."

He's under contract at the OSF for 2008, when he'll play the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," which will become the first play by a modern American playwright to be presented on the OSF's Elizabethan stage.

"It's a dream I never thought would come true," he says. "He (the Stage Manager) sets the tone. It's intimidating and exciting."

He sees the festival as a 10-month job, leaving November and December to devote to family but little time for movie or TV work, although he might squeeze in the odd role here or there.

"But I'm ready to spend the rest of my career at the festival," he says. "I've never had as satisfying an experience on stage as here.

"If God is listening, I'd like to wind up here."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.