LENNY Henry had resisted all invitations to do a play.

“I wasn’t really interested in it,” he says. “I was always being asked to do them, but I’m a comedian and I could never really understand how actors ate. I’d have had to be on tour for 45 years to give my family Christmas presents.

“And I always felt there was a difference between drama and light entertainment, but as I’ve got older my brain has been rewired.”

So much so that he is to make his Shakespearean stage debut at the age of 50 as noble soldier Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Barrie Rutter’s production for Northern Broadsides (and if Lenny is not exactly northern, at least his Dudley birthplace is north of Watford).

From his beginning doing impressions on New Faces and appearing with The Black And White Minstrels, through Tiswas, Comic Relief, his solo tours and television sketch shows, comedy has dominated Lenny’s life.

“Stand-up was very much my job, as I’d been doing that since I was 16, but after 30 years there was a big part of me that thought this is not the end,” he says.

“I realised that I loved movies, The Sopranos, or moments in EastEnders that are wonderful, or the writing of Alan Bleasdale and Paul Abbott. I realised that I had a great love of drama and it was that thing of getting to the top of the ladder and realising I wanted to be on other building.”

Lenny has never been averse to branching out, most memorably when playing a black man on the run from the Mafia disguising himself as a white man in the mild 1991 American comedy True Identity.

Indeed America was once central to his thoughts.

“I spent a lot of time trying to get into America, and there was the moment when I did that, but then I realised they had a lot of black actors that talked with real American accents; they didn’t need a black guy from Dudley. Rather than trying to emulate Richard Pryor, my hero, I thought I should try to be the best Lenny Henry from Dudley.”

Returning to Britain, he set up his own company, made the Chef television and “reinvented” himself as a stage performer.

Yet satisfaction was not complete.

His mother died in 1998, and then he had a “strange blip in my life”. He does not refer to the infamous hotel incident after a gig in York, but it did not need saying. “The press attacked me at a time which I happily called ‘The S**t Storm,” he recalls, revealing that he also underwent grief therapy.

A comedian he may be, but you sense Lenny Henry has grown frustrated by its limitations and weary of television over-exposure too.

“I don’t think any longer, ‘I’ve got to be on the telly, I’ve got to be on the telly’, because that way madness lies,” he says.

“Now everyone is on the telly all the time and I don’t get it any more. I only used to do one series a year, six episodes a time, and I might do a tour too, and Dawn [wife Dawn French] does the same – though she just happens to be the most popular female comedian on TV.”

Lenny spread his wings by undertaking a BA in English Literature with the Open University and now he is in the second year of an MA in screenwriting for film and television at Royal Holloway, University of London.

“But I’m having to take time off to do Othello,” he says, with a smile in his voice.

“What’s happened in the last few years is that I’ve been doing things where I’ve been interested in learning things, either about myself or about plays, and learning about that has made me less nervous about performing.”

Enter into Lenny’s life the redoubtable figure of Northern Broadsides artistic director Barrie Rutter. In 2006, while making Lenny And Will, a series for BBC Radio 4 about his discovery of Shakespeare’s work, he interviewed Rutter and rehearsed a soliloquy with him.

“He gave me a two-hour masterclass on one speech in Othello and it was one of those epiphany moments in my life. It was like climbing that ladder to the top,” Lenny says.

“At the end, he said, ‘Well, if we can sort it out, can you do the role for Northern Broadsides?’, and there was a little voice that said, ‘Oh all right’, and it was mine!

“Then I kicked myself and thought, ‘What have I done this for? It’s huge. It’s the only black lead role in Shakespeare’.”

Now he is walking in the footsteps of Olivier and the greats. “If I walked around with the weight of Olivier or James Earl Jones on my shoulders, I would never leave the house, but if I approach it like it’s the next stage and this is a new coat I’m putting on, then I feel safe,” says Lenny.

“Some people will say it’s not as high profile as some things I’ve done… but if I’m not allowed to learn and take steps in my career, that would be unfair.”

•Othello runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, from tomorrow until March 14; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, March 17 to 21. Box office: Leeds, 0113 213 7700; Scarborough, 01723 307541 (all shows sold out).