Actor Kevin Gray tells CHARLES HUTCHINSON why he now feels mature enough to reprise his lead role in The King And I.

Kevin Gray became only the third actor to play the King in The King And I on Broadway, following in the footsteps of Yul Brynner and La Bamba's Lou Diamond Phillips.

Great role, not so great performance was his candid self-assessment.

"I said I'd never do it again. I did a year in Broadway in 1997 and two months at the Papermill Playhouse near New York, and I just didn't feel I got it right," the American actor recalls.

He has, however, broken that vow to play the King in a touring British revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and in doing so he is notching up two firsts in his career.

He is returning to a previous role for the first time and making his debut appearance on the British stage, next week performing at the Grand Opera House in York on a year-long tour that began in January.

"This opportunity came out of the blue. Director Stephen Rayne came out to see me in New York last August. He hadn't seen me in the show; we just had two meetings, both relatively brief, and he was very open with me," he says.

Kevin was attracted both by a sense of unfinished business and by the chance to travel. "In Broadway, I'd replaced the lead almost a year into the production run with Faith Prince already playing Anna Leonowens. Once Marie Osmond came in it was quite different, but that was only the last two months of the run," he says. "I think I was a little green. I was 36 when I took it on, so it was lucky for me that Stephen was happy with me saying that a lot of my performance this time would be about casting off the old vestiges of the Broadway show."

As for travel, "I like to travel around, and I'd never travelled around the UK, though I'd been in London when I was younger," Kevin says.

"I was doing pre-law at Duke University, North Carolina, and came over in 1977-78 ostensibly to do history and economics but I ended up doing drama, as you do.

"I realised law and acting were the same, only that law had less research. All I liked about it was the barrister element, and there's very little of that involved, so I chose the safe career of acting!"

The King And I has acquired its own mythology, but that has not impeded Kevin. "There are elements that people can be trapped by; one rather obvious one is Yul Brynner and I don't shy away from that.

"It's one of those roles where actor and role had an incredible alchemy. I try not to make comparisons," he says.

"But the first time you do it you can't help but be taken in by the physical side, trying to be the King in his regal world. You can be really daunted by it and lose track of him as a human being, turning him into a cartoon."

Kevin, however, believes he is now better prepared for the magnitude of the role: "Since I last did it, my father died, 9/11 happened, and my mentor retired; all the relationships in my life were in question, just as they are in this play."

The more performances he does, the more he develops the role. "I've done about 500-600 shows, so I'm just getting warmed up. Another 4,000 and I'll be up there with Yul Brynner!" he says.

"I did 1,250 performances of Phantom and I played the Engineer a little over 1,000 times in Miss Saigon, so they were pretty long runs, and I'm not an actor who likes to freeze his performance.

"I like to be able to try things; you have to have some latitude or you'd go out of your mind."

The King And I, Grand Opera House, York, March 29 to April 2. Box office: 0870 606 3590.

Updated: 09:13 Friday, March 25, 2005