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Actor exults in Beckett’s ‘booby-traps’

Scott Hylands appears to have adopted the “go big or go home” approach to play Pozzo in Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s production of Waiting for Godot.
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Scott Hylands stars as Pozzo in Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s production of Waiting for Godot.

Scott Hylands appears to have adopted the “go big or go home” approach to play Pozzo in Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s production of Waiting for Godot.

The prolific Canadian actor is a scene-stealing barrel of bombast, electrifying the Roxy Theatre’s stage from the moment his character, an obnoxious landowner with his slave Lucky in tow, makes his dramatic entrance.

He disrupts tramps Vladimir and Estragon as they wait for the enigmatic Godot in the company’s exceptional production of Samuel Beckett’s classic that ends Sunday.

“Pozzo is a big guy,” said the lean actor, whose intimidating character has often been portrayed by barrel-bodied actors, including Brian Dennehy at Stratford and Kurt Kasznar, who originated the role on Broadway.

“He gave a big-belly portrayal of a capitalist, which is particularly useful in the second act when Pozzo falls like Humpty Dumpty and can’t get up,” said Hylands, no stranger to either the role or Beckett.

The Salt Spring Island-based actor produced, directed and acted in a 2008 production of Waiting for Godot at its ArtSpring centre, nine years after staging Beckett’s Endgame there.

The actor’s booming voice is what largely distinguishes this performance — an asset he pitched to director Jacob Richmond.

“Jacob said: ‘That’s quite an instrument. That’ll do,’ ” recalls Hylands, who also shaved his head. “I haven’t used my big voice in a long time, but I was ready.”

The self-described “theatre rat” has played dozens of roles onstage since he starred in Billy Liar at New York’s Gate Theatre in 1965. Local highlights include his Prospero in New Bastion Theatre’s 1994 production of The Tempest and his appearances in the Belfry shows A Number, Blue/Orange and Trying. It’s the stage and screen veteran’s work in movies and TV shows that make him so recognizable, however.

The Vancouver-born actor made his screen debut as a young pool shark in UBC classmate and B.C. film pioneer Larry Kent’s 1962 short Hastings Street. His long list of credits since then goes back to his years living in Los Angeles and guest starring on 1970s shows such as Cannon, The Waltons, Baretta and Ironside, to big-screen roles in Daddy’s Gone-A-Hunting, Death Hunt, Earthquake and The Boys in Company C.

“I often played the disturbed Vietnam veteran,” he said. “If you got your green card, you could have been called. Ironically, I played that but I never went.”

The character he’s probably best known for is Kevin O’Brien, the grizzled detective he played in Night Heat, the 1980s CBS series whose title song was written by Victoria-based songwriter B.J. Cook.

“She’s one of the great broads,” Hylands said, beginning to sing it. “A lot of people liked that show for her song. It just kind of got into your head, like a brain worm.”

While some actors loathe being remembered for their work in a past hit show at the expense of other achievements, Hylands isn’t one of them.

“They’re the facts, man. It’s what happens when you’re in everyone’s living room every week.”

He laughs as he reminisces about how retired NYPD detective Eddie Egan encouraged his former partner Sonny Grosso, the Night Heat producer whose crime-fighting exploits inspired The French Connection, to consider hiring Hylands, a straight-shooter.

“Sonny said: ‘I’ve seen everyone in Toronto and they’re all so f---ing polite,’” recalls Hylands.

“Pozzo is a long way from O’Brien, baby, and I exult in them both,” said the actor, who relished the opportunity to tackle Beckett’s dialogue again.

“Beckett is a challenge, certainly for memory, because he booby-traps the dialogue,” he said. “It’s almost musical. Pauses are a character in the piece, and if you run over the dialogue, it turns into gibberish.”

Hylands, now in his early 70s, says it helped that he undertook what he jokingly calls “my own Alzheimer’s check” six years ago. Following in Patrick Stewart’s footsteps, he performed a solo version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

His next big adventure is his impending move to Victoria nearly 30 years after settling on Salt Spring, where he built the rustic West Coast home he shares with his wife Veronica, a registered nurse.

With their daughter Rebecca, 23, getting her music degree from New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University, and son Luke, 18, graduating from high school in June, he says the timing is right.

“Salt Spring is an idyllic place, but I miss the amenities of a city,” said Hylands, who already has a foothold as a Canadian College of Performing Arts board member.

There’s also an unexpected fringe benefit.

“It’s great that there’s a lot more stuff flowing through here now,” said Hylands, referring to the capital region’s surge in film and TV production.

mreid@timescolonist.com