Jeff Fahey is familiar to TV fans from his two seasons as a rescue pilot on Lost and as the sheriff in early episodes of Under the Dome, as well as for his work in movies such as The Lawnmower Man, Silverado and White Hunter Black Heart. A veteran of the Joffrey Ballet company and the 1980 Broadway revival of Brigadoon, Fahey last appeared on the London stage in 1986 in Lyle Kessler’s Orphans. The busy actor and philanthropist, who turns 61 later this month, is about to start previews at London’s Garrick Theatre in the courtroom classic Twelve Angry Men, playing Juror No. 3, the part associated with Lee J. Cobb on film. Broadway.com caught up with Fahey during the play’s out-of-town tour to talk returning to the British theater, his past as a dancer and the lasting power of a well-told story.
Twelve Angry Men has resonated on TV, as a 1957 film, and in countless stage revivals. What accounts for its appeal?
It’s about justice, man’s interpretation of what is right, and that key phrase “reasonable doubt”—all of which make for a fascinating journey. On top of that, you have 12 very different individuals bringing their own life and emotions and concept of the process into one room, along with prejudices that are personal and social and legal.
People are often cynical about the legal process. Do you think shifting attitudes have changed perceptions of this play?
The play strikes a chord having to do with the ever-evolving process of the law, which I think most of us take for granted as being, hopefully, a just system. That’s why I go back to the key phrase “reasonable doubt”: There is strong evidence in the play to say that [the 18-year-old boy on trial for stabbing his father to death] is guilty. And yet, if there is just one person on that jury who has reasonable doubt, then that does not justify putting this man to death.
Have you ever served on a jury?
I haven’t, though one of our actors said he was on a jury at some point years ago. But what’s interesting about the way Reginald Rose wrote the play is that it goes beyond what happens on a jury—it’s about 12 different elements of human emotion played through these 12 characters who are confined in a single room.
How did you end up in this production, especially since it has been 27 years since you did a play in London?
[The producer] Bill Kenwright called my manager a few months ago just as I was headed back to the refugee camps in Syria, where I do quite a bit of work, and he told me that Bill said, “If Jeff is ready to come back [to London], I’m ready to have him as Juror No 3.” The whole conversation took less time than it just took me to answer your question [laughs].
That’s the part indelibly associated on screen with the great Lee J. Cobb. Was this the juror that felt best for you to play?
Any one of the 12 jurors would be interesting and fascinating to play. This play is the opportunity of a lifetime for an actor.
What about the looming presence of the film?
I remember watching the movie 30 years ago, or more, when I was starting in acting, and I just looked at it as a wonderful piece of filmmaking. I watched it again when I was offered the role, but as soon as I got into the play, I discovered immediately that this is not the film. Chris [Haydon, the director] has made a different piece here; it has its own life.
Your co-stars include Robert Vaughn, of Man From U.N.C.L.E. fame, who is now in his 80s. What has that been like?
It’s been fantastic. We’ve been on tour with the show, and wherever we go, audiences love him so much. It’s wonderful walking down the street with Robert because he really is a living legend, and people respond to him in that way.
It’s hard to believe that almost 30 years have passed since you, Kevin Anderson and Albert Finney premiered Orphans in London. Do you have vivid memories of that experience?
I do! To work with those two men and Gary Sinise as director and to have it be received with this wonderful, beautiful energy from the audience was just incredible. I have to say I’m getting the same feeling on Twelve Angry Men.
Did you manage to catch last season’s Broadway revival of Orphans, with Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge?
You know, to be honest, I’ve never seen the play to this day. I really wanted to see it—Alec is an old acquaintance of mine—but didn’t get there in time.
The arc of your career is so fascinating, encompassing innumerable TV shows and films as well as early days as a dancer and your more recent humanitarian work.
Well, I always say to people that I am not defined—nor should anyone be—by one or two or three things. I have been fortunate because of the way my life has gone to continue with a number of things simultaneously and move around.
As time goes on, increasingly few people can lay claim to having worked with the legendary choreographer Agnes de Mille.
I was very close with Agnes. We worked together on a Broadway revival of Brigadoon. But everything to do with me and dancing was really a baptism by fire. I wanted to experiment with all of it —musicals, ballet, jazz, modern—so as the opportunities happened, I moved along with them. After a while, it wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to do Broadway musicals anymore as that other opportunities came forward and I took them. That’s why it feels like I’ve come full circle to be back here. Returning to London is something I always wanted to do but didn’t think would happen.
You’ve recently been coupling acting work with philanthropic forays into various conflict zones, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria.
Yes, and I have to say, I think the one feeds the other. I take great joy in having the opportunity and having made the choice to be involved in both [areas of work]; it’s certainly nice to feel that that being an actor isn’t riding on my shoulders all the time. When I go into these conflict and post-conflict areas, I'm constantly reminded how fortunate I am.