LIVE AND LET FRY
Byline: Eileen Daspin
Stephen Fry has a lot to say, but not very much room to say it in. The English actorwritercomic is attached to his desk at the St. Regis by a very short telephone cord and is pacing back and forth, discussing his screenplay for “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Stephen Soderbergh, who will direct the film, is on the other end of the line.
The doorbell rings. It’s room service with a vodka tonic — after a few days in New York, Fry has depleted his minibar and now has to order up.
“I’ve been here a week working on it,” he says of “Confederacy of Dunces,” after finishing his phone call. “It’s a devil to do.”
In his soft corduroy shirt and pants, Fry looks less like the man to turn John Kennedy O’Toole’s batty coming-of-age novel into a movie than the English lord he played in “Peter’s Friends,” a movie he also wrote. But in fact, he’s both, and then some.
Tall and doughy, Fry is probably best known in the States for his role in the series, “Jeeves and Wooster” ( A new Jeeves and Wooster series started Jan. 8 on PBS). In London, he is famous for being relentlessly clever and just about everything else. His “Fry and Laurie” television sketches are wildly popular. His last play, “Me and My Girl,” was a hit in London’s West End and on Broadway. His last novel, “The Liar,” was on the bestseller list for two years. He’s friends with Prince Charles (but asks not to talk about him), and Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (they were school chums). His new novel, “Hippopotamus,” about a dissolute London theater drama critic — with a scotch-soaked sensibility not so different from Fry’s — was a runaway bestseller (it will be published in the U.S. in February). London critics identified the cantankerous, sloshed, womanizing hero of “Hippopotamus” — Ted Wallace — as Fry’s alter ego. He begs to differ.
“It’s not a roman à clef,” he maintains.
For one, Fry is famously celibate, and gay. For another, he says he’s never been fired from a job, though he was arrested a number of times as a kid, including a “TDA” (taking and driving away), kicked out of successive boarding schools, and is an outspoken champion of politically incorrect vices.
“Putting water in wine is disgusting,” he says in response to a question about what gets on his nerves, before adding antismoking bigotry to the short list. “Actual bigotry has killed lots more people than a pleasant inhalation of nature’s most pleasant leaves.”
But like Wallace, the 36-year-old Fry has finally learned how to channel his curmudgeonly mischief to productive ends. When he returns to London, he’ll begin rehearsals for a new Simon Grey comedy in the West End. And he’s talking to his director friend Branagh about playing Oscar Wilde in a movie.
“With my hair slicked down, I look just like him,” Fry says. He is currently on the big screen, along with Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins, in “I.Q.,” a romantic comedy about Albert Einstein, his niece and her two suitors. “It’s between an unknown Stephen Fry and the well-loved, willowy Gary Cooper look-alike [Tim Robbins],” he says. “What do you think?”