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Sunday, July 12, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Prelude To A Kiss' May Be Actor's Prince Charming

After 50 years as an actor, 71-year-old Sydney Walker is finally getting his first big break in a major Hollywood film. And as if to make up for lost time, he plays both a man and a woman in it.

The movie is "Prelude to a Kiss," a whimsical romance co-starring Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan, which opened Friday in theaters around the country.

Written by Craig Lucas and directed by Norman Rene, the team also responsible for the noted AIDS drama"Longtime Companion" and the popular Broadway stage version of "Prelude," the tale is a modern twist on those ancient fairy tales about frogs turning into princes after a magical kiss.

The fantastic plot pivots on an instance of soul-swapping. Thanks to an unexpected smooch at a wedding, the spirit of a beautiful young bride (Ryan) winds up in the body of a dying old man (Walker), and vice versa.

For virtually half the movie, the bear-sized, craggy-faced Walker portrays a woman trapped inside a man's physique. Which means that for half the movie, he plays Alec Baldwin's wife.

This offbeat assignment was originally promised to Sir Alec Guinness. But early last year, before shooting began in Chicago, Guinness withdrew to care for his ailing wife. And Walker, a little-known San Francisco actor who had played the part in 1988 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, suddenly got the offer of his career.

"The producers called my agent on a Friday to ask if I was available, the script arrived Saturday morning, and on Tuesday I went to Hollywood to read for all the executives at 20th Century Fox," explains Walker, a courtly man with a pixie glint in his eyes.

"On Thursday I came back again to meet Alec Baldwin. He wanted to make sure I wasn't a raving lunatic or anything. As the star, he had cast approval, and he approved of me."

Says director Norman Rene, "The studio felt we didn't need another major name in the movie, just a good actor. I thought of Sydney because there's a wonderful warmth and heart about him. It seemed to me that his charm could certainly cross the camera lines."

In truth, Walker's avuncular charm has been displayed on stage and screen for decades - but with little fanfare. Up to now he has been one of those versatile character men who never achieve fame or fortune, yet establish satisfying, durable careers.

"I didn't wait 71 years to be discovered," says the veteran performer, with a chuckle in his rumbling, bass-viola voice. "I've been busy right along."

Walker discovered acting as a youngster living in Venezuela, where his engineer father had a three-year assignment.

"I loved movies," he recalls, "and entertained my parents by doing death scenes from `Fu Manchu' ."

After school, and a World War II army stint, Walker plied his craft at Pennsylvania's Hedgerow Theater, the Pasadena (Calif.) Playhouse, and with summer stock companies. He appeared in Shakespeare, Chekhov, modern dramas and comedies, "usually playing characters twice my age. I was cast as King Lear while in my 30s."

During the 1960s, Walker appeared on Broadway alongside Laurence Olivier (in Jean Anouilh's "Beckett") and linked up with the Association of Producing Artists (APA), a Broadway repertory company founded by actors Ellis Rabb and Rosemary Harris.

For his supporting role in the APA version of Ibsen's "The Wild Duck," he garnered a coveted Tony nomination. Walker notes,"I didn't win, but it was exciting just to go to the ceremony."

He also found small roles in films ("In `Love Story', I was the doctor who told Ryan O'Neal that Ali MacGraw was dying"), and regular work on "a garden variety of soap operas - `The Secret Storm,' `The Guiding Light' and `One Life to Live.' I was usually a priest, a kindly grandpa, a neighbor. Occasionally they'd make me a villain, which was such fun."

Since 1974, Walker has made San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater his home base. There he has distinguished himself in a panoply of roles - from a gruffly endearing Scrooge in "Christmas Carol," to the world-weary elders in Chekhov.

A self-proclaimed psychic, Walker says he often communes with the spirits of such great, departed actors as Charles Laughton and Richard Burton when preparing for a role. For "Prelude," he kibbitzed with the late Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes in "Gone with the Wind"), who also broke into movies late in his career.

Walker did not need a lot of help from the beyond for his role. He already knew the play inside-out, as did co-star Baldwin (who played his role on Broadway).

"This is a story about finding out what love really means, and I defy anyone to be unmoved by it," Walker declares.

"The delight for me was in playing two people, the dying man who wants to escape his body, and the young girl just starting in life. My goal is to have the audience completely accept that there's a young woman in this old male body. That's the magic of it, you see."

To lend credibility to his portrait, Walker studied co-star Ryan and adopted some of her mannerisms. But as Rene notes, "Sydney doesn't mimic her. The resemblance is more subtle - you see it in a smile, a wink, a look."

More crucial to Walker's performance was his great rapport with Baldwin.

"Alec was the soul of cooperation, just wonderful to work with," raves Walker. "He has an undeserved reputation for being difficult, but he couldn't have been nicer to me, or more protective. He still phones me sometimes, and I call him Dad. That's because he is more experienced with film, and showed me the ropes."

"Sydney and Alec were very funny together on the set, always kidding around," adds Rene. "Their off screen chemistry comes through on screen, too, in the playful arguing and affection that married people often have."

In a movie where kisses carry symbolic weight, Walker worried that the tender one he shares with Baldwin might be edited out by leery executives.

"It's not a homosexual thing," he asserts. "The kiss is what signals Alec's unconditional love for his wife, no matter whose body she's in. You know, in the fairy tale, the princess has to kiss the frog to get the prince."

Audiences, it turns out, will see that kiss. And, if the film does well, we also may see more of Sydney Walker on the big screen.

For now, the actor plans to do Moliere's "The Learned Ladies" at American Conservatory Theatre next spring. He's philosophical about his Hollywood prospects.

"Doing this movie was wonderful, and I feel it was meant to be," says Walker. "As for the future, I think everything happens at the appropriate time. That's my new motto. I just let life figure things out for me. It always has."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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