At 14, Phil Collins was on the London stage, singing "Consider Yourself," as the Artful Dodger of the musical "Oliver!" At 17, he bid acting adieu and drumming hello, and eventually became a rock star.
He was in town recently, doing interviews and sweating out reviews - not for a rock concert, but for his first film role, one in which he again runs afoul of the law.He plays the lead in "Buster," which combines a classic heist and an enduring love story in telling of a petty thief and devoted family man who took part in Britain's celebrated Great Train Robbery of 1963.
He got generally favorable notices when the film opened. But the way he learned his lines might have struck an experienced actor as odd.
He took the script, he said with a grin, "and made a cassette of everybody's parts, with me speaking them and leaving holes for my parts." Then he read his lines in response to himself in the other roles.
"I had no idea how much to prepare," Collins said. "You know, I'm sure that `What is my line, dahling?' just echoes in every film studio around the world. But with me, I knew every bloody line."
That he is far better known as the rock star than the actor is largely due to a director who, 20 years ago, cut Collins' role in a planned children's film from major to tiny.
It was a mighty disappointment. "I vowed never to do any more acting again," said Collins, a short, unpretentious Englishman.
His mother encouraged all three of her children in creative pursuits. Collins, who took his first whacks on a tom-tom at age 5, dismayed her when he opted for the life of a rock drummer.
But rock has been very, very good to Collins: 12 years as a well-known Genesis sideman, then stardom as a four-Grammy vocalist and composer, a man of melody in an often unmelodic world, a guy whose idea of heavy metal is a punchy brass and reed section.
Ironically, what he thought would be a small role on "Miami Vice" landed him the biggie in "Buster," a $6.5 million production filmed last fall in London and 100 miles to the north, in Leicester.
All this began when his "In the Air Tonight" was used in 1984 on NBC's premiere of "Vice," a series where various forms of rock are as much a part of things as neon, brooding and wet midnight streets.
Three later episodes featured other Collins songs.
Cut to 1986. He is doing a Los Angeles concert, kidding around, introducing members of his band in the manner of a seedy game show host. "Vice" chief Michael Mann, present in the audience, sees that as having the potential for a great character, Collins says.
What Collins thinks will be a cameo role in "Vice" evolves into a large one as Phil the Shill, a genial con man. That episode, when aired in England, is seen by director David Green.
Green needs a lead for a film called "Buster."
Like his character in the movie, Collins is a confirmed family man, albeit one who lives in the Sussex countryside of England, far from the madding crowd of London.
A rocker he is, but a bit of a heretic, too, and not just because he eschews the glitzy late-hours ramble for which a few rockers are known.
The man says that he loves the sound of a full orchestra, the kind with strings. He also admires a pretty well-known big band jazz drummer - the late Buddy Rich.
In 1986, a year before Rich died of a heart seizure shortly after surgery for brain cancer, the two even talked of doing an album together.
"I thought it'd be great," Collins said. "Then, when I was in Japan on tour, I turned on CNN and found out he was in hospital. I sent him a telegram - I know he got the message, it was one of the first he got after he came out of a coma - and he gave me his home number.
"I thought I'd give him a couple of days before I called him. And then he died. But the man was fantastic. I was staggered by his death."
Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones' drummer, occasionally puts together a big jazz band. Did Collins ever think of doing likewise?
He has, he said, sort of. That was in 1979-80, with a band called Brand X, playing behind saxophonist Charles McPherson at Ronnie Scott's, the famed jazz club in London. He wryly explained it this way:
"It was kind of fusion jazz - which is, play as fast as you can, as loud as you can, and baffle everybody."
But when he tours with his regular nine-piece band, he said, "to a large extent it is like a big band. With some of the arrangements that we have on my solo songs, people sit there in awe," particularly the younger ones.
He imitated a father-and-teen-ager dialogue. "What's that, Dad?" "That's a saxophone, a real saxophone. That's a real trumpet, a real trombone."
He smiled. "I mean, you see kids pointing at them, wondering what they are, because they're so used to seeing synthesizers."
Kind of sad they don't know the real thing, isn't it?
"I'm only sad that it's got to that stage," Collins said. "But I'm glad that they're enjoying seeing it, the fact they're interested in it." He shrugged.
"But horns are starting to come back into music anyway now . . . there really is no substitute for it."
Collins talked of all this from a hotel suite overlooking New York's Central Park. He has been camped out in the hotel for a week, promoting "Buster" - "I like to say `helping' the film . . ."