Sweeney Todd, the notorious barber remembered for his easy way with a razor, turns up on cable TV this Sunday in the person of Oscar winner Ben Kingsley.
As evil literary figures go, Sweeney Todd ranks right up there with Jack the Ripper - but with a difference. Jack was a real-life killer, though his identity remains uncertain, while Todd was a legend that supposedly originated in Central Europe. He has been depicted in plays and a Broadway musical."The Tale of Sweeney Todd" appears Sunday on Showtime. The setting is London at the turn of the century. Todd (Kingsley) is a popular barber whose rich clients have a habit of disappearing. They turn up in the delectable pies baked by Todd's mistress, Mrs. Lovett (Joanna Lumley).
The pies are a popular item among London's gourmets until an American insurance sleuth (Campbell Scott) starts looking into one of the disappearances. John Schlesinger ("Midnight Cowboy," "Marathon Man") directed the film.
Kingsley seems an unlikely choice to portray the infamous Todd. After all, he did win the Academy Award as a 20th century saint in "Gandhi."
But he has proved himself a versatile actor and is no stranger to villainy. On stage, he played Brutus in "Julius Caesar." On screen, he was an American gangster in "Bugsy" and a murderous tycoon in "Sneakers."
How does a gentle man like Kingsley approach a character of such consummate evil as Sweeney Todd?
"Just use my imagination," he replied. "What I can't get in life, I get from news bulletins and documentaries."
He cited a recent case in England of a married couple who killed and buried many children in a cellar.
"After their arrests," Kingsley remarked, "many people, including their relatives, said that they were lovely, kind people who would do anything for you. The husband was lively, such a character down at the pub - `What a character!'
"That's where Sweeney absolutely clicked with me. `What a character.' I thought, of course, the man who is harboring this terrible evil inside him wants more than anything in the world to be liked. It's just putting that dynamic together, rather than going through books and trying to read the psychiatric reports on serial killers.
"People who are desperate to be liked are often envious people. Iago: desperate to be liked. Every time you watch `Othello,' you see Iago drinking with the lads, laughing, singing songs, telling stories.
"I've never played Iago, I played Othello. But I was aware of Iago, certainly, and the damage he was doing. Sweeney is very like Iago. He is against the generals, the ruling classes that pushed him into the jungle and made him fight. He's still serving them, shaving them, bowing and scraping. But he has this terrible weapon in his hand."