'History' actor is playwright, manager, dramturg

HOLLYWOOD — If you think there are no Renaissance men any more, just ask Tony-winning helmer Jack O’Brien about Dakin Matthews: actor, playwright, translator, theater manager and dramaturg.

“Dakin is outside any category I know,” says O’Brien. “He’s one of these amazing conglomerate personalities the theater sometimes throws off. … One chore is not enough to occupy everything he has going for himself.”

Matthews explains multi tasking as a matter of necessity.

“If you want to stay active in theater, I think you have to be versatile,” he says. “I always felt the best way for me to continue my theatrical link was not to count on acting as the only thing to do.”

Matthews will star as the unconventional Hector in the Los Angeles premiere of Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys,” beginning this week at the Ahmanson.

The hyphenate started as a college literature and classics professor in Northern California. In the late ’60s, he accompanied wife-to-be Anne McNaughton to New York upon her acceptance to the first Juilliard acting class, persuading administrator John Houseman to employ him as a part-time teacher.

Houseman was determined to turn that first class — which included Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone and David Ogden Stiers — into a touring company, but decided he was one character man short. Enter Matthews. He joined his students onstage for the company’s first tour, until academe beckoned again.

Early retirement from the ivory tower in 1990 allowed him to settle in Los Angeles and develop his reputation as the go-to guy for Shakespearean performance.

A dramaturg’s job, he explains, is “to work with actors and directors on classical texts that may need explication, cutting or massaging.” It’s a function he has taken on at theaters coast to coast, most notably in 2003 when his distillation of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” starred former pupil Kline as Falstaff at Lincoln Center under O’Brien’s direction.

“He’s careful not to give you irrelevant historical detail but something the actor can chew on,” says O’Brien. “And he does it with such a throwaway sense of ease that actors are never intimidated or bored by him.”

Matthews spearheaded L.A.’s classical ensemble Antaeus Theater before moving on with McNaughton to establish North Hollywood’s 35-seat Andak Stage Company, where he directs occasionally but is consistently drawn to writing.

His experience with translations (besides Latin and Greek, he reads Italian, French and Spanish) held him in good stead when he applied the complex verse forms of Spain’s Golden Age to his controversial “The Prince of L.A.,” a play that explores the involvement of a shadowy Churchman, more-than-loosely based on the Southland’s Cardinal Roger Mahony, in a diocesan scandal.

“Oh, I loved him for taking that play on, a dangerous, loaded thing,” enthuses O’Brien, whose Old Globe Theater produced it in 2005. “He’s a Catholic and a very spiritual man, but also a realist who doesn’t duck the practical issues.”

Despite his writing and many acting credits (including playing Dick Cheney in Center Theater Group’s 2005 “Stuff Happens”), it’s the combination of scholarly engagement and theatrical commitment that gives Matthews his greatest rush.

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