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$20k lands lunch date with Mr. Bates

Published in the May 30, 2012 issue of the Irish Echo

By Orla O’Sullivan

It was not the ringing of the servant’s bell in Downton Abbey that summoned forth Mr. Bates last week. Still wearing black, but unencumbered by a limp, he climbed onto the stage set up in Mutual Of America’s Manhattan headquarters to honor Origin Theatre Company on its 10th anniversary.

It wasn’t quite “Philadelphia, Here I Come” for Brendan Coyle, who plays the lame valet in the hit TV series “Downton Abbey”. However, it was while performing in Brian Friel’s play about an Irishman emigrating to the U.S. that Coyle first met Origin founder and Limerick native George Heslin.

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That was 20 years ago in London. The two shared a dressing room and a close friendship since. “I love George,” Coyle said in an interview at the end, adding that he flew to New York especially for Origin’s spring benefit.

Coyle’s presence not only helped draw close to 200 people to the $200-a-head event, but contributed $20,000 from one fan determined to have lunch with the maddening yet alluring Mr. Bates.

Sandra Doshner, a retired lab technician from Ridge, L.I., said she was partly spurred into making the winning bid by some of the other thousands of Downton Abbey fans on Facebook, ranging as far afield as St. Petersburg. “For $20,000, some said he [Coyle] should be dessert!

“I know that’s naughty, but the lid’s off the box,” added Doshner, who conveyed her determination to have fun after a life of much duty and sacrifice.

That stoic side she shares with Mr. Bates, arguably the most frustrating character in the period drama because he repeatedly endures hardship rather than speaking in his defense. Coyle, an Olivier-winning actor for whom the part was specially written, says, “There’s a stocism to Mr. Bates we don’t readily relate to today, and a ferocious loyalty”.

Coyle said he draws on these qualities in his father, “a working man” from Omagh. He got his introduction to method acting in Dublin’s Focus Theater, co-founded by his aunt Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy.

Naturally, Coyle won’t be drawn when asked the question my sister, and others, ask: Did he kill his wife? Mr. Bates was found guilty and jailed at the end of the last season. Coyle blushes, but returns an inscrutable expression, when asked would he be crushed if Mr. Bates were cut from the series.

Oddly for an actor, he said, “I keep asking them to cut my lines. Less is more.” He adds, “Mr. Bates is a slow-burner and we’re going to see amazing things from him in series three”.

Although multi award-winning Downton Abbey is wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and reportedly out-tweeted both the royal wedding and the Superbowl, Coyle, said he doesn’t necessarily consider Downton the apex of his career.

“TV and theater and very different,” he said, adding, “I hope my next theater production will be in New York with Origin”. That could be this fall, he said.

Origin created the 1st Irish Theater festival here in 2008. Within three years, 34 million people had heard of it, Artistic Director Heslin told the gathering.

Praise was shared from many quarters, including Mayor Bloomberg’s office; patron Tim Kennon and actress Geraldine Hughes were honored; and the Irish Echo even got mentioned in a rap reviewing Origin’s 10-year existence.

“Broadway, here I come!” was Hughes’ prediction for Origin 10 years from now. Much as how Coyle and Heslin had their play transferred from a theater-restaurant to London’s West End? It was, Coyle said, “a game changer."