NEW YORK (AP) – Early one morning two years ago, Bryant Gumbel was trying to wrap his head around Alfred Molina.

He and the gang on CBS’ “The Early Show” were running down the list of new TV shows for the fall schedule and one sitcom was called “Bram and Alice,” co-starring Alfred Molina.

“Like, I’m supposed to know Alfred Molina,” Gumbel groused.

Trying to be helpful, anchor Julie Chen said that Molina had been in “Art” on Broadway. Meteorologist Mark McEwen jumped in to say Molina had been in the opening scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” swiping a golden idol from Indiana Jones.

Gumbel still seemed confused. Chen, undeterred, wondered aloud if Molina had perhaps been in “Titanic.” Even co-host Jane Clayson eventually got into the act, piping in to say she had recognized him in “Boogie Nights.”

“Who was he in ‘Boogie Nights’?” Gumbel wanted to know.

“The crazed coke addict,” Clayson responded.

“Oh,” said Gumbel. “I like him. I like him.”

“Yeah,” said McEwen, “that’s Alfred Molina.”

Such is life for Molina, the guy everyone seems to know from somewhere but whose name doesn’t always stick – an actor who has made a career of popping up in strange places only to slip away.

Yet people like him, they like him!

Molina remembers the Gumbel exchange and laughs. Though he never appeared in “Titanic” – “I was the only actor who wasn’t in that,” he says with a smile – the other credits were correct, a mishmash of roles that has become his signature.

“If they are recognizing the performance, then that’s a great compliment. The fact that they don’t know who I am suits me fine,” says the actor, known to his friends as Fred. “Maybe it’s self-serving, but that means I’m keeping the work really varied and hopefully taking people by surprise.”

Those surprises keep coming. While legions of teens will soon be able to check out Molina as Dr. Octavius in “Spider-Man 2,” their parents can see him tackle one of theater’s most iconic roles: Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

If you, like Gumbel, risk getting whiplash watching Molina veer from playing a cartoon villain in a Hollywood blockbuster to a poor Jewish villager on Broadway, the London-born actor offers a handy analogy.

“In England at the branches of Woolworth’s, they used to have rows and rows of jars with different kinds of candy. You could take whichever kind you wanted, throw it in a bag and you paid by the weight. They called it mix and match,” he says.

“It’s kind of what my career is like: I’ll take a little bonbon here, a stripped candy thing here, a chocolate-covered Brazil nut here. I think that’s good,” he says, then breaks out a wide smile: “My career will rot your teeth.”

Returning to Broadway for the first time since his 1998 Tony Award-nominated debut in “Art,” Molina has been handed quite a bonbon. The original production of “Fiddler on the Roof” opened in 1964 and won eight Tonys, including best musical and best actor for Zero Mostel.

At first, Molina, 50, says he struggled with Mostel’s shadow and the show’s subject, which tells the story of Jewish villagers in Russia on the eve of that country’s revolution. Then there are its classic songs, such as “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Tradition.”

“The first time I actually opened my mouth in the read-through, I felt a terrible weight of responsibility. I felt like I’ve been given the job of carrying this important, historic piece of work,” he says.

“The first thing that Joe Stein, the writer of the book, said to me after the read-through was, ‘You’ve got to forget all that. You’re being far too reverential.’ What I was doing, of course, was I was acting and singing as if I was handling a very precious piece of delicate, crystal glass that, at any second, just breathing on it would shatter it.”

The advice?

“He said, ‘Dirty it up a bit. Muck it up a bit. These aren’t happy, Jewish villagers. They’re real, hardworking people. They’re tough,”‘ says Molina. “I mean, if anything, you’ve got to treat it like a football – kick it around a bit.”

It was advice echoed by David Leveaux, the show’s director: “The trouble with the burden of a classic is that it can drive an actor to solemnity. Fortunately, Fred doesn’t have many solemn bones in his body. He’s much too serious an actor to be solemn.”

The new production at the Minskoff Theatre features Jerome Robbins’ original Tony Award-winning choreography, but producers are skittish about calling it a revival. “It never died,” says Molina, who co-stars with Randy Graff as Yente.

One thing Molina didn’t worry about was that he isn’t Jewish. “In a way, that’s irrelevant. It’s not about nationality – it transcends it. Does that mean I have to be Danish to play Hamlet?” he asks.

“I’m sure that on some personal or maybe familial level, a Jewish actor might have a connection or might strike a resonant chord in a very private or personal way. But ultimately that’s not really what it’s about,” he says.

“What it’s about is finding a way to tell a story as authentically and as clearly as possible. I don’t have to be Jewish to play a Jew. I don’t have to have that experience. My job is to give the audience that experience.”

In many ways, Molina is a perfect candidate for Tevye. Born to an Italian mother and a Spanish father, he grew up in the Notting Hill section of London, a slummy, working-class environment with immigrants from Ireland, the West Indies, Poland and Africa.

Blessed with an ear for accents, Molina jumped into virtually every ethnic group: Iranian in “Not Without My Daughter,” Russian in “Letter to Brezhnev,” Cuban in “The Perez Family,” French in “Chocolat,” Mexican in “Frida” and even Belgian as detective Hercule Poirot.

“I’m very proud of the fact that I can play all these different nationalities. I’ve done it with varying degrees of success, but at least with the best of intentions,” he says. Still, he acknowledges, “I think at some point you run the danger of becoming everyone’s favorite foreigner.”

“I haven’t reached the point yet – who knows, maybe it’s in my future – where I turn up for a job and someone goes, ‘OK, stick on a mustache and the accent box is over there, pick one out.’ I haven’t quite gotten to that point.”

These days, he doesn’t need the fake mustache, having grown his beard long to play Tevye. It’s a role he has characteristically thrown himself into yet still finds odd to play. As a teenager, he would sing along with the radio to “If I Were a Rich Man.”

He recalls at the age of 13 or 14 walking past an antique store and looking through the window at its a spiral staircase. “I can remember looking at this staircase from outside the store and singing to myself, ‘I’d have one large staircase going up and one even longer coming down.”‘

Now, all these years later, Molina isn’t worried about the inevitable comparisons he expects to face as the anchor of a beloved show.

“That’s OK,” he says. “I take a kind of cosmic view. … The short time in the world that I’m playing Tevye, I am Tevye. And when I’m done, it’ll be someone else and it’ll be their turn.”

AP-ES-02-25-04 1211EST

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