Adieu to That Dapper Detective
David Suchet Reflects on 25 Years as Poirot
By Craig Thomashoff, The New York Times
LOS ANGELES — As David Suchet walks into the green room backstage at the Ahmanson Theater, a half-finished jigsaw puzzle on a table catches his eye. “Someone in the cast must be working on that,” mused Mr. Suchet, who is appearing in a production here of “The Last Confession.” “Personally, I’m not one who particularly enjoys putting together puzzles.”
You’d think that after 25 years playing one of fiction’s most legendary detectives — Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot — he might have picked up a few clues about how to solve puzzles. However, as his final shows get set to air in the United States, Mr. Suchet, a British actor, seems determined to put some distance between himself and his tailored-suit-wearing, walking-cane-toting alter ego.
“It’s a pleasure to talk about him, but there will come a time very soon where I say, ‘I’ve done that, I am closing the door and moving on,’ ” explained Mr. Suchet, 68, clad in a very un-Poirot-like blue dress shirt and jeans. “He can leave my mind, but, hopefully, the work will live on for generations to come.”
He’s lived with the character for 70 episodes of “Agatha Christie’s Poirot,” or just about all the stories ever written about this Belgian detective. The final five will be broadcast in the United States starting next Sunday, the first two on PBS and the final three exclusively on Acorn TV, the streaming service that concentrates on British programming. According to Mr. Suchet, some 730 million viewers worldwide have seen at least one. His role has inspired hundreds of ardent fans to send him their paintings of him as Poirot. A 12-year-old boy recently came to a performance of “The Last Confession” completely decked out as Poirot, right down to a custom-made homburg.
“David Suchet is the definitive Poirot,” said Eirik Dragsund, a Christie expert and creator of a blog that chronicles every episode of the series. “With a meticulous attention to detail and respect for Christie’s stories, he has worked consistently to bring the much-loved Belgian to life. The walk, the accent, the order and the method make Poirot recognizable and, more importantly, believable.”
James Hobbs, another Christie authority who operates the Hercule Poirot Central Facebook page and website, added, “I’ve read every Poirot novel and short story, and I can tell Suchet has paid attention to Poirot’s personality.”
Even Christie’s daughter, Rosalind Hicks, invited him to dinner to explain how much her mother, who died in 1976, would have loved his portrayal of her famous creation. It was “the most moving thing said to me during filming of the show,” Mr. Suchet recalled. “I was always scared stiff, because it was well known Agatha Christie was never happy with any of the cinematic portrayals of her characters. But Rosalind had my wife and I over to the family house, and it made me absolutely well up when she said, ‘My mother would have been absolutely delighted with what you’ve done.’ It meant so much because that was my whole reason for doing this role.” (Ms. Hicks died in 2004.)
Despite his eagerness to honor Christie’s detective, he admits he never read her books while growing up. He did appear as a different character in a 1985 Poirot telefilm “Thirteen at Dinner,” in which Peter Ustinov played the detective. However, when the British network ITV approached him to star in a Poirot series, he first intended to say no.
“I only knew the character from seeing Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov play him,” Mr. Suchet recalled, referring to Mr. Finney’s Oscar-nominated role in “Murder on the Orient Express” and Mr. Ustinov’s turn in several films and television movies. “So when they offered me the role, those were my only reference points for Poirot. I rang my brother to ask his opinion, and he thought that the character seemed a bit thin. I thought it might be done as light comedy, very two-dimensional. It was only when I started reading the novels that I discovered what Agatha Christie had written was not what I had been seeing.”
After reading several Poirot novels and short stories, Mr. Suchet quickly discovered there was more to the Belgian investigator than a French accent, a healthy paunch and a mustache that looked much like a stray piece of black licorice. In fact, “some areas of my life touched his,” he said. “Some areas of his life touched mine. So we grew closer very quickly.”
For instance, they are both formal men with a fondness for suits and ties, a penchant for holding doors open for women and a love of order that borders on OCD. (“I do like symmetry as much as he does. If I see chaos on my desk, I feel chaos.”) Then there was a kinship between their childhoods. Mr. Suchet was “brought up with a father who was very Edwardian,” so when he decided to take the role, “I realized Poirot would have grown up in the Edwardian era. So I really went back to study that period’s attitude and etiquette.”
He was also so determined to capture the “inverted exclamation point” look of the character, as described by Christie, that he had Poirot’s suits tailored so that “when my feet were together, and I stood straight up, you never saw any gap” between the legs. Thus, he, too, became an inverted exclamation point.
The attention to detail clearly worked, because the ITV series would be repeatedly renewed for the next two decades and make its way to America via PBS’s “Masterpiece.” Despite the continued success, however, Mr. Suchet never received more than a one-year contract for his services.
“I have never banked on another year of ‘Poirot,’ ” he said. “However much people would say they were considering another season, I never banked on it. I never said Poirot was going to be a part of my life.”
It didn’t help his sense of security that there have been gaps of up to four years between seasons. No matter how much time lapsed between episodes, though, Mr. Suchet employed the same approach when it came time to slip on the crafty Belgian’s mustache again. He’d sit with Christie’s books right next to the scripts based on those stories and “take gestures from them and write them into the script,” he said. “As I always said, my whole modus operandi was to get the character right for her.”
The research wasn’t the only tradition Mr. Suchet has kept over the years. There’s also that mustache, which has played a significant role for all 25 years. “I’d be getting ready in makeup, thinking about the character and the day’s work ahead, but I’d be speaking as myself. As soon as the mustache went on over my lips, the Belgian in me came out, and my voice went up. It was the catalyst for me to become Poirot.”
These days, the mustache hangs in a frame in Mr. Suchet’s home in Britain, alongside Poirot memorabilia like the detective’s cane. He filmed the last five episodes of “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” more than a year ago — “It felt devastating to see the final one,” he said — and has been trying to purge Poirot from his system ever since. That process includes spending much of 2014 touring with “The Last Confession,” a play about the election and death of Pope John Paul I.
Because the series managed to turn every Poirot novel and short story into an episode, Mr. Suchet insists there is no reason for him to ever play the character again.
“I have heard rumors that a new book might be written and a big feature film might get made, but for me to play him again would be doing it for very much the wrong reasons,” he said. “If I’ve been anything, I’ve been Agatha Christie’s Poirot, so now I can happily pass the baton to another actor. And I do hope there will be another. I just also hope my body of work will be regarded as most true to her original work.”