To land the lead in TheatreVirginia's "It's a Wonderful Life," Duke Lafoon trumped national competition with his secret weapon: likeability. 

A Noble Duke

While doing stand-in work for the movie "Hannibal," Richmond actor Duke Lafoon was impressed by how polite director Ridley Scott's European crew was. "On an American set they might say, 'Hey you, stand over there,'" Lafoon, a veteran performer, says. But "Hannibal" crew members were so friendly, Lafoon reports, slipping effortlessly into a British accent. "They'd say, 'I'm sorry, what was your name? Duke? Duke, could you stand over there by the candle, love? Thank you ever so much.'"

Good manners are not expected in the cutthroat movie world. And Lafoon probably appreciates this because he defies expectations himself. Though he is a big fish in the relatively smallish pond of Richmond theater, Lafoon has the congenial demeanor of someone who is constantly surprised at his own good fortune. Affable and unassuming, Lafoon just seems genuinely nice. This character defect hasn't stood in the way of his success, however. In fact, he recently landed one of the more coveted roles of this coming theater season: George Bailey in TheatreVirginia's holiday musical, "It's a Wonderful Life."

Lafoon, 31 years old and a graduate of Lee Davis High School, doesn't know why he was chosen. "I am surprised that [director Bill Wesbrooks] cast me without going to New York — I know they had the trip scheduled," Lafoon says. "It's always understood that [TheatreVirginia] casts a part that large out of New York."

Wesbrooks, the acclaimed New York-based director, was not surprised to find his George in Richmond, however. "Richmond has a very strong pool of local actors," he says. "Duke has real strength and power and yet can also play someone very thoughtful and considerate. I would have liked to work with Duke before, but this was the first time he was available to audition for me."

Indeed, Lafoon does keep himself busy, regularly appearing on local stages, particularly Swift Creek Mill Theatre where he played lead roles in last year's "Sanders Family Christmas" and 1998's "Damn Yankees." The actor also grabs an occasional TV or movie role. His biggest part to date was as Jack Epps in the CBS miniseries, "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal," broadcast earlier this year, and he has a small role in "Wicked Spring," an independent Civil War film due out this fall.

The role in "Wonderful Life" will mark a homecoming of sorts for Lafoon: He made his professional debut on the same stage more than 15 years ago when he was still in junior-high school. "I played Fleance in 'MacBeth,'" remembers Lafoon. "I was so inexperienced at the time. Banquo, Fleance's father, dies. As a 14-year-old, I thought I had to tear up every night and I didn't know how to do that. So I would take my makeup and squish it into my eyes until they stung. And I would go out there crying." Lafoon shakes his head and laughs as he relates the story: "It was very painful; that makeup dries and it hurts."

Before "Wonderful Life" goes into rehearsal, Lafoon is tackling a new challenge: his first stint in the director's chair. He is at the helm of Henrico Theater Company's production of "Close Ties," which runs for two weeks starting on Sept. 15. "I have no aspirations to be a director," Lafoon claims, "but I knew I could learn a lot from doing it and I already have."

In bringing "Wonderful Life" to the stage, both Lafoon and Wesbrooks will face an undeniable challenge: the Jimmy Stewart factor. "Some roles will forever belong to the person who created them," concedes Wesbrooks. "But, as a director, you don't really address that challenge. Duke is his own person and will bring his own strengths to the role. I'm not sure what the point is to make comparisons. … It was a difficult role to cast. The character is a combination of someone who's never been happy with his life and is very concerned with doing the right thing."

"It's a musical adaptation," stresses Lafoon, "and I don't remember Jimmy Stewart singing before." Still, there's no denying that Lafoon's down-home, casual charm has something reminiscent about it. "A good friend told me 'you ARE Jimmy Stewart,'" says Lafoon, "so maybe I have some of the qualities but I don't know. I'm nice, I guess." In Richmond theater, this is one nice guy who's coming out on

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