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His 50-year career ain't over till it's over

In Thomas Lysaght's one-man show, ''Nobody Don't Like Yogi," baseball hero Yogi Berra has returned to Yankee Stadium for the first time in 14 years after being fired by George Steinbrenner, and is figuring out what he'll say to the fans waiting in the stands for him. Veteran actor Ben Gazzara, who received a 2004 Drama Desk Award nomination for his portrayal, says Berra came back because Steinbrenner had finally apologized, and it was ''time to forgive." The play opens for previews Tuesday at the Wilbur Theatre.

Gazzara, whose 50-year career includes film (''Husbands," ''The Big Lebowski," ''Dogville"), television (''Run for Your Life"), and Broadway (''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"), won a 2003 Emmy for his role in the HBO film ''Hysterical Blindness." He spoke to the Globe by phone from New York City.

Q: Do you have to like baseball to like the play?

A: You don't have to know about baseball. It's about the importance of honor in life, the importance of a sense of humor.

Q: What did you know about him from growing up in New York's Lower East Side?

A: I saw him play. He didn't seem to have a style. He was all gangly, not cool, but he could hit better than most and field better than most and think baseball better than most. He had the reputation of not being too bright, but he certainly was bright about baseball.

Q: Are there many of Berra's malapropisms in the show, like, ''it gets late early out there"?

A: Those aphorisms are a minor part of the play, actually. He lets the audience have a few of the sayings. But he's ingenuous about it. He can't understand why people think they're so funny.

Q: What kind of physical changes did you go through to appear like him?

A: I thought at the beginning, listen, maybe I should use another nose, or ears. Then I thought, no. I'm going to have to act this thing. Now everyone tells me I look like Yogi. I don't know if I could take that as a compliment or not.

Q: You're bringing a play about the Yankees from a town that loves them to a town that traditionally hates them. What do you think will be the difference in audience reactions?

A: They'll love this play up there. It's not about the Yankees. It's about a man who loved the Yankees. And he loved baseball more than the Yankees.

Q: When she was here recently, Elaine Stritch told audiences that you wanted to marry her but that she threw you over for Rock Hudson.

A: That's her version. You pick up my book, you'll see my version. It's called ''In the Moment," and it's doing very well. It got great reviews.

Q: Back to Elaine. Did you live with her for two years?

A: I had a toothbrush and razor at her place, but no clothing. I had my own apartment. We had a lot of laughs. In those days, Elaine was an expert on drinking. She taught me what to drink.

Q: Being onstage alone for 80 to 90 minutes is a challenge for any actor, but at 74, is it even more daunting? Is memory a problem?

A: The only thing that daunted me is I had cancer of the mouth. The radiation treatments killed my salivary glands. I was worried about drying up. I came close to not doing the play. But since it takes place in the Yankee clubhouse, we found we could put in a watercooler. But the water stayed in my mouth too long; I couldn't swallow quickly. So I do the show without a sip of water now. I think it was a miracle. Memory is no problem. Learning lines has never been an issue. I feel sorry for actors who worry about things like that. That's the least of your problems. When you create the person, the lines are just absorbed.

Q: Have you ever followed Yogi's advice: If you see a fork in the road, take it?

A: I always take a fork in the road. Many times.

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