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NEW YORK—Flushed and sweaty from his exertions, Daniel Radcliffe walked to the front of a Broadway stage and drank in the applause like an “American Idol” act on his first big gig.


He grinned sheepishly, sighed with clear relief and closed his eyes, as if to better savor the catharsis of the moment.


If the 19-year-old Radcliffe were a conventional young English actor making his Broadway debut, none of this would be surprising. But he’s a celebrity known in every corner of the planet as Harry Potter. His adolescence has been lived in a fantastical, public realm.


On film, he was protected by a school uniform.


On Broadway, Radcliffe is entirely on public view.


“Equus,” Peter Shaffer’s story of a troubled young adolescent sent to a psychiatrist after violently attacking several horses, requires an extensive nude scene from Radcliffe’s character of Alan Strang. When you’re a star of Radcliffe’s wattage, such exposure involves risk.


As had been the case in London, where this production first was seen, surreptitiously snapped nude photos instantly appeared on Web sites this week. Clearly, Radcliffe had come to terms with that reality. He bares his body for more than 1,100 people a show, eight times a week. Some of them are going to have cameras. In the Broadway watering holes, there was admiration for the young movie star’s chutzpah.


Radcliffe is risking a lot for the theater.


Movie stars often do.


Jeff Daniels is starring at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in the new musical “Turn of the Century.” He is keeping all his clothes on. But he is singing the lead role in a musical, a specialty for which this movie actor is not known.


In New York next month, Katie Holmes makes her Broadway debut in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” Ever besieged by paparazzi, Holmes’ little family has relocated to New York, with husband Tom Cruise playing the unusual new role of theater critic, favorably reviewing his wife’s Broadway performance after just one preview performance last week.


And when the Goodman’s Robert Falls opens his Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” in November, his cast will include Haley Joel Osment, acclaimed for his role in “The Sixth Sense” but a Broadway neophyte.


Why do movie stars take these risks? It’s not for the money. Even at these levels, theater does not pay multimillion-dollar fees. But a movie actor in a play gets other rewards. Starting with legitimacy.


Where craft is considered, the live stage still occupies a pure, rarefied spot in the creative hierarchy. A stellar performance on the boards in New York or Chicago suggests a class act, underpinned by genuine artistry. It allows stars to reinvent themselves—by performing “Equus” in the buff, Radcliffe is sending a clear signal that he’s no longer a child actor. And as Holmes no doubt knows, the relatively egalitarian rules of engagement in the theater offer some protections from the perfidy of life in the Hollywood celebrity bubble.


Bizarrely, Holmes gets to act in a more reasonable environment than she gets walking down the street. And she also has a chance to assert her own artistry away from a husband who sucks up a lot of oxygen.


There is nothing new, of course, about movie stars appearing in stage plays. (The phenomenon is especially common in London.)


From a producer’s point of view, their presence not only sells tickets but ensures that an otherwise risky project finds backers. And a number of English stars—such as Helen Mirren or Judi Dench—who are known for movie careers on this side of the Atlantic have rarely been away for long from the London stage. In Britain, where London is the center of film and theater, such bifurcated careers are common.


That’s less the case in the United States, although such movie stars as Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott and Henry Fonda worked consistently in the theater throughout their careers.


The same is true of Daniels, who runs his own theater in Chelsea, Mich., and who is an alumnus of the vaunted Circle Repertory Company.


But still, many movie stars are inexperienced on the stage. And it can show.


The last couple of Broadway seasons contained at least two such examples.


Julia Roberts, who starred in Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain,” struggled to find sufficient volume and definition to reach the back of the house. And Julianne Moore found herself onstage with the wily British actor Bill Nighy—a movie star, sure, but a stage actor wholly at home with the theater’s more spontaneous environment. She struggled to keep up.


You have the sense that this year’s crop of movie stars on the stage are more likely to succeed.


Daniels has the distinguished director Tommy Tune to guide him through his experience at the Goodman. Holmes has Simon McBurney, a directorial auteur who founded Complicite theater company and whose work has rarely failed. Falls, who knows Mamet back to front, will likely whip Osment into Chicago-style shape.


The best theater results when celebrities are confident enough to admit who they are, and the ruckus they are causing, and when all of that sometime gets worked into the overall aesthetic experience.


At times in “Equus,” you sense that the director, Thea Sharrock, is probing the celebrity of her young star.


“Equus” is a play about personal exposure and this fine production sticks its actors in an intense, Greeklike caldron. Tickets have been sold for seats in balconies at the rear of the stage.


Shorn of any privacy even to the rear, Radcliffe literally gets peered at from all sides.


His character comes out all the better on the other side.


This brave, young actor will surely do the same.

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