DONALD PLEASENCE'S BIOGRAPHY
BY CHRISTOPHER WEEDMAN
Donald Pleasence was born to Thomas Stanley and Alice (Armitage) Pleasence on October 5, 1919 in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, England. The younger of two sons of a railway stationmaster, Pleasence quit school a year before graduation to pursue his childhood dream of becoming an actor. He soon found himself accepted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but was unable to attend, because he failed to win a scholarship that would cover both tuition and living expenses. After spending a year and a half as a railway station manager at Swinton in Yorkshire, Pleasence was able to worm his way into the position of assistant stage manager at the Playhouse on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands.
He made his stage debut as Hareton Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights at the Playhouse in May of 1939. Pleasence found success almost immediately and worked steadily throughout the next few years -- a period which saw his first London stage appearance, Curio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at the Arts Theatre Club in June 1942. When it seemed that his career was really beginning to take off, World War II hit and acting had to be set aside for the moment.
Pleasence, a pacifist, spent six months as a conscientious objector in the Lake District working in lumbering for the war effort; he later, however, changed his mind and decided to enlist in the British Royal Air Force. Tragedy struck when Pleasence's plane was shot down over France, and he was thrown into a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. During the last year of the war, he spent his time being beaten and mentally tortured by sadistic Nazi guards, while dreaming of the day that would bring him freedom. This day came in 1946, when he was recovered from the P.O.W. camp and discharged with the rank of flight lieutenant. While others were licking their wounds at home, Pleasence knew that the only way he would fully recover from his World War II horrors was to get back to work.
Returning to the stage almost immediately after the war, Pleasence seemed to have no difficulty in securing parts. After spending time with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, he joined the prestigious Bristol Old Vic Company and found himself journying to New York to star alongside Laurence Olivier (his acting idol) and Vivian Leigh in both Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra at the Ziegfield Theatre in December 1951. With these successes under his belt, Pleasence returned to London and won acclaim from critics in Hobson's Choice. After being fascinated with the character Huish from the Robert Louis Stevenson short story Ebb Tide, Pleasence adapted the story himself for the stage and produced it in 1952 at both the Edinburgh Festival and Royal Court Theatre in London. He followed this with such productions as The Rules of the Game, The Lark (one of his all time favorites), and Misalliance, but by the mid-1950s, Pleasence decided to pursue other acting avenues, because of the lack of good parts being offered to him on the stage. Moviegoers and television viewers soon began to take notice of the man who critics began to refer to as the "Man with the Hypnotic Eye."
Pleasence made his screen debut in 1955 as Tromp in The Beachcomber, but he did not receive much attention because it was only a small supporting role. He continued to work steadily in films throughout the rest of the decade and even turned up alongside Richard Burton in the classic rebellion drama Look Back in Anger (1959). Pleasence gained even more attention on television and found himself becoming one of the most popular actors on British programming. After appearing as Prince John in the popular series The Adventures of Robin Hood (1956), he received a great deal of praise with Armchair Mystery Theatre, a series he produced in 1960, but it was not until he returned to the stage that he ultimately achieved wide recognition on both sides of the Atlantic.
On April 27, 1960, Pleasence opened in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker at the Arts Theatre Club in London, and the play was nothing less than an overnight success. Pleasence played Davies, a verminous tramp taken in by two brothers (Alan Bates and Robert Shaw), who give him the position of "caretaker" of their residence. Shortly after he arrives, however, he starts to come in-between the brothers and turmoil results.
The Caretaker ran for fourteen weeks in London, before it closed and opened again on Broadway and had a successful 165 performance run. Pleasence received enormous praise from critics in both England and the United States; he was given the British Critics Award for the "Best Performance of the Year" (1960) and was nominated for a Tony Award (the first of four Tony nominations -- he never won). Pinter's play was filmed by Clive Donner in 1964 (released as The Guest in the United States) with Pleasence, Bates, and Shaw. The success of the motion picture was not nearly as enormous as either of the stage productions, but he had another picture released the same year that eventually became a classic. The film was The Great Escape.
This P.O.W. actioner, which co-starred Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn, was Pleasence's first big Hollywood film, and it suddenly brought him to the attention of mainstream American moviegoers. His sympathetic portrayal of Colin Blythe, a nearly blind document forger, was all the more realistic, since he had actually spent time in a P.O.W. camp in real life. The role was successful enough to land him in a string of big budget Hollywood productions throughout the rest of the decade, including The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Hallelujah Trail (both 1965), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Night of the Generals, You Only Live Twice (both 1967--the latter as the villainous James Bond nemesis Blofeld), and Will Penny (1968). During this period, his most important film characterization was the neurotic George in Roman Polanski's bizarre black comedy Cul-de-Sac (1966), but it was made in Europe on a miniscule budget. Each of these films gave him a juicy part to showcase his superb skills, but a much bigger success was awaiting him on the stage.
Pleasence had received a great deal of praise for his 1964 dual stage role in Poor Bitos, but Robert Shaw's The Man in the Glass Booth (1967--directed by Harold Pinter) brought him even more accolades. The play, which was about a crazed Jewish millionaire who impersonates a Nazi war criminal, was made successful with both audiences and critics by his magnificent performance, which Time Magazine called "...a performance of atomic power and blinding virtuosity." The role earned Pleasence his third Tony nomination and the 1967 Variety Club Award for the "Best Actor of the Year." While he was again nominated for a Tony with the 1972 production of Wise Child, The Man in the Glass Booth marked Pleasence's last big time success on the stage. For the remainder of his career, Donald Pleasence spent the majority of his career in motion pictures and on television.
While continuing to star in such Hollywood A-budget pictures as The Black Windmill (1974), Hearts of the West (1975), and The Last Tycoon (1976), the seventies marked the period in which the name Donald Pleasence would be greatly associated with the realm of horror. Throughout the decade, Pleasence starred in several low-budget terror and occult pictures, which included Death Line (1972), From Beyond the Grave, Tales That Witness Madness (both 1973), The Mutations (1974), I Don't Want To Be Born! (1975), and The Uncanny (1977). Many of these films were just paychecks for the distinguished performer, who was never known to turn down many roles. One horror film he almost turned down, however, ultimately gave him his biggest personal success since The Man in the Glass Booth. The film was Halloween.
In 1978, a young director named John Carpenter asked Pleasence to star in his $300,000 horror film Halloween. The first reluctant Pleasence finally agreed to star in the film, when one of his daughters told him how much she enjoyed Carpenter's previous film, the urban gang shocker Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). Pleasence starred as a tormented psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis, who pursues a murderous patient, Michael Myers, on Halloween night and is determined to stop him...before he kills again. Halloween was a surprise smash with both audiences and critics; it became the most successful independent motion picture of its time and grossed over $60 million. Halloween has also spawned five sequels to date -- four of which starred Pleasence as Dr. Loomis. The film made Pleasence nothing short of a cult horror icon, which was an image he was never able to shake.
Surprisingly, after the success of Halloween and the next Carpenter/Pleasence teaming, Escape From New York (1981--as a kidnapped President of the United States), Pleasence was unable to secure parts in any prestigious Hollywood pictures. Throughout the 1980s, he starred in a variety of low-budget pictures, which ranged from the excellent (Phenomena and Ground Zero) to the easily forgettable (A Breed Apart and The Devonsville Terror) to downright utter trash (Frankenstein's Great-Aunt Tillie and Warrior Queen). When questioned about some of his below par films, Pleasence would shrug it off and say that he took the roles to support his lavish lifestyle, but his good friend John Carpenter admitted that Pleasence, toward the end of his life, "...was feeling bad about having done so many lousy films. It really bothered him." Pleasence closed out the decade in the stylish Prince of Darkness (1987--directed by Carpenter), two Poe pictures by Harry Allan Towers (1988's The House of Usher and 1990's Buried Alive), and multiple shlocky Italian slasher films. He also reprised Dr. Loomis in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989). These films, which marked Pleasence's return to the series (his last Halloween film was 1981's Halloween II), were quite successful, but neither matched the intensity of the original or the first sequel.
By the 1990s, age had caught up with Pleasence, and consequently, his output began to slow up. He starred in the suspense actioner American Rickshaw (1990) with Mitch Gaylord and in the Woody Allen satire Shadows and Fog (1992). He did score a success with the 1994 medieval courtroom drama Hour of the Pig (aka: The Advocate), but his decade highlight was reprising the role of Davies in the 1991 London revival of The Caretaker with Colin Firth. It would seem only fitting that his last performance would be as the crazed Loomis in the dismal Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) (a previous acting job, Fatal Frames, was released to theatres in 1996). Pleasence, who was delighted with the original Daniel Farrands script, hailed it as the best written script of the sequels, but he did not live to see the shlocky end result. The great British thespian, who was recovering from heart valve surgery, died on Feburary 2, 1995 at his home in St. Paul de Vence, France; he was survived by his fourth wife, Linda, and five daughters. Pleasence left that day having given his fans an array of memorable performances, which will undoubtedly live forever in the hearts of his fans everywhere.
Thanks Donald for 75 wonderful years!
IN EVERLASTING REMEMBRANCE OF
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