Donald Pleasence (right) looking very "off-the-peg" beside an elegant Oliver Reed in Tomorrow Never Comes (1977)
CHAPTER BY TERENCE PETTIGREW
"I always think I'm much better looking than I turn out on screen," says Donald Pleasence. He is entitled to his illusions. On film or across a room Pleasence is a chilling sight. He has the kind of piercing stare that lifts enamel off saucepans and when he is nasty, which is most of the time, he can be very convincing.
Like Robert Newton, Pleasence is a potent combination of eyes and voice. The eyes are mournful but they can also be sinister or seedy or just plain nutty. The voice rarely rises above a cultured purr and sounds like blood slushing over the edge of a cauldron. He declines to be called a star, preferring the description "feature player who is occasionally given star billing," which says it all. Pleasence is a skillful, sensitive performer whose range has been influenced more by his appearance than anything else. "I was slotted into the beady-eyed business, and find it immensely enjoyable," he explains.
So, too, have his audiences, for nobody can accuse him of holding anything back. At excavating holes in people's skulls with a solitary glance, Pleasence can have few equals.
In the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967, Lewis Gilbert) he was arch-villain Blofeld, feared boss of SPECTRE and would-be world supremo, engaged by Red China to foment a global war by setting the USA and the Soviets at each other's throats. SPECTRE achieves this by the simple device of a monster rocket skulking around in outer space and gobbling up any manned capsule foolish enough to venture into orbit. Naturally, America and Russia blame each other. But we have already been let into the secret---that it's only slippery old Pleasence, badly scarred and wonky-eyed and with a liking for cuddly white cats.
When the Chinese protest to Pleasence for jacking up the price of starting World War III by a few million dollars, and yelp about extortion, Pleasence calmly replies: "Extortion is my business gentlemen." After he dunks an inefficient female aide in a giant pool of piranha fish to show the kind of chap he is, the Chinese decide to waive all further protests.
In James Bond in the Cinema John Brosnan points out the unsuitability of Pleasence to playing Blofeld and rates his performance a "disappointment." The facial disfigurement was a studio afterthought aimed at giving Pleasence, literally, a distinguishing mark to help audiences forget his previous lengthy catalogue of weak, snivelly creations. On later Blofelds---Telly Savalas, Charles Gray---the device was considered unnecessary.
But long before that, Pleasence had been beavering away in a succession of small but highly charged, predominantly villain roles that were difficult to ignore. He was a vicious rabble-rouser in A Tale of Two Cities (1958, Ralph Thomas), committed to making the nobs pay, notably the hated Christopher Lee. In The Flesh and the Fiends (1959, John Gilling) he was a 19th-century grave-robber who really digs his profession. In Circus of Horrors (1960, Sidney Hayers) he gives half his rundown circus to face-surgeon Anton Diffring in gratitude for transforming his disfigured little daughter into a bright-eyed gamine. Diffring inherits the whole show when Pleasence is crushed to death by an overweight Russian bear. Pleasence was an embittered headmaster in Spare the Rod (1961, Leslie Norman), whose preference for antiquated whack 'em techniques strikes the wrong note with the new teacher Max Bygraves.
He made a couple of arty films around the mid-1960s, both heavy going. In Pinter's The Caretaker (1963, Clive Donner) he was a shabby old tramp and in Cul-de-Sac (1966, Roman Polanski) he played a sexual fruitcake whose bizarre hideaway is invaded by a couple of malevolent gangsters.
In The Great Escape (1963, John Sturges), he was James Garner's cell-mate, a timid fussy civil servant shot down during a reconnaissance flight which he had no business being on in the first place. "Tea without milk is so uncivilised," he complains to Garner, who is nicknamed the Scrounger for his knack of being able to charm or steal off the Germans anything that's needed for the planned escape. When Pleasence, whose job it is to forge visas and other documents, wants a camera, Garner blithely asks, "What kind?" Shortly before the breakout Pleasence's sight fails, but Garner gamely volunteers to look after him. They snatch a light aircraft and head for Switzerland, but engine trouble forces them down on the German side of the border and Pleasence is spotted and shot by an enemy patrol.
He has acted in numerous American films, such as Soldier Blue (1970, Ralph Nelson) in which he played a nasty gun-runner, and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965, George Stevens), when he went round stoking up trouble for Max Von Sydow, the film's gaunt and uninspired Jesus. In Fantastic Voyage (1966, Richard Fleischer), a sci-fi adventure about pumping a miniaturised team of medics into a VIP's bloodstream to repair brain damage, Pleasence was a baddie, implanted to sabotage the job. While the others are outside their capsule, Pleasence seizes control and drives off along a getaway artery, but star repairman Stephen Boyd scores a direct hit on the vehicle with his laser gun. The crashing capsule damages the host subject's tissues, and Pleasence, trapped in the pilot's cabin, is slowly devoured by white corpuscles, the bloodstream's natural vigilantes.
He was a royal toady in Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972, Waris Husein), a big screen adaptation of Keith Mitchell's TV success, gleefully weeding out opponents to Henry's divorce, smug in the delusion that with the king's patronage he can literally get away with murder. When a confession is needed, Pleasence is there with a knotted rope. Not surprisingly, he clocks up a few enemies in high places, and an alliance of nettled privy counsellors extract their revenge in the traditional way.
During the early 1970s, Pleasence made two engaging films with Michael Caine. In Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped (1971, Delbert Mann), he was the young hero David Balfour's niggardly Uncle Ebenezer, a crafty old skinbag who is aware that he is dying before the doctor, rushed to his bedside, knows it. As Davie and the physician retire to an adjoining room, to finalise burial arrangements, Pleasence yells at his nephew, "Don't let him charge you too much!"
In The Black Windmill (1974, Don Siegel), an above-average spy thriller whose opening credits defy anyone to read them, he was Caine's boss, director of subversive warfare, a tetchy individual who, according to department chief Joss Ackland, needs to consult his doctor if he "hasn't solved his Times crossword by ten in the morning." When a kidnap gang seize Caine's son and Pleasence refuses to meet the ransom demand, Caine is forced to take matters into his, as usual, competent hands. He steals half a million pounds in diamonds from his employers and sets off to Paris, where he believes the boy is being kept, to arrange the handover, but the lad is imprisoned much nearer home, in an old windmill near Brighton. Villain of the plot turns out to be Pleasence's boss, played by Joseph O'Connor, whose sexy young wife has depleted his resources in every way imaginable. Typically, Pleasence gives a knockout performance as the twitchy spymaster who keeps fiddling with his moustache, and continuously dabs his face with paper tissues which are then fed into the shredder beside his desk.
Chapter from the book BRITISH FILM CHARACTER ACTORS by Terence Pettigrew.
BRITISH FILM CHARACTER ACTORS is available for purchase at AMAZON.COM.