MAD DOGS AND AN ENGLISHMAN
INTERVIEW BY FIONA LEWIS
"As long as you don't want to know why I always play psychopathic villains and sadistic monsters all the time, ask me anything you like..."
Actor extraordinary Donald Pleasence skims the horizon, squinting at the midday sun, his hands making big bulges in the pockets of his red and blue toweling robe as he saunters forward across the sand.
"You see, they always ask me that and I can't stand it..."
The plaster cherubims, the rent-a-plant and patio furniture of the Malibu beach house which was transformed for the set of the film Hearts of the West, have been temporarily deserted as the peremptory cry of "lunch" echoes across the beach. Howard Zeiff directs, and the film stars Jeff Bridges, Andy Griffith, Alan Arkin and Donald Pleasence, playing the wealthy literary mogul who comes to grips with movie making during the early era of Hollywood.
Pleasence folds his robe around the surprisingly birdlike frame with ineffable delicacy, as if he's toying with a $500 evening suit, and settles back into the peeling, sun-scorched wicker chair, carefully examining his special order of cheese and tomato on rye.
Is this the legend come to life? This seemingly perfect English gentleman now pensively stroking his chin with recently manicured fingers? Not a flicker or clue to the pale minatory face that has been chilling audiences since the '50s or a trace of his hard-earned stepping stones to stardom, repeated and powerfully reiterated in his subtly disturbing performances. His most recognized, perhaps, both on stage and screen is the verminous tramp in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker.
From the moment he crashed through the predominant brick wall of his north-of-England upbringing---in those days not yet a fashionable background to success---he admits he seemed doomed to be typecast. But like most other actors, he was attracted to the "bright lights" of the metropolis.
"I always had the idea of getting away from it all...getting to the big city."
When he eventually plunged his foot into the cold perimeter of movies he was immediately up to his neck, being encapsulated in roles that seemingly only he could play.
In Polanski's Cul-de-Sac he excels as the neurotic businessman, prancing around his castle with his licentious French wife.
"I think that was Polanski's best picture. We were very creative together and although we had fights, a lot of the scenes were improvised on the spot."
The list of films is endless. They were not always well reviewed or even noticed at first and were mainly confined to showings on the other side of the Atlantic, until this list included Night of the Generals, You Only Live Twice, Will Penny and others. And always, from his point of view, there was a kind of lucrative dilemma as to how his inauspicious image actually emerged and resulted in a healthy career.
"Right from the beginning people saw me in some kind of screwy way---that I wasn't suitable for the tall, handsome parts. They didn't realize they were looking at this tall, blond, crinkly-haired Adonis with the perfect features, the twinkly eyes and the boyish dimples. So I gave up. Then I started seeing myself on the screen. Suddenly I understood why and stopped watching."
His sentences bound around in awe-inspiring leaps and his blue eyes blink and flicker as if someone keeps driving through with his headlights on. He slides a limp paper cup to one side, then calmly covers the puddle of coffee trickling towards him with a layer of napkins.
"I suppose there's a gigantic ego there somewhere. I've done five plays in the last 10 years---I can't afford to do more, it's a luxury and doesn't pay, you know---and in every single one I'm not off the stage for more than a minute. I'm doing one in London soon on the same lines, so it's either ego or masochism."
The ego may have started long ago when he left his brother and father, relinquishing the boyhood security of the small town of Worksop, which borders on the fabled Sherwood Forest. He failed to fulfill the desired Royal Academy of Dramatic Art training and so, after having worked on the railways for a year and a half, slipped in the creaking back door of a theater in Jersey, Eng., as stage manager. Small parts inevitably followed until he reached a minor goal in any actor's life---playing Shakespeare in the Stratford Theater with another potential, Robert Shaw. Lurking in the background as a runner for the director was a young Tony Richardson, who bore the brunt of both actors' abuse.
"Shaw and I were sharing a dressing room. Richardson was always coming round with little notes from the director. He only had time to put his head round the door and say 'George says...' and we'd both shout 'Get out' and slam the door in his face. I don't think either of us has got a job from him since he came to eminence."
The affiliation with Shaw led to one of Pleasence's most notable theatrical roles as the eccentric Arthur Goldman in The Man in the Glass Booth, which Robert Shaw wrote and Harold Pinter directed. However, when the property fell into the enameled furnace of Hollywood, despite Pleasence's glowing reviews, the film part was given to Maximilian Schell.
"Of course I was upset, not doing the film. They kept telling me they would send the script. In fact, they never did. They also didn't send it to Robert Shaw. When I finally read it, however, I wouldn't have done it anyway."
Pleasence taps away at his bald temple, then looks intrigued and sickened at the same time as the conversation slides back into what he calls the graveyard of his personality, the unwholesome intrigue surrounding the gruesome parts he plays.
He has been married three times and is currently and happily married to a young English girl almost 30 years his junior. His five children, all of them girls, have naturally oscillated in the mild confusion of growing up in the shifting wings.
"Well, now it's better. Now I see them all the time. My eldest, Angela, is a successful actress in London and I have a beautiful daughter of 17. I'm furiously jealous every time she brings these awful boys home. They're all those great big yobbos---you know, the embryonic truck drivers."
He absentmindedly removes the annoying grains of sand which have blown over his cheese and tomato.
"But I can't be strict about their morals. I don't have any religion, so it's difficult to subsidize it with something else. If you can't actually say, 'He (Pleasence poins to a passing cloud) doesn't like it,' well..."
Sand covers the entire plate in a hopeless gray film. He abandons it with a mild sigh. The grips are shifting scenery around his feet, murmuring apologies, and Pleasence smiles in some kind of lubricious luxury, looking as if he might forsake the growing disasters of his native Britain and, like many other Englishmen, come over to stay.
"Well, I suppose if I moved anywhere it would be here. I'm an anticonservative, a negativistic person who's fascinated with politics, especially American politics. I think I really understand them."
From his next remark, however, it's plainly obvious he will crush any rumors of Britain's sinking financial hopes.
"Rubbish, exaggerated rubbish. I can only say as a visitor to a country which I love, America's not in too great a shape either." Then he laughs at his own rancor as he whispers, "But of course the sun is shining here."
And it starts to sink. The California winter sun starts to slip away over Malibu. People are drifting back from lunch with renewed enthusiasm for a retake of the same shot with the same lines. This is the last day of filming for Pleasence. Tomorrow he flies back to England to begin immediately a new science fiction film called Baby. Another psychopath?
"No, no, very straight. In fact, I play a positively charming doctor."
"Well, I do get my head chopped off."
He smiles again. The patio has to be cleared completely and the wicker chair is gently removed from underneath him. Pleasence assumes his mogul look.
"You know the only reason I really accepted this part at all was because finally I knock down an entire movie set single-handed."
He slowly and gravely conducts himself to the edge of the concrete patio, hesitates, then turns back, shooting a villainous grin towards the house.
"And that's something I've wanted to do for years." He steps off into the sand with military precision, pointing himself wickedly in the direction of the camera and the Pacific.
Interview from the February 9, 1975 edition of THE LOS ANGELES TIMES.
Interview © 1975 THE LOS ANGELES TIMES. All Rights Reserved.
Title and logo designed by Karen Rappaport
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