Scratch the average character actor and you'll come away with enough makeup to stock an amateur dramatic society. Scratch Donald Pleasence and you'll come away almost clean.
Acclaimed here three years ago for his Davies, the tramp in The Caretaker, Pleasence's star status has just been consolidated by his triumphant performance in the title role of Poor Bitos, the spite-ridden psychotic through whom playwright Jean Anoulih draws a cynical analogy between the French Revolution terrorists and the vengeful Resistance leaders of post-World War II. His steely portrayal is accomplished with a minimum of disguise; two deft parenthetical curves of the eyebrow pencil help identify him immediately to audiences as a wily chipmunk at bay.
Sparing in his use of the usual cosmetics, nose putties and hair attachments, Pleasence's appearance as Bitos is limited by his physical structure rather than by the way he sees the man ideally. This is his third Anoulih play (he was in the London productions of The Lark and Restless Heart) and he feels that the prototype of the character is the playwright himself: "He's shy, with the sort of shyness that covers a huge ego. Big glasses with hornrims over peering eyes. Big ears, a wide mustache. I didn't know him very well, but he seemed to have a hesitancy which covered an assurance of his great talent, and the kind of shyness that Somerset Maugham once called 'A mixture of egocentricity and diffidence.' I think I have it myself sometimes."
The son and grandson of railroad workers, Pleasence was born 45 years ago in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, a steel town in the northeast of England. His desire to be an actor dates from the age of eight, when his mother began to enter him in local "Musical Festivals." "There were always verse-speaking classes," he recalls, "and I would trot along to recite my poems---pieces like The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, and Vitae Lampada or The Tortured Life by Sir Henry Newbolt---you had to announce the full title and the author clearly, with the best diction. I won a great many prizes; my mother still has a drawerful of them. My brother used to do it, too, but he's now a station master. He couldn't kick the railroad habit."
Pleasence first encountered a cosmetic stick when, at the age of 12, he played Caesar in a school production of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. His face was covered with deep lines to simulate age, and perhaps because he fooled neither his classmates nor their relatives, he has used makeup sparingly ever since. However, the experience emboldened him to go to London to try for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
He won the scholarship, but since it did not include money for expenses and his parents couldn't afford to keep him in London, he returned home. He began sending letters offering his services to repertory companies and outlying theaters and was finally rewarded with a job as assistant stage manager for a stock troupe run by Lawrence Naismith in the resort town of Jersey.
Promoted to small-part player, he advanced rapidly until he was hissing such leading roles as the villainous Mr. Manningham in Gaslight at 19. Listed with the theatrical agencies as "eccentric juvenile" (a completely innocent appellation referring simply to a young light comedian), he was in and out of various rep companies including two seasons with the famed Birmingham, and finally the Old Vic, with which aggregation he made his first trip to America as part of the Laurence Olivier-Vivien Leigh productions of the dual Cleopatras, Caesar and --- and Antony and ---.
Back in London, the role of Willie Mossup (ideal "eccentric juvenile" lead) in an Arts Theater Club production of Hobson's Choice first brought him the critical huzzas he had been working for since the childhood verse-speaking days. He considers the Club from which many West End hits have originated, to be a very lucky house for him. He had done about a dozen plays there, including Pirandello's Rules of the Game and Pinter's The Caretaker.
When the script of the latter was sent to him, he was already a well-known name in England through fortuitous appearances in a wide variety of popular TV dramas and in such movies as The Beachcomber, No Love for Johnnie, and Dr. Crippen. He had contracts for four films awaiting his signature and the prospect of earning only ten pounds a week at the experimental Arts Theater Club was less than enticing. But he felt that the play was exceptional and that he couldn't turn down the opportunity it offered him.
TO THE TOP
His success in The Caretaker was enormous. Transferred to a commercial house, it ran for a year in London and five months on Broadway. For his role as the scrofulous Davies, he grew a beard, colored white and trimmed artfully to keep it short and unkempt. The beard was a great help in aiding the illusion for the paying customers, but no help at all after the performance when New York taxis would dart away to keep from picking him up.
Pleasence goes to a Saville Row tailor, but perversely has his suits made as un-Saville-Row as possible (when interviewed recently he was wearing greenish pepper-and-salt slacks and a salmon-colored shirt open at the neck, which he planned to top with a sweater to go to a theater rehearsal. Once he knew The Caretaker was set for a run here, he went around looking for an apartment for his family. To impress a Washington Square prospective landlady, he flanked the Skid-Row beard with his best suit and "a very Bond Street hat." A boy passing by as he was about to ring the doorbell carefully surveyed the contradictory ensemble and asked, "Are you a beatnik or something?"
For Poor Bitos, he has brought over his wife, actress-singer Josephine Crombie, and their two daughters, Lucy 3 1/2 years old, named after translator Lucienne Hill (Poor Bitos among others), and Polly, aged 20 months.
The Anoulih play requires Pleasence to wear no exceptional foliage and he will henceforth be in fair competition for a taxi, since he is now as ordinary-looking as everyone else. He is 5'7" tall, of slight build, bald, with an alert face capped by keen grey-blue eyes which he describes as "duck-egg blue." At least one of these orbs achieved some fame in England where, as a result of his roles in an Armchair Mystery Theatre television series, he became known in the more frivolous press as "The Man With the Hypnotic Eye."
He has an anecdote to illustrate the loyalty of some newspaper writers to labels they have themselves created. A journalist came to his house outside London to interview him and in the course of their talk Pleasence pointed out that he wasn't at all like the image shown to the public on TV. The journalist agreed and the two spent a very pleasant, friendly hour over a luncheon of trout. When the interview appeared, the first sentence read, "He looked at me across the table with eyes as cold as the trout I'd been offered..."