DONALD PLEASENCE: A VERY 'ODD' ACTOR
ARTICLE BY STEPHEN JONES
When listing the screen's Masters of Mayhem, one actor invariably overlooked is Donald Pleasence. Yet in a career that has spanned almost thirty years and more than sixty movies, nearly half of his films have been in the horror/fantasy genre. Usually characterized in villainous or eccentric roles, the secret of Pleasence's success lies in his diversity: he has never become associated with any one particular type of filmmaking. Audiences instantly recognize his bald pate and nervous, staring eyes and it is this sinister image and reputation that has made Donald Pleasence a natural star of horror films on both sides of the Atlantic.
Pleasence was born on October 5th 1919 and grew up in Ecclesfield, Yorkshire. His first stage appearance was in 1939 and just three years later he was performing Twelfth Night in London. Like many other actors, Pleasence's career was interrupted by World War II. He returned to the stage in 1946 and over the next five years, he refined his craft in repertory groups throughout Britain, eventually playing the Ziegfield Theatre in New York in 1951 as part of Laurence Olivier's company.
His first major television success was as Syme, in Nigel Kneale's adaptation of George Orwell's classic Nineteen Eighty-Four; but the acting honours went to another up-and-coming actor named Peter Cushing. A grim look at a future Britain under a totalitarian government, it was broadcast live by the BBC in 1954 and caused something of an outcry at the time. That same year, Donald Pleasence made his film debut in Somerset Maugham's The Beachcomber. A couple of equally unmemorable features followed until, in 1956, Pleasence (the only actor from the original television cast) appeared in the film version of 1984. This time he played a different character, Parsons, but unfortunately the producers insisted on tampering with Orwell's nightmare vision and the result diluted the impact of the book.
Over the next couple of years, Pleasence regularly appeared on the stage while the number and size of his film roles grew: by 1958, he was co-starring with Dirk Bogarde and Christopher Lee in A Tale of Two Cities, appeared alongside Richard Burton in John Osborne's trend-setting Look Back in Anger, and was just one of the numerous stars in the award-winning spectacle Ben Hur. That same year, Pleasence was named Actor of the Year for his stage work. He also made his first horror film, co-starring with Peter Cushing in The Flesh and the Fiends (1958; USA: Mania or The Fiendish Ghouls). Cushing portrayed the infamous Edinburgh doctor, Robert Knox, who buys fresh cadavers from graverobbers Burke (George Rose) and Hare (a maniacal-looking Pleasence).
Anton Diffring starred as a mad plastic surgeon in Circus of Horrors (1960), but Pleasence appeared briefly before being killed off. The actor fared much better that year with his critically acclaimed London stage performance as Davies, the tramp in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, going on to recreate the role the following year in New York and in the 1963 film version.
Donald Pleasence had already begun to capitalize on his macabre roles when he turned up as a mysterious red herring in the horror/whodunnit What a Carve Up! (1961; USA: No Place Like Homicide). This 'old dark house' thriller featured Carry On regulars Sidney James and Kenneth Connor menaced by Dennis Price and Michael Gough. The following year, Pleasence gave a strong performance as the acid-bath murderer in Dr. Crippen, and by the mid-1960s, he was regularly featured in American made films like The Great Escape (1963), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), and 20th Century-Fox's big-budget science fiction adventure Fantastic Voyage (1966).
In the latter, Pleasence played the traitorous Dr. Michaels, one of five passengers in a miniaturized submarine journeying through an injured scientist's body. Pleasence's jittery villain gets his just desserts when he is absorbed by a giant white blood corpuscle, but the film is best remembered for its impressive special effects and Raquel Welch in a skin-tight wet suit!
In contrast, Pleasence's next role was in Roman Polanski's offbeat Cul-de-Sac (1966): when two gangsters (Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran) arrive on a lonely island, they discover only two other inhabitants---George, an eccentric middle-aged misfit (Pleasence) and his young wife (Francoise Dorleac). "What I felt all along about George, and what I tried to bring out in performance, was that he had a sort of abnormal normality," said Pleasence---a description that could easily be applied to his other fantasy film roles. However, Cul-de-Sac was not a great commercial success, and neither was his next movie, The Night of the Generals (1966). This co-starred Pleasence with Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, and Tom Courtenay in an epic whodunnit about the hunt for a Jack the Ripper-type killer set against the rise and fall of Nazi Germany.
For his next fantasy project, Donald Pleasence travelled to Italy: Matchless (1966) was an unimaginative sci-spy thriller in which invisible secret agent Patrick O'Neal tracks down a missing mastermind, while pursued by the nefarious Henry Silva. The fifth James Bond film, You Only Live Twice (1967), was of a higher calibre; unfortunately, after a clever build-up in the previous adventures, Pleasence was not nearly evil enough when finally revealed as the scarfaced Blofeld, head of the international crime syndicate SPECTRE. "I think I make a worthy opponent for 007," Pleasence said at the time. "In fact, my character is kind of a highlight in a number of lowlife characterizations."
You Only Live Twice cost millions, but the atmospheric Eye of the Devil (1967; USA: 13) was made for a great deal less. This underrated fantasy starred David Niven as an aristocratic French vineyard owner who must be ritualistically sacrificed when the vines successively fail. Pleasence played a menacing priest, allied with the secret cult.
In 1970, young filmmaker George Lucas remade his 15-minute student film into a feature-length movie. The result, THX 1138, remained unreleased in Britain for three years. Robert Duvall played THX who, with another misfit, SEN (Pleasence, in a role that closely mirrored his performances in 1984), attempted to escape the uniformity of a sterile, subterranean future world.
In Death Line (1972; aptly retitled Raw Meat in the USA), Pleasence went well over the top as an unlikely police inspector investigating a series of gruesome killings by cannibals living in the tunnels of the London Underground. Christopher Lee was also featured in a very brief cameo. Another caricature performance by Pleasence turned up that same year in The Pied Piper, director Jacques Demy's dark version of the Hamelin legend. He played the greedy baron in this marvellous-looking film, which was only spoiled by weak acting from singer/songwriter Donovan as the Piper and Jack Wild as the crippled boy.
In 1973, Donald Pleasence was again co-billed with Peter Cushing, this time in Amicus' last horror compilation, From Beyond the Grave. Based on a handful of tales by R. Chetwynd-Hayes, An Act of Kindness was a nasty childhood fable helped by the inspired teaming of Donald and Angela Pleasence as a sinister match-seller and his strange daughter.
In the musical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kirk Douglas sang and danced his way through the title roles while Pleasence played his servant. Filmed in Britain in 1973, it was shown on NBC-TV in America. Then it was back to episodic horrors with Tales That Witness Madness (1973). In this imitation of the successful Amicus format, Pleasence starred in the linking story as Dr. Tremayne, whose patients are suffering from weird obsessions with the supernatural. The film boasted a strong cast that included Kim Novak, Joan Collins and Jack Hawkins.
Pleasence was again cast as a doctor---the mad German variety this time---in The Mutations (1973). Along with deformed helper Tom Baker and the diminutive Michael Dunn, he attempts to create a new race of genetic mutations by crossing Julie Ege with a plant! Even more nonsensical was Barry Mackenzie Holds His Own (1974). In this second comedy based on the adventures of the Australian comic strip character, Pleasence played Count Erich von Plasma, the vampire President of Transylvania. Also involved in this madcap blend of sex, horror and bad taste was Barry Humphries as the awful Edna Everage.
In Disney's entertaining science fiction adventure Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), Pleasence was the henchman to the villainous Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland), who discovers that two youngsters (Kim Richards and Ike Eisenman) are gifted with paranormal powers. Then it was back to playing a doctor again when Pleasence guest-starred in I Don't Want to be Born (1975). As Dr. Finch, he tries to discover why a newly-born baby has a murderous hatred for people, particularly its parents (Joan Collins and Ralph Bates).
In 1976, Donald Pleasence and Peter Cushing were reunited in The Devil's Men (USA: Land of the Minotaur). Made in Greece, Pleasence played Father Roche, who attempts to solve a series of ritual murders, connected with an ancient witchcraft cult---led by Cushing---that worships the legendary Minotaur. Pleasence was also co-billed with Cushing and Ray Milland in the Canadian/British production The Uncanny (1977). Another compilation, the actor played film star Valentine De'ath, whose tongue is torn out by his dead wife's cat. Pleasence's next two fantasy film roles were not nearly so substantial: although he received fourth billing in Oh, God! (1977), the actor appeared only for a couple of minutes---once again as a doctor. His role as the grasping B.D. Brockhurst in Robert Stigwood's musical mess Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), was also brief---perhaps fortunately. An unusual collection of stars, including the Bee Gees, Frankie Howerd, Steve Martin and George Burns, made an embarrassing attempt to incorporate the songs of Lennon and McCartney into the feeble storyline.
That same year, Pleasence starred in a horror film made for a fraction of the money wasted on Sgt. Pepper's. John Carpenter's unrelenting Halloween is one of the most successful independent films ever made, and it influenced a whole industry of imitations. Carpenter's deceptively simple plot and stylish direction kept audiences on the edge of their seats. He even managed to control Pleasence's temptation to overact as Dr. Sam Loomis, the man responsible for letting a psychotic killer escape, and convinced his patient is the Bogey Man himself. It was one of the actor's better screen performances---even though he expressed doubts over his young director's talents.
Then he was back playing supporting roles, this time as asylum proprietor Dr. Seward in the umpteenth remake of Dracula (1979). This version added nothing new to the story, but at least Pleasence fared better than Frank Langella's insipid Count and Laurence Olivier's unintelligible Van Helsing. Pleasence next went East to make Night Creature (also known as Out of the Darkness). Made on a low budget with exotic Thailand locations, the actor was given every opportunity to ham it up as a macho writer hunting down a wereleopard on his island retreat. Gold of the Amazon Women (1979) was little improvement. Originally made for NBC-TV, this 'B'-movie jungle adventure has Pleasence as Clarence Blasko, a gold-hungry drug-dealer out to exploit the treasure of a lost race of Amazons (led by 50s star Anita Ekberg).
The actor was better served by his cameo role in The Monster Club (1980), another compilation of R. Chetwynd-Hayes' stories. He played Pickering, the bowler-hatted head of Scotland Yard's B-Squad ('the Bleeny'), dedicated to the eradication of vampirism. Along with co-stars Vincent Price and John Carradine, Pleasence brought a touch of class to this enjoyable blend of rock music and horror.
He next repeated his role as Dr. Loomis in Halloween II (1981), the inferior sequel to John Carpenter's 1978 success. Co-scripted by Carpenter, it continued directly on from where the earlier film had ended. Regrettably, first-time director Rick Rosenthal turned in a predictable stalk & slash thriller, and even though Carpenter subsequently added a number of new scenes to the movie, Pleasence's character was wisely killed off in the climax. But he was back working with Carpenter again that same year. In the gripping Escape From New York, he played the President of the United States, held prisoner in the New York City of 1997---now a walled prison housing over three million convicted criminals.
Pleasence's most recent horror film on release was, sadly, not of the same calibre. Again cast as a somewhat mad director of a mental hospital in Alone in the Dark (1982), he played Dr. Leo Bain who believes all his patients are 'voyagers.' Unfortunately, a city-wide blackout enables a group of his most dangerous inmates to escape and he is powerless to halt the psychopathic reign of terror. Pleasence overacts shamelessly, playing the poor material for the laughs it so richly deserves. Also just completed are two Mexican horror films---To Kill A Stranger and Frankenstein's Great Aunt Tillie!
It should be emphasized that Donald Pleasence's horror/fantasy films are invariably not among his best work, and he is still more highly regarded as a stage actor. But these roles have at least allowed him to attempt some interesting performances over the years---in fact, in the early 1980s, he appeared in a series of television commercials in Britain (for a lager) that solely capitalized on his 'odd' image, putting him in the company of Egyptian mummies, home-made robots, werewolves and the like; but his numerous television drama credits have ranged from such genre series as The Outer Limits to his widely-acclaimed performance in last year's BBC serial The Barchester Chronicles.
As a character actor, his services are constantly in demand, and although never truly recognized as one of the screen's foremost exponents of terror, you can guarantee that whatever his future film roles may be, Donald Pleasence will bring them that quality of 'oddness' that has become his trademark over the last three decades.
WEBMASTER NOTE: I would like to point out that Donald Pleasence, contrary to the belief of writer Stephen Jones, never appeared in William Wyler's 1959 classic Ben Hur, which starred Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins.
Article courtesy of Miles
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