Best known to fans as a villain, Donald Pleasence crafted a formidable career as an actor of character.
ARTICLE BY SAM MARONIE
Think of British actor Donald Pleasence and the mind conjures a seemingly endless parade of mad scientists, grave-robbers, sadistic soldiers and other assorted and sundry wackos.
Sadly, the performer's death on February 2, 1995 of complications from heart surgery marked the loss of yet another of the great genre film actors. For while the multi-talented thespian boasted a solid background in the Shakespearean classics and theater, his main reputation came from his veritable rouge's gallery of unsavory characters.
Pleasence had been dubbed by film critics as "the screen's most necessary evil," and "the cinema's number one hiss and boo man." Even a cursory look at his villainous credentials reveals many unforgettable roles. He portrayed Cold War superfoe Ernst Stavro Blofeld in one of the Sean Connery 007 films, You Only Live Twice, a miniaturized Russian double-agent in the SF thriller Fantastic Voyage, as well as a demented doctor in The Mutations. Pleasence had a skill for being both menacing and menaced. Along with his role as Dr. Loomis in John Carpenter's Halloween and its subsequent follow-ups, his portrayal of the President of the United States in Carpenter's cult classic Escape from New York brought him further fan attention.
"Well, let's say he's a slippery sort of fellow," Pleasence laughed while taking a break on the set of Escape at the time of its 1980 location shoot in St. Louis, Missouri. "He's a terrified man because he has crash-landed into New York City, which in 1997 has become an island penal colony. My character is kidnapped by some of the inmates and held hostage in exchange for the prisoners' release."
Pleasence, along with stars Kurt Russell, Harry Dean Stanton and others, spent several weeks in the Gateway City lensing various Escape sequences. St. Louis (and Atlanta, Georgia) was chosen to double for New York by director Carpenter due both to its architectural resemblance and the cooperation of city officials. However, since shooting often involved dusk-to-daybreak marathons on the outdoor locales. But for Pleasence, who always enjoyed getting away from musty soundstages, the hardships were minimal.
"It's a marvelous location. There are a lot of hours, which make for a long night, and sometimes the insects bite a bit, but I've no complaints. One of the benefits of being an 'itinerant actor' is the chance to travel and visit other countires and exotic locations," he explained. "I've done too many films that were shot entirely on indoor sets behind studio gates. Being a stage actor, this presents no great problem for me. But there's an invigorating feeling that comes from being on real locales that charges up an actor; hopefully, that shows through in his performance."
Such statements were typical of the gentle performer. Like many of the great horror actors of the past, his monstrous screen roles came from within a gentle, modestly deprecating soul. Pleasence was a connoisseur of fine art and music; he was not likely to swat the proverbial fly, let alone bury someone alive. "I simply cannot for the life of me understand why I come to mind for parts like these," he remarked. "I just can't see where I appear so complicated or evil. Maybe Sigmund Freud would have had something profound to say about my psychological makeup."
Born in 1919, Pleasence launched his career at age 12, with an audition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Not terribly impressed, the instructors advised him to return when he was older and more experienced. Instead, he quit school and spent two years as stationmaster in a small English town, where he sold tickets and swept floors. At 19, he edged his way into a repertory group's production of Gaslight. Naturally, he portrayed the dastardly Mr. Manningham.
In later years, Pleasence acted alongside such English luminaries as Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Alec Guinness, who both aided him in securing parts. A variety of Broadway roles in America came his way, including the prestigious Antony and Cleopatra, in which he co-starred with Olivier and Vivien Leigh in 1951. He earned acclaim on stage in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker (which he repeated in the film version, The Guest). On TV, the actor appeared on The Twilight Zone ("The Changing of the Guard"), The Outer Limits ("The Man With the Power"), The Ray Bradbury Theater ("Punishment Without Crime") and One Step Beyond, among many others. He won the British Guild of TV Producers Award as Best Actor of the Year for a 1954 video version of George Orwell's 1984.
As for movies, Pleasence debuted in 1954's The Beachcomber. He went on to make nearly 100 films---including such major motion pictures as Sons and Lovers, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Night of the Generals, and Shadows and Fog.
Pleasence expessed genuine surprise at the number of genre films in which he appeared. Quizzed about his role in You Only Live Twice, Pleasence tried to dismiss his contributions to that 007 adventure. "Do you really think that would be considered science fiction?" he asked. "Actually, I'll tell you the truth about that picture. I was called in to take over for somebody who had already begun the film. It was a foreign actor [Czech actor Jan Werich], he had to leave the production for some reason. Most of his scenes were already shot and I had to retake them all.
"I never got to go to Japan or do any exotic traveling," Pleasence grimaced in mock disappointment. "Sean was spending all of his hours on the golf course at the time, because he had previously filmed all the matching shots, so he wasn't needed on the set too much. I ended up spending three very, very intensive weeks playing that role to the bolts on the camera instead of another actor. Understandably, it really wasn't an enormously rewarding or fulfilling experience.
"I sort of devised Blofeld's facial scar and other little quirks to his character. The producers liked my style, but didn't find me physically imposing, so the makeup and costuming helped quite a bit. As a matter of fact, some of the shots weren't even me at all, they were just the uniform and what was supposed to be my legs and arms."
And if things weren't rough enough, there were still other problems. "I had grave difficulties with the cat who sat on my lap all the time---actually, there were three of them that we used," Pleasence revealed. "All the hair they covered me with was bad enough---I'm allergic---but none of these felines was trained for the movies. They were terrified of the gunfire on the set and they used to do it all over me during each take whenever anyone sounded a shot. So, after every try, we had to call for a new cat---" he paused comically for effect, adding "---and a new uniform! The crew could hardly contain their mirth, at my expense I might add."
More pleasant working conditions were in stor for Pleasence in the 1971 production THX 1138, George Lucas' least-known, first feature. To Pleasence, THX 1138 was an extremely thrilling project. He considered Lucas one of his favorite directors.
"I had no doubt George would be very successful one day, because he was a protege of Francis Ford Coppola at American Zoetrope [Coppola's production company]. THX 1138 was one of the first things that group ever did. The air was full of electricity and great excitement. There was an almost tangible feeling that it was going to be a very big film and that everyone concerned with it was going to be very powerful in the movie business one day." Pleasence was right, about Lucas if not the film.
As a resident of a confined, sterile society of the future, Pleasence enjoyed one of his most sympathetic characters. "Actually, my role was sort of a loony," he laughed. "Mad as the proverbial hatter, I would say. It's a confusing part because whenever I see the film, I never quite know for sure who I am or what I am." But the actor added, cryptically, "I know that every word that I said in the film was spoken at one time or another by Richard Nixon."
His eyes brightened when questioned if he would ever like to be a part of the Star Wars saga. "Oh, absolutely! What actor in his right mind wouldn't? People have termed George---and filmmakers like John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg---New Wave directors. I find it very difficult to make distinctions between those types of generalities. New Wave, old wave, what the hell? What does it all really mean, anyway? George Lucas is a director who wants to hurry up and get everything into the editing room and really isn't too involved with the actors. He can't wait to finish shooting, bundle it all up and take it off to play. He's an incredibly clever guy and I hope we get many more films out of him."
In Fantastic Voyage, he played another "loony" with aplomb, yet became fascinated with the many complex FX. "Fantastic Voyage was not particularly difficult from the acting point-of-view, but technically, it was a very trying film. It took a lot out of me physically, and when we wrapped shooting for the day, everyone was always dead tired."
In Voyage, Pleasence was one of a team of scientists shrunk to microscopic size. The group must perform a crucial operation inside a human body and escape before the effect wears off---that is, unless Pleasence, a double agent and saboteur, can stop them. "The whole affair turned out to be rather boring because it went on for such a long time," he explained. "The shooting schedule seemed to last forever, and we were lucky if we got three usable shots completed in one day.
"Even though the audience saw us in the miniaturized sub in the human body, we were actually suspended on flying ballet wires that held us up over the stages at 20th Century Fox. What began as a company joke about not drinking too much tea in the morning turned out to be alarmingly true. Once they got you up there, they would not let you down for anything---not even to go to the loo [bathroom]. They custom-made these special harnesses that were form-fitting---especially Raquel Welch's---and they would string us up there and spend all their time adjusting lights, camera angles and other technical details. It was a good thing none of us was prone to air sickness."
Working inside the human body was no picnic---although the crew did bring lots of food. "There was a scene in Fantastic Voyage when I was finally destroyed---literally eaten alive by antibodies in the human body," Pleasence said. "The crew spent about three days trying to approximate what an antibody would look like, using all types of horrible concoctions. They tried porridge first, then tapioca pudding, then rice pudding. I would sit there and the prop men would---with great delight, I might add---pour buckets of this goop on me and then shoot a test," he paused, shaking his head ruefully. "I would shower, put on another costume, and then they would slop some other garbage on me. I never did find out just what they settled on, but I think it was the tapioca."
Where parts are few and far between for some performers, Pleasence kept busy acting for most of his career. In Telefon, Don Siegel's 1977 spy adventure, Pleasence was an unglued Russian defector who tried to destroy detente by literally phoning in acts of terrorism. In The Madwoman of Chaillot, he almost levelled Paris in a quest for underground oil.
In the 1979 version of Dracula, Pleasence played Dr. Seward, unbalanced proprietor of a Victorian madhouse. He was an eccentic headshrinker in Tales That Witness Madness. He couldn't even appear in the Western Will Penny without being a bit nasty. "You can't do much worse than setting fire to Charlton Heston's Christmas tree," he remarked about that film.
Pleasence's other genre movies include 1984 (with Edmond O'Brien), Cul-De-Sac, Circus of Horrors, The Hands of Orlac, Mania, and Escape to Witch Mountain.
Of course, during his career there were many other parts. Although genre fans may think he was always nasty, he was at home in comedy, witness his efforts in The Hallelujah Trail (as an alcoholic seer), Oh, God, and Hearts of the West. "Everyone thinks I've played a lot of Nazi's like Maximilian Schell," he remarked. "I was Heinrich Himmler in The Eagle Has Landed, and after Himmler, what's left? With a real-life monster like that, anything fictional pales in comparison."
The actor's own personal World War II exploits with his British squadron when he parachuted over occupied France in 1944, soon to find himself a reluctant resident of a German POW camp, were put to good use two decades later when he starred in the classic POW film, The Great Escape. He was hospitalized for six months after the ordeal of prison, weak and suffering from advanced malnutrition. Pleasence also appeared in a 1990s TV movie remake/sequel to The Great Escape, this time as a Nazi.
While he confessed to wanting those real-life terrors forgotten, Pleasence also admitted some film experiences seemed equally horrible. "There was a sort of horror picture that I did called The Mutations," he remembered. "I think I did that solely for the money. I have five daughters, and they can be quite expensive, so one has to keep working and be able to pay the bills. I did get to work with Tom [Dr. Who] Baker. He's a very charming, bright man and I liked him very much. I remember that movie as a very happy time; the whole gang of us were very friendly, and that means so much when you're working together. But I surely wouldn't list that film among my proudest moments."
Contrary to what some film buffs may assume, Pleasence never appeared in a Hammer Studios horror film. "I can make that statement with pride," he laughed, cautioning that he was "only kidding. Actually, they've made some very interesting pictures, but not with me."
Nevertheless, he had fond memories of Hammer alumni Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. "I knew Peter for what seems like forever. I did a lot of live TV plays with him in the early days of television. We did one picture together in Greece called Land of the Minotaur---which was a pretty dreary affair. I first met Christopher during the remake of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities in the mid-50s. We appeared in a horror picture together, Death Line [released in the U.S. as Raw Meat], and I continue to see him off and on."
Pleasence seemed hard-pressed to say an unkind word about anyone. And likewise, he's the recipient of much praise from his colleagues. The entire cast of Escape from New York were unanimous in their high regard for him.
"He's just the best there is," proclaimed Ernest Borgnine, who portrayed Cabbie. "Everything he does is polished and always very interesting. I think I've seen almost every film he's made, and while they haven't all been good, Donald has made them worthwhile."
Another fan among the Escape crew was director Carpenter, who cast Pleasence in the phenomenally successful Halloween. "Fabulous," Carpenter described their working relationship. "He's one of my all-time favorite actors. Any time I can work with him I jump at the chance. His daughters took him to see one of my earlier pictures, Assault on Precinct 13, and recommended that he accept the part in Halloween, because he wasn't too keen on doing it at the beginning. He read the script and said, 'Well, I don't quite understand it, but I'll do it.' He had enough confidence in me after viewing that movie."
Pleasence couldn't heap enough kudos on the youthful director. He credited Carpenter with taking what he first believed to be a routine exploitation entry and turning it into a terror classic. In Halloween, Pleasence was the psychiatrist who trails the maniac stalking Jamie Lee Curtis. Under Carpenter's guidance, the low-budget film became the biggest box-office grosser of any independent film up to that time. "John Carpenter is a very bright, creative director, and I'm happy to be working with him again. He does a professional, polished job and knows how to bring the best out of his performers. During the shooting [of Halloween], I had a hunch that this was going to rise above the usual claptrap."
Pleasence resided in Chiswick, West London in a rambling 18th-century mansion. He was fond of relaxing there in between pictures. He later lived in St. Paul de Vence in France with fourth wife, Linda. It was there that he passed away, at age 76.