Donald Pleasence in rags in his greatest film, The Caretaker
ARTICLE / INTERVIEW BY BART MILLS
LONDON----Pontius Pilate was a date addict. His one consolation in a hardship post like Judaea was the province's incredibly luscious dates. Pilate ate the squishy, sticky dates all the time. He was eating dates when they brought Jesus to him. "Take him, crucify him!" Pilate exclaimed between mouthfuls. Then he turned and washed his hands. Why? To remove the date goo.
That's the gospel according to actor Donald Pleasence. It might well have happened that way, no matter what St. Matthew says. Anyway, it does happen that way in an upcoming Pleasence film called The Passover Plot.
Like nearly all of Pleasence's films, The Passover Plot is unlikely to win any critics' awards. "I'm too often a success in pictures that aren't successes," he admits, adding, "but I always make a policy of not knocking films I've accepted money for." Concerning another of his upcoming movies, Pleasence says: "It's not my kind of film. You probably won't like it either. But the public will come."
Pleasence is a professional film villain. How did he become the international cinema's No. 1 hiss-and-boo man? Why has he been able to play so many different creepy characters in such films as Soldier Blue, Night of the Generals, Fantastic Voyage, Outback, etc., etc.? "I'm really quite a very good actor," he says, joking in his very serious way. "It's obviously not my image, considering my physical endowments, to be the hero who does nothing wrong and gets the girl."
There are always two or three Pleasence vehicles clanking around the drive-in circuits. In one of his current horrors, Trial by Combat, Pleasence is an insane jouster who has to say murderous lines like "And that is why your father had to die." Pleasence is actually a mild and agreeable little chap full of subtle jokes, an art lover, a homebody, and a doting father. But his menacing bald skull and icy bug-eyed stare mean he's the one the cinema typecasters ask for when they need a quirky Pontius Pilate, an insane jouster, or [in the film he's currently making, The Eagle Has Landed] a banal, evil Heinrich Himmler.
"I see myself in my best roles as portraying the common man," Pleasence says, "though to me the common man is something different from the usual idea. You see, I don't view the human race very highly."
From long experience, Pleasence has learned to adopt a defensive posture. Not that the world is out to get him, though he did fly 60 missions over Europe in World War II before being shot down and spending 1944-45 in a POW camp.
It's simply that he's seen enough to know that paranoia is the correct and proper outlook on life. For him, the common man is not just any man in the street, but the old tramp he played in Pinter's The Caretaker.
Unwilling to adopt a smooth exterior, Pleasence's insecurity remains engagingly close to his surface. Notice the paintings on his walls, and he assumes you're criticizing them. Remark that The Exorcist seems lonely among all the art books on his shelves, and he explains that it isn't his book really, it's his daughter's, though he did read it one idle afternoon. Ask him why he lent his talent to a particularly bad film, and he says almost defiantly, "If you ask me why, it was for the money."
Of course it wasn't for the money. Not entirely. Pleasence, 56, does have two ex-wives to support, and he does have a pushbutton lifestyle with his young third wife and their children and their pets in two knocked-together 17th Century riverfront houses in suburban London. He does complain that he lives above his income and that he's always on the brink of poverty. But actually he works in these low-potential pictures---such as the upcoming The Devil's People ["I was hoping you hadn't heard of that one"]---because he needs to keep working on something...anything.
Pleasence's worries largely are justified by the working conditions he endures---no rehearsals, punishing shooting schedules, and so on. "It's the actor's dream to know who he is. Half the time I get off the plane, and the next minute I'm doing my death scene.
"Making Will Penny, I arrived in Bishop, Cal., and immediately did my biggest scene, a big biblical piece of rubbish about revenge, yelling all these lines across a river at Charlton Heston, waving two guns above my head, and crying. I take up my stance before the camera, and like a true professional, I've got the tearms streaming. Then from behind the camera, comes a voice, the cinematographer's. I've never been so angry in my life. He says, 'Uh, somebody take a Kleenex to the guy's nose.'"
To add injury to insult, Pleasence's films have often been maldistributed or even undistributed. An expensive remake of Journey Into Fear has apparently been shelved. "It's a pity. I'm rather good in it. I'm an inefficient Turk, the Orson Welles part. Well, it'll pop up on TV one day."
Pleasence is philosophical about Journey Into Fear. But one that really rankles is The Rainbow Boys. "It's a simple, like you might say unpretentious, picture about going up a mountain looking for a gold mine. It's the best work I've done in a while, and it was never shown to the critics."
Worse still are the pictures that never got made at all. Pleasence was all set to do a Canadian film last year called Summer Rain. His whole family was packed and ready to go when a cable arrived: "Summer Rain delayed until June, 1976. Trust Pleasence still available." Recollecting this insult, Pleasence snorts. He will not be available.
Then there are the roles that get dangled in front of him and then snatched away.
The Man in the Glass Booth was arguably Pleasence's greatest stage role. Ely Landau announced he was filming the play and bought a full-page ad in Daily Variety saying Pleasence would repeat in the role of the Jewish Nazi. However, when the film was eventually shot, the role was played instead by Maximilian Schell.
"The Landau organization turned against me," Pleasence explains. "They made that announcement and then decided they wanted a more romantic image, so I am told. I never got a script. Robert Shaw, the author, didn't get a script until the film was about to start.
"I was in Hollywood recently---what was I doing? A Disney film, I think---and I was sitting by the swimming pool. A man came over. I didn't know who he was. He said, 'I've always wanted to meet you; I'm Maximilian Schell.' We chatted for a bit, and it was he who put forward the explanation about their wanting a more romantic image." Pleasence hasn't seen the film.
There is some rancor attached even to Pleasence's greatest film achievement, The Caretaker. Unbelievably, Pleasence says, "the film just paid off last year. It cost $75,000 to make in 1962, and any day now, the backers will get checks for a few thousand. Do you know who our backers were? Noel Coward, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Sellers. They'll make a few pennies."
Back in 1962, Pleasence was not yet Principal International Villain. He hadn't yet gone to America and learned to ride a horse for The Hallelujah Trail. He could still go out into the streets of London in his Caretaker rags and beg---successfully.
In 1962 Pleasence had just become a household name via a weekly British television series called Armchair Mystery Theater. "I was tired of people half-recognizing me in the street. Instead of being 'That Actor' on TV, I became Donald Pleasence. I became instantly known, and I found it very nice."
Just then the telephone rings, and Pleasence gets up from his seat by the gas-aided wood fire and answers it. He returns in a minute, saying: "Now there's one of the perks of being well-known. Our vacuum cleaner is kaput, and the girl at the service center is giving us instant action. It's worth it, if only for that. And it only happens sometimes. I'm not vain. Not that vain.
"I remember once at Shepperton Studio going to lunch with Kirk Douglas. The waitress didn't recognize him and asked if he'd booked a table. He said: 'My name is Douglas. I have made a few movies.' With me it's more like the time in a teashop once. A little girl and her mother kept looking over to me. Finally the little girl said: 'No, mum. It's the man from the cemetery in Bridlington.'"
For all his successful work in unsuccessful pictures, Pleasence knows he'll always be a semivain semistar. "It irks me. I'd like to have bigger roles and wider choice of scripts. That's what success means." But then if he did have that success, like his friend Robert Shaw, he'd have new worries: "Success has got to go from success to success, if you're going to stay successful. There's no way around it. If you get into the world of glossy movies, it's difficult to get out."
Perhaps Pleasence has hurt his own career, in the eyes of those who decide who's successful and who's semisuccessful, by refusing to take his art completely seriously. "I like to do lots of different things. I like challenges and complete departures. That's probably why I make films I shouldn't."
Currently, Pleasence is taking a flyer into the pop music world. He wrote a children's book called Scouse the Mouse---"I'm being wooed by some of the best publishing houses"---and a neighbor came by and asked him if he'd narrate a children's story; so now he's a pop lyricist. "I'm going to the top of the charts," he says quite seriously, meaning it as a joke. "I'll hit it big as a lyric writer."