PROFILES: DONALD PLEASENCE
INTERVIEW BY JEFF DAWSON
THE BIG BREAK-OUT'S ALL SET: James Garner's blagged the supplies, Charlie Bronson's dug the tunnel and Gordon Jackson's practised keeping his big mouth shut when the Gestapo are around. And then the bad news---little Dickie Attenborough must inform arch forger Donald Pleasence that due to a rather severe ocular deficiency, he's not coming along.
"That's ridiculous, I've never heard anything so absurd in all my life. I can see perfectly," pleas the decent but blind old cove, pacing the hut to retrieve an object he'd planted not ten minutes before. "I can see that pin down there."
A classic moment...So much so, in fact, that your Empire reporter feels suddenly moved to re-enact this party turn from The Great Escape for the distinguished thesp, taking a breather in his dressing room here at Ealing Studios from the set of The Hour of the Pig, Leslie Megahey's bawdy medieval mystery---all about a pig (honest) that is tried for murder by Pleasence's Pinchon the Prosecutor.
"Yeah, there's a lot of fucking and stripping and all that," Pleasence giggles saucily, still tickled by Empire's rather unorthodox introduction, "...And bare bottoms."
Quite staggeringly, The Hour of the Pig is Pleasence's 149th film to date, a sterling statistic marking him as officially The Hardest Working Man In The Movies --- not bad for someone who didn't make his first film (The Beachcomber) until he was 35.
From The Great Escape to Escape to Witch Mountain to Escape from New York, the famously bald thesp has been on hand to chill proceedings with his faraway stare and deadpan delivery. He's been Himmler (The Eagle Has Landed); he's been Blofeld ("My piranha fish get very hungry. They can strip a man to the bone in 30 seconds," he announces in You Only Live Twice; he's even been killed by a giant white corpuscle (Fantastic Voyage). In real life, though, the jovial 74-year-old is not a bit like his creepy caricature.
"Noooooo, hahahaha, quite the reverse, actually," he smirks with a gleam in those pale blue eyes. "Besides, over the years I've played more comedy than anything. But it started with Dr. Crippen. Then I got lots of horror offers. In fact, I was asked to play Christie (Ten Rillington Place), which Dickie Attenborough played, but I wouldn't do it because I was determined not to be typecast. But I don't care now, I let people think what they will. They think I'm a horror movie merchant because I got involved with John Carpenter. But I like him, he's a director I really admire. I did all his Halloween things."
Born in Worksop in 1919 and always living "in the heart of the coal mining industry" (a lifelong Labour supporter, he still canvasses at each election), Pleasence had a spell managing Swinton railway station before making inroads into the theatre in the late 1930s. But, as with so many actors of his generation, plans were put on hold courtesy of Mr. A. Hitler. Pleasence joined the RAF, becoming a wireless operator-cum-air gunner but, in 1944, his Lancaster bomber was shot down over the Channel and, like fellow actor Denholm Elliot, bagged by Jerry under similar circumstances, he was captured and route-marched deep into the heart of Germany where he served out the remainder of the war as a POW until liberated by the Russians.
"Oh, it's boring. You start rambling and you can see everyone going, 'Oh no,'" he chirrups rather modestly when quizzed on these momentous events. "The camp was well in the Eastern zone in Pomerania, about 70 miles west of Stettin on the Baltic. It was called Stalag Luft 1. The Great Escape (based, of course, on a real event) took place in Stalag Luft 3. I don't know what happened to Stalag Luft 2, nobody ever heard of it...it's very un-Germanic that they missed it out."
Pleasence, nevertheless, kept his hands in, entertaining his fellow internees at the camp theatre, and presumably bringing his wealth of experience to bear when bluffing his way past the goons in John Sturges' epic.
"Oh no, not at all," he counters. "Whenever I offered a suggestion they didn't want to know because the Americans wanted everything to be wonderfully cheerleading and flagwaving. I was simply offered this marvellous part, so naturally I said, 'Yes'. It really is such winning entertainment and it was certainly great fun to do."
But there are, of course, many other favourite moments from such a distinguished career. "I still like the film they made of The Caretaker and I like Roman Polanski's film Cul-de-Sac," he smiles wistfully (Pleasence was with Polanski the night of the Manson murders). "And I liked all the Westerns I did very much, they were great fun. The first truly American film I did was The Greatest...or Longest...Story Ever Told. That was more or less a Western, the Jesus Christ story, because it was all made out in the desert. I did a series of Westerns but they faded, they were no longer popular. Then I got into the horror racket. And now I think horror films have bitten the dust, they've got worse and worse."
But surely the success of Dracula and the impending Mary Shelley's Frankenstein would suggest otherwise?
"Yes, well they always come back, don't they?" he concedes reluctantly. "I've only done one Dracula, that very expensive one with Frank Langella (Dracula, 1979). Larry Olivier and I were the doctor and the professor. We had a really good time but it was an awful film...Larry and I did it for a laugh."
Larry, Dickie, Raquel Welch. Pleasence has worked with just about everybody, and the thoroughly decent chap is full of praise for the lot.
"Well I've liked most of them," he offers, kicking off with the directors. "But there are a few who are outstanding. I like John Sturges very much. And I like Peter Schoendoerffer who did Dien Bien Phu (the as-yet-unreleased Indochina epic), I think he's brilliant...and Woody Allen, of course. It's very interesting 'cause he hardly lets you read the script, you just get the pages you're in. In Shadows and Fog he comes into my laboratory and says something like, 'Have you heard from Schultz?' and I said, 'Woody, who is Schultz?' and he said, 'Not necessary, not necessary'...It was very interesting."
Despite his huge back catalogue, doesn't Pleasence ever feel the urge to, well, just put his feet up for a bit?
"There's a recession on so it's not difficult to slow down, but I'll go on making films if they're offered to me," he quips. "A film gets offered to me and, unless I find it distasteful or I'm doing something else, I'll do it. Needless to say there are some I don't like very much, but I've never been a really big star. I don't get this mammoth amount of scripts sent to me, so if you get tempted by lucrative offer you tend to do it...I am very greedy..."
Interview from the February 1994 edition of EMPIRE.
Interview © 1994 EMPIRE. All Rights Reserved.
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