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A life in the spotlight

PUBLISHED: 15:59 30 April 2009 | UPDATED: 14:34 12 March 2010

Suffolk-based actor Douglas Wilmer has enjoyed a glittering career appearing on stage and big budget Hollywood blockbusters. He has just published his autobiography.

Suffolk-based actor Douglas Wilmer has enjoyed a glittering career appearing on stage and big budget Hollywood blockbusters. He has just published his autobiography. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke met him at his Woodbridge home.

Ah, an actor's life for me. This oft-repeated wish conjures up a bright and breezy, carefree life on the road, entertaining audiences and then moving on to pastures new.

As Woodbridge-based actor Douglas Wilmer knows, the truth can be somewhat different. Acting can be hugely rewarding, provide wide opportunities for travel and meeting fascinating people but it can also mean hard-graft and long hours.

Douglas has spent a life-time on stage and in front of the camera, he knows a thing or two about the world of theatre and big budget Hollywood movies. He has made his name as one of the profession's greatest character actors - always in work but rarely having his name over the title.

He has worked with Laurence Olivier, danced attendance on Dame Edith Evans as a frighteningly mature Cleopatra, witnessed Richard Burton woo Elizabeth Taylor as a younger Cleopatra, appeared with Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies as well as battling Charlton Heston in El Cid and was exasperated by Roger Moore's James Bond in Octopussy.

He has led a rich, varied career which has also included playing, for the BBC during the mid-1960s, what the Sherlock Holmes Society of London has declared as the definitive Holmes.

When we meet, he greets me with a cheery shake of the hand and is more than happy to sit down and talk about his extraordinary career. His work has taken him all around the world and introduced him to a wealth of fascinating characters which he joyfully records in his autobiography Stage Whispers.

Although much of his success has been on screen, he said that theatre remains his first love - certainly theatre in the 1950s and 60s when he said they were given the luxury of extended rehearsal time to really get comfortable with the part.

He says somewhat modestly: “My imagination works rather slowly. I like time to immerse myself in a role, to soak up the part. In the past we had time to do that. We rehearsed a play for three weeks, sometimes for a month, and it gave us time to try things out in rehearsal - see what worked and what didn't. One of the reasons I slowly dropped out of theatre was that they cut rehearsal time to virtually nothing. It's now just a case of blocking a few moves, learning your lines and you're on. There's no time to consider what you are doing, what you are saying. No time to let a part soak. It's now just like film-making, everything is so rushed. You do it and move on.

“I still have a nightmare that I am going on stage to play a leading role and I am ill-prepared. I either haven't bothered to learn my lines or for some extraordinary reason haven't had a proper rehearsal.”

He said that his stage career was first set in motion by no less a person than Dame Sybill Thorndike who had come to watch the play to support her nephew Dan Thorndike who had one of the leading roles. She took a shine to Douglas' performance as the Archbishop of Canterbury in his school play as King's School, Canterbury. She told the headmaster afterwards: “If that boy, playing the Archbishop, were to take to the stage, I think that he could well make a go of it.”

Unfortunately for Douglas, his father who was something of a financial whizz in the Far East, was none too keen on his son becoming an actor and colluded with the head of the school to find Douglas a place with leading architects Seeley and Paget. Douglas admits that his inability to inherit his father's ability with numbers put paid to a lucrative career designing buildings.

Aware his architectural career was going nowhere Douglas successfully applied for a scholarship to train at RADA and managed to complete part of the course before World War II stepped in and he was sent to West Africa.

Tuberculosis followed swiftly afterwards and Douglas was invalided out of the army. After a year of convalescence, he defied doctors to accept his first acting job with a repertory company in Rugby.

“I wasn't supposed to work but I was thoroughly fed up sitting around waiting to get better, so I thought to hell with it and just went off and accepted the job. And it was hard work. It really was a play a week and I was fortunate that I only had to do it for a year before I got a job with Basil C Langton doing a season of plays in London. Suddenly I had a whole month's rehearsal to really get familiar with it.

He said that he was never one to develop many close friendships among actors but there was a vast array of casual friends and acquaintances which he kept bumping into in the various theatre productions of the 1950s. “I suppose the theatre is a fairly small world. We tended to regard non-actors as civilians. I was hardly ever in a production without knowing someone in the cast. I suppose my greatest friend from that period was Esmond Knight, who was a terrific actor, even though he was virtually blind. He could only make out colours and shapes. He served on the Prince of Wales battleship and was blinded during the battle with the Bismarck.

“He was in Henry V with Larry (Olivier) and Larry, who regarded him really highly, was very kind to him and directed him very sensitively. He would give me very precise directions like: 'Take three paces to the right and turn' and it worked. He was very good and you would not know that he was blind.”

Charlton Heston was another actor that Douglas got on very well with. He appeared opposite him in three films and the pair developed a warm friendship. “I counted him as a true and reliable friend. He was also generous professionally, frequently telling me as a young actor in films, how I could make the best of a scene. In El Cid I remember him telling me at one point: 'It's important to for them to see your face at this point.'

“Not many stars would do that.”

Douglas said that his arrival in the West End fairly swiftly after his season in Hammersmith with Basil C Langton's company when he was chosen by Michael Redgrave to play one of the witches in his experimental version of Macbeth. Much to Douglas' horror he discovered very quickly that it required him to stand at the back and be covered from head to foot in a hessian sack with a large papier mache head that resembled a gargoyle. “We were completely obliterated from view. I felt that I had been got there under false pretences - even as a young actor.”

When Douglas marched up to him at the end of the first day's rehearsals he took Redgrave by surprise when he demanded to be released from his contract. Redgrave asked him to sleep on it and when Douglas repeated his demand the following morning Redgrave offered him the role of Lennox instead. The play was savaged by the critics and interrupted by rowdy audiences which on one occasion to prompt Sir Michael Redgrave to shout at a particularly noisy school party “When you're quiet I'll go on.”

Douglas said he was pleased to escape from the hair and horns of The Scottish Play but immediately found himself entangled with a hopelessly miscast production of Anthony and Cleopatra with Godfrey Tearle and Dame Edith Evans.

“As rehearsals got under way, it became painfully clear that Dame Edith was, as a sex-pot, pretty much a dead duck. Also, many felt that Godfrey was also rather miscast because despite his commanding presence, he certainly seemed somewhat lukewarm in his passion for Cleo.

“One night I was standing next to him in the wings and he said to me, with what I thought was an uncharacteristic lack of gallantry, 'How on Earth can I make love to a woman with a face like that?'

“It was not terribly successful production. The critic Ken Tynan described Dame Edith's Cleopatra as being Lady Bracknell cruelly deprived of her cucumber sandwiches.”

Even away from the theatre Douglas found himself bumping into high profile figures. He was on holiday in Italy with his first wife Liz when they teamed up with fellow holidaymakers Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. “We met quite by accident on holiday and he was absolutely charming. He invited us to join him on his yacht and he was very friendly and relaxed. As time went on and I worked with him later I discovered a more awkward side to his character.”

Douglas said that when he moved into film in Laurence Olivier's production of Richard III he was rather taken aback by the frantic nature of the filming schedule. But, he grew to like it because of the opportunities it offered and for 20 years he managed to juggle a theatre career in tandem with an international film career.

“For a young actor, it (working with Olivier) was a most exciting experience… I always felt that element of danger with him. He was very loyal to those who served him well but without a role to play he always seemed curiously empty. No-one at home, so to speak. As a consequence I felt it was impossible to know him at all… I mean really know him.”

In 1957 Douglas was cast in Olivier's The Prince and the Showgirl in which he worked not only with Olivier but also with Marilyn Monroe - who describes as a nightmare to work with because she was so unreliable. “At the beginning Larry and Marilyn were great buddies but by the end they hated each other like poison. She was totally unco-operative and did exactly as she liked. I only had a small part, just a few lines here and there but Larry wanted, as he put it, intelligent faces on the screen but I was kept hanging about for weeks and weeks because she was keeping everyone waiting.

“I was contracted to appear in a play and it was getting very close to the start of rehearsals and I went up to Larry and said: 'When am I going to be released?' He said: 'Look chum, it appears that I am just a hired man like you, you'll have to ask her,' jerking his thumb in the direction of Marilyn.”

He said that Larry was completely exasperated not only by her tardiness but by the presence on set of her new husband, playwright Arthur Miller and her personal acting coach Mrs Lee Strasburg, who were both coaching her and giving direction that directly conflicted with Olivier's own wishes.

“Larry views on this were explicit and totally unprintable.”

Douglas said that despite her unprofessional behaviour, he could see that the camera really did love Marilyn. “In the flesh she was a quite unremarkable individual. She was decidedly chubby, with a round undistinguished face, yet, when you saw her up on the screen, she was dazzling.”

But the trick was getting Marilyn to turn up. Days would pass with Marilyn failing to put in an appearance. When she did arrive on set, no explanation would be given for her previous absence. On one occasion she kept the full cast and an entire brigade of guards waiting for endless hours in the sweltering summer sun, for a location crowd scene in central London. Filming went way over schedule and in the end cost a small fortune.

“The fact that the film was ever finished constitutes a major miracle.”

He said that there was a similar situation on the set on Cleopatra with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Filming lasted for so long, almost bankrupting 20th Century Fox in the process, that Douglas started the film, went off made another movie elsewhere and then returned to complete Cleopatra.

“I was offered a part in Cleopatra as one of the conspirators and assassins of Caesar. It was a nothing role but he appeared in several Roman sequences, the fee was good with generous daily expenses and I love Rome, where it was to be shot, so I agreed to do it.

“Once filming got under way it seemed to me that the lines had been dealt out like a pack of cards. Any one of the lines could have easily have been spoken by one of the other conspirators. So when I was approached to this other film Marco Polo, I asked to be released because filming was going so slowly and I had long gaps hanging about in Rome doing nothing, so I went to the producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz , who also wrote the screenplay, and said :' I don't mean to be disparaging but my lines could be said by Tom, Dick or Harry, could be released so I can go and make this other film?' It was quite bold of me to go up to a big shot Hollywood producer and say this but it was quite an opportunity. Also it's not a situation that film companies take very kindly too but he was an awfully nice man and was very good about it. He let me go but specified I must be back on a specified date to finish up the shooting.”

Douglas went off did the location work for the Marco Polo film and returned to Rome to find that while the filming of Cleopatra was not much further forward much had changed behind the scenes.

“Right up to the moment I left for the Marco Polo shoot Burton was making fun of her. He used to make Sybil, his wife, roar with laughter about the various idiosyncrasies of Miss Taylor. Then when I came back I was pitch-forked into the make-up chair having just got off a flight from Belgrade and Rex Harrison was sitting in the next chair. He leaned across to me and said: “Well, what about master Richard?'

“I said: 'What about him?'

“He said: 'He's gone off with her'

“Gone off? Gone off with whom?'

“Madame Taylor, of course'

“I thought it was a joke but it quickly became apparent that it was no joke. Afterwards Richard became extremely difficult to talk to. Sybil wanted me to talk to him on her behalf and one Sunday morning I agreed to meet with him in the Welsh pub in Rome. He wanted to meet there because he was fed up with Italian food and wanted steak and kidney pudding. I went a bit earlier than the appointed time and found that he had already been there for hours was virtually incapable of supporting himself on the bar and it was clear that there was no point in trying to talk to him about that or anything else.”

Shortly after Douglas' adventures in Rome with Richard Burton, he was back in Britain and was offered what would later become his signature role that of Sherlock Holmes in a new BBC series called The Great Detectives. Nigel Stock was offered the role of Watson.

He said that he remains very proud of his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes which he approached with his usual attention to detail. “I researched it very well and set out to restore a lot the characteristics that a lot of actors chose to ignore because at the end of the day Holmes is not a very nice fellow.

“He can be very unsympathetic. Basil Rathbone had been Holmes in that endless series of films which had turned into pot-boiler stuff when they ran out of Conan Doyle stories to adapt and I think originally that was what was expected of me. The crunch came when I made it perfectly plain that I was not interested in appearing in a pot-boiler.

“Holmes, as I saw him, as Conan Doyle wrote him, was totally inconsiderate of anybody else's feelings. He was totally inconsiderate of Watson. Watson referred to him as a calculating machine. But there was bond between them I think Holmes provided a shot of adrenalin for Watson who was otherwise a bit of a dull stick.”

It is clear that Douglas remains extremely fond of Sherlock Holmes and was delighted to perform in the series of Sherlock Holmes audio books for Penguin during the 1990s. Not only did he get to revisit the role of Holmes he had an opporuntity top lay all the other characters as well.

For him it was a chance to get his teeth into a wealth of character parts without the problem of long rehearsals and change sof costume. It was a project that he delighted in and allowed him to flex his acting muscles.

“Every actor has to use parts of his own personality but I suppose a character actor has more opportunity to stretch themselves. Robert Morley, always played Robert Morley for example. I occasion once to complement Robert on one of his early performances. I think it was his first film, I thought he gave a very moving performance. He stopped and thought about it and looked at me and said: 'Yes I think that was the last time I actually acted.

“A leading man can also be a character part like Svengali in Trilby, a leading can be Dracula which I have played. But, people like Robert Redford or George Clooney give performances which the public expect to see. That is the key to success. But having said that you can only operate with the tools you have. You have to have yourself as the core.”

Douglas Wilmer's autobiography Stage Whispers is on sale now at all good bookshops, ISBN 978-0-9556564-9-1, or directly from Porter Press International, 01584 781588. Email: sales@porterpress.co.uk or on www.porterpress.co.uk

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